Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert painted a rosy picture of the state of the county but also pulled no punches while discussing problems during his annual address to the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce and guests last Thursday.
The annual State of the County address was given during a luncheon at Texas Safari Ranch where Hebert talked about everything from property taxes and recovery from Hurricane Harvey to new and improved roads and facilities throughout the county.
“We have had four declared presidential emergencies in Fort Bend County in the last three years,” he said, referring to floods, the last from Hurricane Harvey.
He said FEMA received 22,800 registrations from the county; 6,800 of which were flooded homes. The rest were cars, mobile homes, trailers, and such.
“It’s still an ongoing disaster and we have to be aware of that,” he said.
He said compared to neighboring counties, Fort Bend came out in good shape.
“On a scale of disaster, Harris County had a tremendous disaster,” he said.
Hebert said the county has requested $88 million in federal aid to help those rebuilding their homes, as well as for construction of flood control structures and erosion control. He also noted that many people suffered flooded homes due to a manmade response to the storm.
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that the people behind the Barker Reservoir did not suffer from a natural disaster. They were injured, they were damaged, they were flooded out of their homes by a manmade necessity (opening of flood gates),” he said. “It shouldn’t have happened; it should never have been allowed to happen.”
Hebert also dished out some criticism for the state Legislature. He praised the local representatives for helping stave off a 4 percent revenue cap, saying caps only hinder growth and do not lower property taxes.
“We fought off a 4 percent cap. They said they’d be back and they came back with a 2.5 percent cap,” he said.
“I’d love to do away with all property tax if someone can show me a way to pay for government and not levy a property tax,” Hebert added.
He displayed pie charts showing that public schools take more than half of the property taxes collected in the state.
“Lower property tax can be achieved by restructuring financing of public education,” he said, clarifying that he is not opposed to giving schools more money. “They need more money. We need to find a way to get that money and deliver it in a better way.”
He said the state has been shifting the tax burden to the local level and not funding its share of the cost.
“Since 2015 the Legislature has increased school funding from local property taxes $14.35 billion while state funding increased $2.17 billion,” he said.
Hebert said if the state split the cost of increases evenly, property taxes would be going down.
“But here’s the punchline: Had the state increased its share to be a 50-50 partnership with the local school districts for the current 2016-2018 biennium, they could have reduced property taxes by more than $17 billion had they done that – an average of 15 percent a year,” he said. “They would have reduced property taxes by over twice the levy of every county in Texas, had they done that. You’re talking big numbers in education and when you load it all onto property tax it creates a monster.”
Locally, he said the commissioners court adopted a $365 million budget and dropped the tax rate to 46.9 cents per $100 of property valuation.
“If you take debt service out of our budget, our growth is only 1.6 percent,” he said. “We’re in real good shape right now.”
Hebert talked about passage of the 2017 Mobility Bond last year and listed a number of road improvements that have been made and other in progress. He also talked about many new facilities in the county, including the justice center expansion and the Sienna Annex building.
Projects under way or starting soon include construction of a new sheriff’s office, construction of a transportation center, construction of a medical examiner’s office, expansion of the animal control facility, expansion of central appraisal district building, construction of a Mission Bend library and community center, construction of a Four Corners community center, a new EMS building, and completion of the expanded Missouri City Branch Library.
Hebert also talked about some honors the county has received, including an award for transparency and ranking sixth in the state for health outcomes.
He was also proud to talk about the five new opportunity zones that were recently approved by the governor. Those zones will help businesses build in areas affected by Hurricane Harvey and other economic factors.
“This is a good thing, it’s just another tool in the toolbox for economic development,” he said. “We’re going to raise the socioeconomic impact in those communities.”
His goals for the coming year include prioritizing the 2017 bond projects, possibly expanding the juvenile detention center, building an emergency operations center, and building a multi-purpose facility at the fairgrounds. He also wants to reach a resolution on revenue caps without jeopardizing local governments.
“We’re not resting on our laurels; we’re criticizing everything we do,” he said.