October 19, 2005
One-note Bettencourt sings again

Does Harris County Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt ever say anything else?

The average Houston-area homeowner's taxes rose 7.5 percent this year, a rate that could cause tax bills to double in nine years, Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt said Tuesday.

The owner of an average home, worth $141,668, pays $3,376 in local taxes up $238 from last year, Bettencourt told Commissioners Court.

When the court votes on this year's tax rate Tuesday, it is expected to keep the rate unchanged, as it has since 2001.

Bettencourt pressed the court, as he has in the past, to lower the tax rate because rising property values cause owners to pay more taxes even when the tax rate remains the same.

"We should try to reduce the rate wherever we can. There is little or no advocacy for the homeowners in the process," Bettencourt said.

That's misleading, to say the least. I can't speak for anyone else, but every year we get a handful of solicitations from outfits that offer to protest your tax assessment for you in return for a piece of any reduction they manage to win. We used one of them this year and sure enough, we got a break. All it took was the time to fill out and mail in a form. Surely we're not the only homeowners in Harris County to get this kind of thing. Does Bettencourt not consider that to be advocacy?

Bettencourt said that in 1997, the average home was appraised at $79,535 and paid $1,546 in taxes. Taxes have more than doubled on that home since then, he said.

"Right now, homeowners are the cash cow for government," Bettencourt said.

And how much could that homeowner sell that house for now? I'm willing to bet it's a lot more than $79,535. Let's be honest here - most houses are worth more on the open market than their appraised values. If property values, as expressed by the potential price one could get for selling one's house, increase at a given rate, then it makes perfect sense to me that as a general rule the tax assessment for that house should increase at a commesurate rate. What exactly is so evil about that? Why is the free-market value of your house not an appropriate yardstick for your local appraisal district to use?

If we were stuck in a housing market that was stagnant, then I'd agree with Bettencourt. Here, though, he's focusing on a single item without giving any consideration to the causes behind it. I say that's at best disingenuous. Greg and Tory have related thoughts.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 19, 2005 to Local politics | TrackBack

I think Bettencourt is trying to highlight the fact that Harris County is receiving windfall revenue without being held accountable for how it is being spent. If he approached it any more directly, Commissioners Court would penalize him by tightening up his budget and defend their overall budgetary actions by claiming that they have not increased the tax rate.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on October 19, 2005 3:01 PM

Limiting taxes are one of the few ways citizens have to control the actions of their government. And Bettencourt will get nowhere with his one-note horn unless citizens agree with him and instruct their representatives in government accordingly. As such, he just moves forward public discourse for his pet issue, something I see as a public service.

Posted by: B. K. Oxley (binkley) on October 19, 2005 3:25 PM

Roy Moore's trying something similar here. Weird how he's worried about homeowners but not about people paying income tax on a salary of $5000 a year.

Posted by: Mac Thomason on October 19, 2005 3:36 PM

Betterncourt is stating the obvious, but he's got a point. The net effect of this is higher overall tax rates paid by citizens.

Of course, it's inevitable when you rely on highly regressive property taxes to fund your government, rather than something more like the progressive income taxes that are common in other states.

Posted by: John on October 19, 2005 3:56 PM

Mac, there is no State income tax in Texas, Bettencourt is referring to a State issue only.

Whether you agree with the man politically or not, his numbers are accurate and have not been contested by those in the TAC (his main political opponents). Their argument is that they 'need the money'...

The "progressives" among you should jump on this as proof that a State income tax is needed to supplant what is a failing property tax system in Texas, but that would mean admitting the Devil is correct in his details.

Once again party politics stifles meaningful discussion in Texas....

Ah well.


Posted by: Sedosi on October 20, 2005 12:07 AM

Of course Bettencourt is right in his statement, but misses a larger point. Texas is still a conservative, low-tax, small-government state - because we want it that way. True, the property tax penalizes homeowners whose assessed values have appreciated substantially, while incomes needed to pay those taxes have not. But we are very unlikely to actually come out and say that taxes are necessary, so the system just incrementally grows the revenues it needs.

Posted by: Dennis on October 20, 2005 5:55 AM

The antecedent "he" in my statement was Roy Moore, not your guy.

Posted by: Mac Thomason on October 20, 2005 9:47 AM

Point taken, but Bettencourt is hardly "my" guy.

I just happen to agree with him on this one issue.

I'm too socially liberal for that crowd.

(and too fiscally conservative for the current crop of Dems.)

Go Figure.


Posted by: Sedosi on October 20, 2005 3:25 PM

I'm not crazy about the KSEV crowd, but they have found a decent issue here. I cannot argue about your take on the current valuations of property as long as we have a property tax. The problem is that government revenues are skying upward, and I am paying more. We can argue politics all we want, but that fact does not change.

I do not favor an appraisal cap - it will only discourage real estate activity. Perhaps instead of local governments setting a tax rate they should set a revenue, and then they can back into the proper rate after the appraisals are complete. In such instance, property values can be properly used to divide the tax burden, but will not be used increase revenue.

Even better, I am one moderate Republican who would prefer a minimal state income tax instead of our current charade.

Posted by: Liger on November 3, 2005 2:58 PM