Imelda hovers over first public hearing on proposed Harris County tax rate increase

Harris County Commissioners Court was slated to vote on a property tax rate hike Oct. 8.

Harris County Commissioners Court was slated to vote on a property tax rate hike Oct. 8.

With Harris County commissioners poised to adopt the first tax rate increase the county has seen since 1996, court Democrats and Republicans remained at odds following the first public hearing on the proposed increase Sept. 20. In the wake of Tropical Depression Imelda, disaster recovery was also at the top of mind for people on both sides of the debate.

Speakers at the hearing—the first of three—were largely mixed in their support for and opposition to the increase, citing arguments similar to those brought up by commissioners at the Sept. 10 meeting when the topic first came up. The proposed rate—$0.65260 per $100 valuation—would be an increase of roughly $0.0226 per $100 valuation and would bring in about $185 million more in revenue than the effective rate would.

Those opposed to the increase spoke on how rising appraisal values are already a heavy burden on property owners struggling to keep up. Mike Baker, owner of Freeway Properties, which operates several shopping centers, office buildings and industrial sites across Harris County, said the appraised value of his portfolio increased by more than $100 million between 2018 and 2019. Part of the resulting increase in taxes owed gets passed on to tenants, he said.

"If you keep increasing these tax rates, these tenants are not going to be able to pay their rent," he said. "You end up pushing this up too high and you’re going to end up with a number of vacant properties, and when that happens, the values are going to plummet."

Those in favor of the increase said the county's hospital district and flood control district need to secure funding before new state laws go into effect next year that could limit how much money can be raised from property taxes. A new law will go into effect Jan. 1 that will limit how much a city or county can increase property tax revenue—voter approval will be required to authorize an increase of more than 3.5% from the previous year.

Harris County's ability to recover from disasters such as Imelda, which dumped as much as 42 inches of rain on parts of the county between Sept. 17-19, also came up during the hearing. Prior to the hearing, commissioners approved an emergency request from the Harris County engineer to use $5 million from the county's public contingency fund to begin repairs on county bridges and roads and to begin the process of debris removal.

"That’s exactly the fund the state is looking to drain with their extreme revenue caps," County Judge Lina Hidalgo said, referring to the contingency fund, which the county uses for emergency situations. "If we do what some folks at this table propose, we won’t have a public contingency fund so in incidents like these we can front the money to do the debris removal, to do the repairs to buildings, so that our government continues to function."

Katy Prairie Conversancy President Mary Ann Piacentini was among the speakers to draw a connection between the tax rate increase and the county's ability to fund vital flood mitigation projects.

"The $2.5 billion bond you made is great, but it's—in some cases—too little, too late," she said. "We have to change. We have to make the city greener, we have to make it more permeable, more absorbent. But that takes money, and that takes effort, and if we don’t have the money, we can't do it."

On the other side, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said the aftermath of a disaster is not the time to raise taxes.

"Our economy is doing well, but we are still in a post-Harvey recovery time, and I do not believe that this is the time—especially with people who, yesterday, we were pulling out of the water—to raise their taxes," Cagle said.

At the Sept. 10 meeting, Cagle proposed an alternative tax rate that would raise more money for the flood control district while lowering rates for the county and for the hospital district, but it failed with a 2-3 vote.

Two additional public hearings on the proposed tax rate increase are scheduled for the next two regular meetings of the Harris County Commissioners Court—10 a.m. on Sept. 24 and Oct. 8—at the Harris County Commissioners Court courtroom, 1001 Preston St., Ste. 934, Houston. Commissioners are set to vote on the rate at the Oct. 8 meeting.
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