Harris County keeps property tax rate even but bills may rise

From the Houston Chronicle:
By: Gabrielle Banks

For the twentieth year in a row, officials essentially have opted not to raise the property tax rate in Harris County.

However, their vote Friday does not mean tax bills will remain the same as last year. Taxpayers whose appraised property values have risen will still owe the county more in April.

Judge Ed Emmett said the county has taken a conservative approach to managing its finances, maintaining a triple-A bond rating and keeping up with infrastructure and flood control mitigation as the unincorporated parts of the county continue to grow.

After fielding public criticism from two former county tax officials, Commissioners Court voted to maintain a property tax rate which has remained steady with the exception of a tiny reduction of .175 cents in 2005 and a one cent rate cut before the economy collapsed in 2008.

The timing of that cut was unfortunate, according to Bill Jackson the county’s budget manager, because the US economy was headed into a tailspin that caused incoming revenue to drop. During the third and final meeting for public comment on the rate, two former Harris County Tax Assessor-Collectors shared their critique of keeping the same tax rate as Harris County continues to burst at its seams in terms of population growth.

“Over the last five years, the increase in values have allowed the tax base to go up 40 percent,” Don Sumners, who served as Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector in 2011 and 2012, told the court members. “The pie has grown significantly, but for several years now the court has chosen not to share any of that pie with the taxpayers.”

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who served as the county’s top tax official from 1999 to 2009, did not appear in person, but he wrote County Judge Ed Emmett an open letter, which one of his staff members read aloud to the court members. Bettencourt blasted the county for squeezing taxpayers for $700 million more than it had three years prior and urged the court to provide tax relief for “hard pressed Harris County taxpayers.”

Following this testimony, before a mostly vacant chamber, the five-member Commissioners Court moved forward, choosing the same overall tax rate for four entities it oversees — the county, the hospital district, flood control district and the Port of Houston. While the overall rate stays the same, officials tweaked the individual rates for each of these entities up and down a bit.

Unlike the City of Houston, the county does not have a limit on the revenue it can collect if property values rise. But the county does not benefit from levying a sales tax.

Emmett said the biggest strain on county taxpayers is having to cover Medicaid dollars that the state government will not reimburse for indigent patients.

If the state could make those funds available, taxpayers would get serious relief, he said, referring to the governor’s office, which has refused under two administrations to expand Medicaid. More than one-quarter of the tax rate goes to the hospital district, Emmett said, “That’s all on the taxpayers of Harris County.”