County residents continue fight against tax rate

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Residents spoke out once again in opposition to Austin County’s proposed tax rate at a second public hearing on the matter held Sept. 10.

A week later, on Sept. 17, after an hour-long, often heated debate, commissioners approved the originally proposed rate of 0.5479 per $100 assessed valuation, with a breakdown of 0.3856 for the general fund, 0.0811 for FM and lateral, 0.0672 for road and bridge and 0.0140 for debt service.

Commissioner Bobby Rinn voted against the rate, which represents a 6.3 percent increase, and Commissioner Mark Lamp attempted to propose a rate that only showed a 6 percent hike. The proposals drew the ire of Commissioner Randy Reichardt.

“I don’t understand why you want to bring us stupid stuff just to make yourself look good,” he said. “If you’re that scared of your job maybe you shouldn’t be in it.”

County Judge Tim Lapham at one point had to ask the commissioners to watch their language and repeatedly reminded them that a tax rate had to be adopted during the Sept. 17 meeting in order to move forward with the new fiscal year Oct. 1. The county budget already was adopted.

“I was not in favor of that budget so I am not in favor of the [tax] rate,” Rinn said.

During the previous meeting Sept. 10, Sam Boone raised concerns about the tax rate and also how road and bridge funds are allocated among the four county precincts. He cited a court case – Garland vs. Sanders – which found that rather than dividing funds equally, it should be based on the condition of roads in each precinct.

“The court held that 25 percent allocation to each precinct was arbitrary and Commissioners Court is required to review the condition of county roads to allocate the road and bridge fund,” he said, reading from the ruling. “A more appropriate method of allocation would involve an examination of the entire county road systems … What that means to me is 25 percent to each precinct is not equitable, considering Precinct 1 has approximately 174 miles of road, Precinct 2 has approximately 242 miles of road, Precinct 3 has approximately 75 miles of road and Precinct 4 has 107 miles of road. It needs to be equitable.”

Richard Burgess said government at all levels has no money until they take it from the people who work for a living.

“We still live in a country where government operates with the consent of the people,” he said. “I look at the statistics over the last four years and the growth of county government by 7 percent here. The people don’t want that. We want you to continue to operate the police force, the courts, the roads, the schools and go home. If you want more money, you might try more efficiency with what you have.”

Rhonda Dean agreed and pointed out that even though the tax rate isn’t being raised, the county is getting more money each year because homeowners’ property appraisals have increased.

Linda Niehuus echoed that point.

“You know you have an option of approving 2 percent more, 3 percent more, 4 percent more … 6.3 percent more is what you ultimately decided on,” she said. “You can say we’re not raising the tax rates; it’s the appraisal district. We all know that every taxing entity, if they keep the same tax rate, is going to have more budget to spend because of the increased assessments. We cannot control that. Believe me, I’ve tried. I have my own issues with the appraisal board. I have protested my property taxes; I have been disrespected; they have ignored every piece of real hard evidence that I have ever supplied to them. We can’t control that but you guys can help us out by controlling the tax rate because that’s what you’re responsible for.”

She expressed concern about the increasing taxes coupled with the county’s request for a bond election in November.

Jill Wolfskill also weighed in on the matter.

“We’re looking for bold leadership out of our Commissioners Court,” she said. “In the vein of President Trump, he’s making some wonderful changes. It’s not business as usual; it’s not the status quo … There’s things that need to be addressed in [the county] budget and I’m not sure why we can’t get these things done.”

Eight other residents added their comments, all in opposition to the tax rate.

Judge Lapham responded that the Austin County Appraisal District budget is going up by 18.81 percent.

“You in this room are very upset because we are looking at a 6.3 percent increase,” he said. “This 18.81 percent that’s being taken off the top, it’s your tax dollars. That’s a bill given to the county that we have to pay. The county has to pay it, the cities have to pay it, the school districts have to pay it. I would hope that when they’re having the hearing on their budget and asking for three times the increase that we’re asking for, that you go and talk to them as well.”

Just because the appraisal district is in Austin County does not make it unified with the county government, Lapham added, explaining that they are separate entities. In addition to that, the state imposes unfunded mandates, causing county costs to increase.

No new buildings have been constructed in Austin County since 1979, said Commissioner Doug King, who was raised in the area.

“This county is growing,” King said. “We have to supply these services to these people … If one person loses a family member because EMS didn’t arrive on time, you’re going to come back to us and say, ‘Why didn’t you come sooner?’ Me personally, I don’t want to be the one to cut their budget because I don’t think they need it. If they’re coming to me saying they need it, obviously there’s a need for it.”

King further added that he pays about $893 annually in property taxes, amounting to $74 per month.

“That’s what goes into the general fund,” he said. “That’s what I’m paying for the ambulance 24-7, the sheriff’s department 24-7 and the jail. That’s for $74 a month. My kids’ cell phone bill for three kids is $167 a month … We’re trying to keep our people; we’re trying to keep our services.”

It costs $56,000 per month to house inmates in another county, prompting the need for a bond issue and new jail facilities, officials said. County buildings are overcrowded with leaky roofs and the state jail commission ordered that inmates must be transported elsewhere due to mold.

“I don’t like subsidizing Fort Bend County; they’ve got enough money,” Lapham said. “We put a metal roof on [the Austin County Jail]. It’s not working. We can keep putting duct tape and baling wire on it but it’s not going to fix it.”

Freezing taxes for citizens over age 65 would cause taxes for the rest of the population to increase by 10 to 12 percent rather than 6 percent, Lapham explained.

Commissioner Lamp said this year’s budget process has been eye-opening.

“The state officials, they’re politicians,” he said. “Those of us who sit up here. We’re your neighbors. We pay taxes too.”

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