The two cent increase from the 2018 rate of $0.4175 will result in a $5 monthly property tax increase on an $300,000 home—a monthly total of $109.38. Conroe's new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
The $0.4375 rate was the more conservative of the two options recommended by city staff, with the other option being $0.4454, the full rollback amount allowed for the rate.
Officials said much of the budget increase is due to staffing increases and salary increases after the city invested in a salary study over the past year and found many workers from public works to police to fire were underpaid—by as much as 20%—compared to those in similar-sized cities.
"I can't figure out how to fix it without taking a big bite, and it just galls me because we're behind the 8-ball because we've let it happen," said Council Member Duane Ham. "We've got to fix the problem, and the only way is to take a big bite."
Ham said according to the salary study, Conroe's fire chief would need an 18% raise to be earning mid-range salaries on par with those of comparable cities. Just to hit mid-range, Ham said, firefighters are 23% behind, the police chief is 38% behind, police officers are 17.5% behind, public works workers are 52% behind, parks and recreation workers are 27.3% behind and city engineers are 20% behind.
"Let me tell you who's ahead. I'm just going to call it out like it is: [City Administrator] Paul [Virgadamo]—no disrespect—112.8% to the positive," Ham said. "City Secretary, 129%; Finance Director, 100%; Associate City Attorney, 104%; risk management, 100%; IT Manager, 103%."
Ham, along with Coon, voted against adoption of the FY 2019-20 capital budget, which passed council with a 3-2 vote. The new budget includes the salary study components; other big-ticket items in the budget include a future fire station, which officials discussed removing from the plan over the next year; a manager to implement the downtown master plan; and the construction of the new wastewater treatment plant, which resulted in a sewer rate increase. Council Member Jody Czajkoski and Coon voted against the sewer rate increase.
"Our financial position changed dramatically over the past six months—there's no question about that—due to decreased sales tax revenue," Coon said. "I believe it's not the time now to implement this salary compensation plan, but I believe it's time to observe our markets and look at our revenue for another year. ... I can't approve this budget with these assumptions in it today."
Council Member Raymond McDonald voted in favor of every proposed increase.
"There are increased services we need, and we cannot say we want to do them if we're not willing to do what is right," McDonald said. "We're sitting here on a property tax rate that is much lower than others around us ... Other cities recently that are in the 70-cent [rates] went up four cents just to keep up. We keep it very low around here, and I'm very proud of that."
Resident John Nix spoke during citizen inquiry to reject the budget and property tax rate increases.
"You don't realize the pain and suffering of the high property taxes. It isn't just me," Nix said. "There's way too much waste in there [the budget] that the city could trim, that the city is wasting my tax dollars on. ... It's like the motto of Conroe is a big fat joke when you raise our property taxes and we don't get anything in return except bloated salaries and things we don't need like expensive buses all the way to downtown."
The budget still ultimately passed in a 3-2 vote with Coon and Ham dissenting.
"We have to think about what's best for our citizens. Budgets don't just start 30 days before we get to see them—[there are] 52 meetings all year," Mayor Toby Powell said. "It's not just on a whim and a thought ... I hate it, I really do, that the time has come ... Now our hands are tied. ... I think not only us but councils before us have done a tremendous job in keeping our tax rates low for all these years—and still today, even with a two cent tax raise, we're lower than any other city our size."