The two Republicans on the Harris County Commissioners Court are outnumbered.
But they can still beat the three Democrats on the contentious issue of residential property taxes. All they have to do is leave the court shorthanded next week.
In order for the court to levy a county tax, the Texas Government Code requires at least four members to be present at a regular scheduled meeting. Its next meeting will be held Tuesday, Oct. 8, when the Harris County commissioners are set to vote on what would be the county’s first property tax increase in more than 20 years.
It is unclear whether Republicans Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, who oppose the proposed increase supported by County Judge Lina Hidalgo and fellow Democrats Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia, will be on hand. Their meeting is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. at 1001 Preston St., Suite 934.
A spokesperson for Cagle, the Precinct 4 commissioner who represents part of the area, would not say for sure when asked on Monday.
“We are declining to answer that,” said Joe Stinebaker, Cagle’s director of communications. “Let’s just say he is well aware of all the state laws pertaining to these tax increases, but he is not prepared to divulge his strategy.”
Voting along party lines at the Sept. 10 meeting, Ellis, Garcia and Hidalgo proposed to increase the county’s overall property tax rate by 2.262 cents per $100 in assessed value, a bump of 3.59 percent compared to the 2018 rate of 62.998 cents per $100 valuation. The proposed rate for 2019 is 65.260 cents per $100 valuation.
According to Stinebaker, and factoring in the 20 percent homestead exemption, the proposed increase would raise the annual tax bill by $54.29 for a home valued at $300,000.
County property taxes go toward the county itself, the Harris County Flood Control District, the Harris Health System and the Port of Houston. The overall proposed increase would come with a rate increase for each entity except the Port of Houston.
Ellis, the Precinct 1 commissioner who also represents part of the area, said in an email that the need for increased tax revenue “is great across the board” because of the county’s continued growth as well as widespread flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Tropical Storm Imelda last month. Ellis also said the time is now to increase property taxes, because starting next year, a law passed by the Texas Legislature will limit city and county revenue growth to 3.5 percent from year to year, down from a previous cap of 8 percent.
“Commissioners Court is making up for lost time and decades of neglect,” Ellis said. “If we don’t take action now to make sure we can fairly invest in things like health care, flood control, public safety and environmental protection, it will be more difficult to do once the anti-local control bill goes into effect.”
Cagle, whose home flooded during Harvey, said in a voicemail that it would be unfair to ask more from taxpayers at a time when appraisal values are increasing and many are still burdened by the cost of flood recovery. He also said the Democrat-controlled commissioners court wants to replenish the county’s reserve fund after spending it unwisely.
Stinebaker said expected increases in appraisal values will result in more tax revenue for the county, even without a rate increase. He said Cagle also opposes the proposed increase because it has not been vetted enough by the community.
Public hearings about the rate increase were held Sept. 20 and Sept. 24. The final hearing is slated for Oct. 8 before the final vote.
“I feel that our priorities perhaps have been a little bit misaligned,” Cagle said. “And for us to now come back and ask for an increase, on top of the increase of the appraisals, for a tax rate hike to the maximum allowable, this is not the right time to do it.
“I believe the average homeowner in our county feels the same way,” he added.
Ultimately, whether to increase the tax rate will be decided by the county commissioners. And the Democrats in favor of it hold a majority.
The Republicans still hold power, though, because they can hold off a vote by not showing up Tuesday. If that happens, and a quorum does not meet the Oct. 11 deadline to set county tax rates, Stinebaker said the county would revert to the effective tax rate, which is about 3 percent lower than the current tax rate.
“I’d be deeply concerned for Harris County’s future if that were to happen – it would continue the pattern of neglect we’re trying to interrupt,” Ellis said. “Whoever chooses to not show up for the people of Harris County needs to be prepared to take responsibility for the grave consequences that can come with reducing funding for core services like flood control, health care, public safety, roads and other services people rely on in their daily lives.”