By Joe Southern
In his annual State of the County Address for the Central Fort Bend and Fort Bend chambers of commerce on Friday at Safari Texas Ranch, County Judge Robert Hebert gave a mundane lesson on how the county budget is spent but spiced his talk with jabs at the Legislature, specifically the county’s two senators, Lois Kolkhorst and Joan Huffman.
He took the senators to task over their support of Senate Bill 2, the property tax reform bill that passed the Senate in an 18-12-1 vote.
“Two state senators, Lois Kolkhorst and Joan Huffman told me and several other elected officials they were both against (the bill) but did exactly the opposite and voted for it. I’m appalled, but that’s politics,” he said.
Under current law, if a taxing entity raises the tax rate by more than 8 percent in a given year, taxpayers can gather signatures for a petition to hold an election to roll that rate back. SB 2 would lower that threshold to 5 percent, and would make the election automatic, ending the petition requirement.
Opponents of the bill raised concerns that the measure effectively caps revenue growth for cash-starved cities and counties, and say that the state should let local elected officials decide tax rates. The bill is now in the House and if passed goes to the governor for his signature.
Neither senator was in attendance, but both responded to Hebert’s comment.
“Everyone agrees that property taxes are too high,” Kolkhorst said in a statement. “That’s why I was proud to co-author and pass Senate Bill 2, the Texas Property Tax Reform and Relief Act. This common sense proposal will provide appraisal reform and give voters the final approval over property tax hikes. Texas still has work to do on addressing our reliance on property taxes for public schools. In the meantime, Senate Bill 2 provides the purest form of local control possible because it gives taxpayers the final say and keeps power where it belongs, with the people.”
“Local elected officials must understand that OUR constituents are being taxed out of their homes. I voted for SB2 because it was the right thing to do for property owners in Senate District 17,” Huffman said in a statement. “In an attempt to balance the concerns of my constituents and local elected officials, I offered an amendment in the Senate Finance Committee raising the city’s rate from 4 percent to 5 percent, before a rollback election must occur. The amendment was adopted and the bill continues to move through the legislative process.”
Hebert said he has a simple litmus test for property tax relief.
“I define property tax relief as a lower tax bill,” Hebert said. “As it stands now, it will not lower your property tax bill one bit.”
He added that what SB 2 will do is cap growth in cities and counties, hamstringing local budgets.
Hebert also took issue with an ethics bill passed in the previous Legislature, House Bill 1295, that requires businesses to submit a disclosure of interested parties to the governmental entity or state agency at the time the business submits the signed contract to the governmental entity or state agency.
“This is an ethics bill that is poorly written and it’s caused a lot of money to be wasted,” he said.
He said if a foundation donated $1 million to a governmental entity like a city or county, they have to fill out a 1295 form to disclose who negotiated the gift. Every time a change order is made to a contract, the entity must file another Form 1295. He said there are millions of filings each year.
“It may only cost $5 or $6 for each one of them but when you add them up we’re wasting up to $10 million a year filing papers,” he said.
He called for a threshold amount before a form had to be filed to reduce the number of filings.
While talking about the county budget, Hebert discussed what he called unfunded mandates from the state that takes up 47 percent of the revenue raised by the county. As an example, he said the state is awarding the county a new district court judge. While the state will pay the judge’s salary, the county must pay his benefits, supply the courtroom and hire the clerks, guards and other support personnel to operate the court. He said that adds $1.3 million a year to the county’s $346 million budget.
Hebert did use the occasion to highlight several projects going on in the county. Among those are:
A new parking garage due to open at the Justice Center and sheriff’s office;
The opening of a new county annex office in the former Houston Community College building in Sienna Plantation;
Expansion of the 5th Street Gymnasium;
Build out of the Justice Center with two new courtrooms;
Expansion of the Missouri City branch of the county’s library system;
And completion and continuation of several highway projects.