Harris County commissioners voted 3-2 to propose tax rates for fiscal year 2022-23 during a special meeting Sept. 6, with Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle opposed.
Following a public hearing Sept. 13, commissioners will vote to officially adopt four separate tax rates: the rate for the county’s general fund, Harris Health System, the Harris County Flood Control District and the Port of Houston Authority. They will also vote on the budget—which has not yet been made final—at the same meeting.
The overall proposed tax rate is $0.57508 per $100 of assessed value, a 1% decrease from the previous year’s rate of $0.58135 per $100. The HCFCD’s tax rate is equal to the voter-approval rate—the maximum rate allowed under Senate Bill 2 without getting voter approval—while Harris Health and the county’s general fund are below the voter-approval rate.
Daniel Ramos, executive director of the Office of Management and Budget, reiterated a statement from his budget proposal on Aug. 23, saying taken together, the proposed flood control district and general fund tax rate would be the lowest tax rate the county has seen since 1993. His office is not recommending the no-new-revenue rate for any of the county entities, but will prepare a budget if commissioners fail to pass the proposed tax rates on Sept. 13.
“If we move to the no-new-revenue rate and we were to adopt the fiscal year [2021-22] budget, every department, big and small, will start the year over-encumbered,” Ramos added. “They will be over budget.”
During the meeting, Ramsey asked court members to consider adding $20 million in the budget for law enforcement for 100 new positions and funding for constables in precincts 3, 4 and 5. Ramos returned towards the end of the meeting with a proposal to increase the cost-of-living adjustments for officers across all ranks from 2.5% to 4.25%, at a cost of about $10 million.
Caution against a no-new-revenue rate
County department heads for the HCFCD and Harris Health System spoke virtually at the meeting to make the case against adopting a no-new-revenue rate, which would limit the county to raising the same amount of property tax revenue as the previous fiscal year.
The proposed budget for the flood control district is $137.1 million, according to Tina Petersen, executive director of the HCFCD. She said adopting the no-new-revenue rate would reduce the budget by $23.1 million and would affect progress on the district’s maintenance projects.
“There are a number of maintenance projects we would have to put on hold [with the no-new-revenue rate],” Petersen said. “There are several other projects that are moving into construction or are under construction right now that we would have to downsize because we would not have the funding to complete those projects.”
And Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of Harris Health System, said the hospital district would face a $45 million deficit under a no-new-revenue rate.
“This is really shameful: we are 3,000 colonoscopies behind,” Porsa said. “We still have sewer water backing up to our pharmacy at our hospitals.”
Commissioners discussed salaries for law enforcement against the backdrop of an ongoing legal matter between the county and the state. The meeting paused for almost two hours for a hearing in Travis County’s 261st Civil District Court for a lawsuit filed by outside counsel for Harris County requesting a temporary restraining order against Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar.
The lawsuit was filed hours before the Sept. 6 meeting; commissioners had previously voted 3-1 during a special meeting Aug. 31 to retain outside counsel and potentially take legal action against Hegar in response to his letter to the county on Aug. 22.
In his letter, Hegar said his office was “continuing to investigate” three allegations that the county’s proposed budget would reduce funding to the constables of Precincts 4 and 5 by a total of $3 million by not allowing the constables to rollover unspent funds to the following fiscal year.
During the Sept. 6 hearing, the counsel for the Office of the Attorney General walked back some of the language of the letter and stated the comptroller was not currently investigating the county’s budget. Judge Lora J. Livingston asked the parties to negotiate a stipulation and submit it to her office by 2 p.m on Sept. 7, which would effectively negate the need for a temporary restraining order, according to First Assistant County Attorney Jonathan Fombonne.
While the lawsuit is still active, Fombonne told the commissioners there was no indication there would be further action from the comptroller, but action taken after the adoption of the budget would leave the county with “plenty of time to resolve it”.