DRC_Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

If you’re frustrated about your property tax bill, the next two or three weeks are crucial in the fight to get them lowered.

Your local governments (city, county, school, hospital, public college) have all proposed their tax rates in recent weeks for the coming year. They are required to hold two public hearings before they take a final vote, usually in early September.

You can look up their proposals and go to the public hearings and speak your mind — either for or against.

Is your government behaving in a way you approve of? I’ll show you one way to find out.

If it sounds like I’m trying to incite the masses to storm city hall, keep in the mind that’s the way the system is set up. When they publish their proposed tax rates in legal advertising and hold hearings, they are offering you the opportunity to participate.

When you don’t, that makes it easier for them to do whatever they want to do.

Last gasp

What do they want to do? Usually, figure out ways to raise more tax revenue.

Every year I study this, but this year is different. This is the last gasp of the state’s old property tax law.

Starting next year, the new law requires governments to hold automatic tax rollback elections if they exceed a certain percentage increase of growth.

This year goes under the old rules, which are more favorable to those who want to increase your taxes without needing voter approval.

Are some governments running up the score by raising taxes as much as possible before the new rules take effect?

“No question,” says state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who wrote most of the new property tax law. “They’re trying to build an increase before the law takes effect.”

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, who’s a top critic of Bettencourt’s law and usually opposes the senator, doesn’t this time.

“I don’t disagree with what he says to some extent,” Whitley says. “A lot of people are pushing the envelope in that this is the last year, and they’re going to get all they can get.”

What’s the specific difference between this year and next? This year, if a city or county goes over 8% in a tax increase, voters would have to petition for a rollback election.

Next year, the limit is 3.5% and the election is automatic in November. For school districts, in two years, the limit is 2.5% before an automatic election.

Bettencourt offers withering criticism of these last-gasp tax increases.

“They’ve had a tremendous run-up already. It’s not like they’re on fumes. They gotta get one last good shot in the gas tank,” he said.

City of Fate

I called Bettencourt to make sure I understood a few aspects of the new tax law. He pointed out a few governments he knew of that are hiking taxes in this last gasp. One of them is the city of Fate, smack dab in the middle of Rockwall County.

Bettencourt told me that Fate’s leaders are looking to pass a budget with a 17% annual increase. Holy cow.

But when I called Fate City Manager Michael Kovacs to check, he told me the proposed budget increase is actually — sit down for this — 27%.

Fate has only 17,000 residents, and small cities and counties below 30,000 in population are exempt from the toughest rules of the new law. Voters would have to petition for a rollback election this year and next.

How bad is the coming property increase in fast-growing Fate?

Not so bad, the city manager says, considering what residents will get in return.

Fate’s shopping list for the new year includes paying for cybersecurity at City Hall, park maintenance, a tornado warning system and drainage, Kovacs explains.

For a home valued at $250,000, the property tax increase will be close to 8%, he estimates.

The city manager sent me a graphic showing how a city property tax is the smallest part of the annual property tax bill, with school tax making up the largest portion.

“It’s not only keeping up with growth,” he says about the bump-up. “It’s meeting expectations the public has of local service levels.”

Reading the numbers

How are your governments doing?

I’ll show you how to check.

There are four numbers you need to know. If you missed the legal ad for your government, go to its website and hunt around for any announcements of the proposed tax rates.

If you can’t find it (and it’s often difficult) call the city secretary for help or another administrator in that particular government.

As an example, I’m picking a government at random. Look at Flower Mound’s four numbers.

The proposed tax rate in its legal advertisement is 43.9 cents per $100 of assessed value.

The preceding year’s tax rate is the same. So on the surface, it appears Flower Mound is freezing its taxes. But property values in Flower Mound jumped, like elsewhere, so that’s not the whole story. (The tax rate is multiplied by the total assessed value for the annual property tax.)

The third number is the effective tax rate, which starting next year will be called the No-New-Tax-Revenue rate. That’s the number your government would approve to keep tax collections the same amount as the previous year. That’s the true tax-freeze number. Here, it’s 42.7 cents.

The final number is the rollback tax rate. That’s the number that triggers an election. Here, it’s 44 cents.

Bottom line: Flower Mound proposed a tax rate of 43.9 cents and the rollback election rate is 44 cents. So Flower Mound is squeezing in the maximum it can collect in revenue without allowing voters a rollback election.

Keep in mind that after public hearings and before a vote, the proposed tax rate can still change. (That’s where you can come in.)

To find out when public hearings are, check the government Web page or call the government. It’s public information.

‘Maximum smash’

Bettencourt says governments that run up and stop just shy of triggering the rollback rate are “vacuuming up every dollar bill they can find.”

He calls it a “maximum smash.”

“It’s a question of how do they want to be remembered?” the senator says. “Do they want to be remembered as the people who sucked as much money from the taxpayers’ pocketbooks as possible?

“Or do they want to be remembered for making rational decisions?”

The answers are in the numbers.

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