Steve Martin looks out from his office onto a mostly empty warehouse near Murphy Road.
In just a few short days, Martin and his assortment of construction-related businesses will leave Stafford for greener pastures in Houston, after calling the Fort Bend County community home for more than 30 years.
Martin had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, he said. But after witnessing the lack of planning and financial troubles in Stafford, Martin felt he had no other option, he said.
A lack of funding for deferred maintenance means Martin drive through streets with major potholes and fears flooding during storms on a regular basis, he said.
“Stafford is going to have to put a tax on property,” Martin concluded in an interview last week. “They’ve built a whole city of warehouses. And you can’t maintain a city with no money coming in.”
Elected leaders in Stafford have long pointed to the fact that the city has no property taxes as a point of pride. Ever since then-Mayor Leonard Scarcella eliminated the tax in 1995, the city has generated revenue primarily through sales tax, permits and other fees, contrary to the vast majority of Texas cities.
The measure has helped draw many major businesses to town over the years.
But in recent months, some businesses like Martin’s and residents have begun to criticize the city’s financial well-being, arguing city leaders accounted for the lack of property tax revenues by not spending on basic maintenance of city streets and infrastructure.
Current Mayor Cecil Willis this week dismissed most criticism of the city’s finances, arguing it’s being stirred by people who want to run for office.
“This is a well-organized group,” he said. “We’ve been getting emails, and I’ve sent them information and said I’d be more than happy to sit with them (one-on-one) and talk. So far, no one has responded. It’s political.”
The city during Willis’ tenure has turned a multi-million budget deficit into a surplus, and audited financial reports coming in January will show Stafford is headed in the right direction, Willis said.
Willis’ assurances, however, have done little to dim the rising number of critics in the city, leading some like Martin to consider leaving town entirely.
Joe Longoria, for instance, is a longtime Stafford resident who’s reached out to council several times over the years to report drainage problems in his neighborhood of Vaccaro Manor, he said.
“Status quo is the strategy, nothing changing and nothing being planned to address our continuing drainage issues,” Longoria said. “Now we are told there is no money to address this problem. That does not matter, because when they did have money they did not direct it to alleviate the problem. Now, their excuse is that it is not in the budget.”
The city’s latest budget allocates no money to drainage or street problems.
“This continues to be a concerted effort to undermine the quality of life of the citizens of Stafford,” Longoria said.
Martin, meanwhile, criticized the city’s praise of zero city property taxes as a cheap political ploy that has harmed the city in the long run.
“I remember back in 2008, the city leaders prided themselves on the fact that they didn’t owe money to anyone,” Martin said. “Well, that’s because they never spent any money.”
Some Stafford political candidates have estimated the city needs about $36 million in public works projects. Willis argued the list wasn’t so extensive.