Residents oppose county tax hike

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The Austin County Commissioner’s Court got an earful from three residents opposed to a proposed tax rate increase during a public hearing Monday morning.

It was the second of two hearings on the proposed a tax rate of $0.56423 per $100 of property valuation. The tax rate is a 2-cent increase over last year’s rate and is needed to fund the $18.3 million budget commissioners adopted for 2019-2020.

All three speakers were concerned about the impact the tax increase will have on senior citizens with fixed incomes.

“The appraisal district uses increasing property sales values to establish comparables, which continue to raise our property taxes ongoing and astronomically,” said B.H. Riefkohl. “Many families on fixed income like ours and other Austin County residents cannot withstand another additional financial burden, like the proposed commissioners tax increase. Relocation is not an option for many of us. I understand how difficult it must be to function without adequate funding for roads, equipment, building and grooming and maintenance. I assume there is a legalistic bureaucratic mandate to hold public hearings on this tax rate increase.”

Riefkohl was critical of the commissioners for voting themselves a raise while people on fixed incomes must foot the bill.

“And for commissioners to vote themselves raises. Voting for a financial burden to be added to your neighbor while voting yourselves a raise seems unfair and wrong,” he said. “I hope there is enough old school Austin County integrity and desire to do the right thing in the minds of the commissioners to ensure that these hearings are not just designed to allow the public to vent meaningless concerns in a kangaroo court when commissioners have already secretly made their decision.”

Linda Niehuus said she has been advocating for local seniors for years.

“I actually did get some statistics from the Austin County Appraisal District that the actual number of over-65 residents went down between 2018 and 2019,” she said. “And that with the increased revenue of new structures, there are 1,200-something new structures raising $53.6 million. That additional revenue should more than cover any increase or any decrease, I’m sorry, any laws from freezing over-65 taxes. So I’ve asked before for those court to consider that and to get those statistics from the appraisal district and to consider that and it hasn’t happened yet.

“In addition, the board is continuing to increase the rate on our property taxes. Both the school district – and I understand that you think it’s state mandated and the reason why the school district was able to keep the effective rate. But also the hospital district kept their effective rate,

which means that their rate was lower this year than last year, because they understood that the assessments were going up, and that they would have increased revenue from those increased assessments,” she said.

“Back in the ’60s when I was in elementary school I heard that folks who were 65 no longer had to pay property taxes because they had paid taxes on their life. And then at that age, they didn’t have any children in school anymore, so what happened?” asked Mario Martinez. “At some point they did away with that.”

The hearing concluded with no one else addressing the court. The commissioners moved into regular session where they did review and discuss the compensation order that will give themselves and most county employees an average 4% raise. No action was taken.

Hog wild

The commissioners did vote to apply for a reimbursement grant that will cover up to $20,000 for the purchase of feral hog traps from the AgriLife Extension Agency.

“Those traps by far are the most successful,” said Commissioner Chip Reed, adding, “Those hogs are smart enough now they can pass knowledge down three generations.”

Reed reminded the court that in the budget they have approved $10,000 for bounties on wild hogs. Commissioner Randy Reichardt said it might be a waste of money.

“I’m really on the fence about the bounty. The same people who do it are going to do it if they get the bounty or not,” he said.

In other news:

The commissioners received an update about construction projects for the Sealy EMS building, demolition and upgrades to the jail, and construction of the new justice center. Architect Kenny Burns said the EMS facility is about ready to start construction and they are moving forward on bids. The other two projects he hopes will be ready to bid in November.

The commissioners voted to keep the burn ban in place, purchased various road and bridge materials, and set the pay rate for a new administrator/reporter for the County Court at Law Office.

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