Houston City Council OKs slightly lower tax rate

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Houston City Council has approved a slightly lower property tax rate for the fourth time in five years, but with growing property values, this may not lead to savings for taxpayers.

Council members on Sept. 11 approved the proposed rate of $0.5679 per $100 valuation, which is a reduction from the 2018 rate of $0.5883 per $100 valuation, effectively a 3.47% rate decrease.

The median single-family home value in 2018 was $245,000, according to city of Houston financial data. Based on that value, a homeowner’s property tax bill would drop by about $50 if the appraised value stayed the same in 2019. However, if the property’s value increased between 2018 and 2019, the homeowner would see little to no tax reduction.

Houston’s voter-approved revenue cap, which has been in place since 2004, limits property tax revenue growth to 4.5% or a calculation that factors in inflation and population growth, whichever is less. The 2019 cap was calculated to be 2.94%, city officials said.

The tax rate decision spurred discussion among council members about the benefits and drawbacks of Houston’s belt-tightening. Council Members Jack Christie, Dave Martin and Mike Knox praised the revenue cap as necessary means to prioritize city spending.


“[The revenue cap] keeps us from spending beyond our means,” Travis said. “Because otherwise we’ll have a bloated bureaucracy.”

Jerry Davis, vice mayor pro tem and District B council member, said the revenue cap unnecessarily limits spending on essential city services.

“When I go back to my district, my heart hurts knowing ... I haven’t fixed all the things I promised to fix,” Davis said.

BUILDING A BUDGET


Unlike other nearby municipalities, Houston City Council approves its budget several months before its property tax rate.

In June, City Council approved a $5.5 billion budget with a fund balance of 8.71% for fiscal year 2019-20. The fund balance is used as reserves and is required to stay above 7.5% of general fund expenditures, according to Houston’s financial policies.

The budget also includes a $13 million contingency for emergency use that can also be tapped into should the city and the Houston Professional Firefighters Association come to an agreement on a labor contract that includes raises.

Council Member Dwight Boykins, who is running for mayor and is endorsed by the Houston Professional Firefighters Association, voted against the budget due to its lack of funds allocated to comply with Proposition B. The voter-approved proposition, which mandates pay parity between Houston firefighters and police officers, is currently facing a legal challenge from the city and the Houston Police Officers Union.

“I would be hypocritical supporting a budget that does not support the Proposition B mandate,” Boykins said. “It was very clear to me that there were a lot of departments that had an excess of funds. ... We took the firefighters and their families through a stressful period.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner responded to Boykin’s statement by saying that Boykins did not offer any amendments to address the issue.

Council members discussed over 30 amendments to the budget, none of which addressed firefighter pay. Council Member Michael Kubosh said he thought adding an amendment related to the matter would be inappropriate while it remains tied up in the legal system.

Martin, who represents District E, which includes the Kingwood and Clear Lake areas, said the amount of amendments approved was higher than in previous years.

“This was a unique budget,” Martin said. “[Turner] looked at our amendments, and we probably passed 90% of them. That has never happened in my 7 1/2 years here.”
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