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revenue cap

City wins final judgment in revenue cap lawsuit

Wow, is this ever a blast from the past.

The city of Houston has prevailed in a lawsuit challenging the amount it can collect in property taxes, ending 14 years of litigation over a set of measures approved by voters in 2004.

At issue in the suit were two ballot measures from 2004, specifically Proposition 1, which limited the annual increases in property tax and utility revenues to the combined increases in population and inflation for Houston, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

Prop 1 was approved by voters in 2004, as was was another measure, Proposition 2, that further limited the city’s ability to collect revenue. The city, under then-Mayor Bill White, abided by the first measure because of a directive in it that stated whichever cap received more votes would be the one adopted.

Individuals from a conservative group then filed suit, accusing the city of violating the caps by not also adopting Proposition 2.

After years of court battles, a state district judge has ruled that the city has “fully complied” with Proposition 1.

See here for the city’s statement. The most recent update I can find in my own archives is from 2008 (!!), though it is likely there has been more action on the lawsuit that either wasn’t reported or went unremarked upon by me. However you look at it, this is some old, old business, and now it is done. Think of it as an alternate thing the city of Houston can celebrate now that the World Series didn’t work out the way we’d hoped.

Another ReBuild Houston lawsuit

Gotta say, this puzzles me.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A pair of Houston residents filed a lawsuit against Mayor Sylvester Turner and city council Monday, accusing them of failing to follow the will of voters who approved a charter amendment last year for funding drainage and street repairs.

The lawsuit accuses city leaders of shortchanging the dedicated drainage fund by failing to transfer the full amount required by last year’s ballot proposition.

The proposition, which essentially was a “do-over” vote on the city’s 2010 street and drainage repair program known as Rebuild Houston, requires the city to dedicate 11.8 cents of its property tax rate to the street and drainage fund. The city, under former mayor Annise Parker and Turner, has transferred less than the full amount generated by the 11.8 cents for the last five years.

The plaintiffs allege a roughly $44 million discrepancy in what the city currently has budgeted compared to the amount generated by 11.8 cents of property tax rate. Over 10 years, the funding shortfall could exceed $500 million, the plaintiffs say.

Turner’s office issued a statement disagreeing with the premise of the lawsuit, saying that transferring the full amount generated by 11.8 cents of tax rate would require moving some $50 million more annually and would “cripple” city services.

“That would mean cuts to essential services like police, fire, solid waste, and other services,” the statement said. “Mayor Turner doesn’t support that.”

The plaintiffs, Allen Watson and Bob Jones, are engineers who were part of the campaign that put the program, then known as ReNew Houston, on the 2010 ballot. It later was renamed Rebuild Houston.

They said they were suing because the city had failed to meet the expectations outlined in Proposition A, which 74 percent of voters approved last year. They are seeking a court order to force the city to direct more money and “to fund the things they said they were going to fund,” Jones said.

“Houstonians spoke loud and clear just one year ago when they voted to create a fund to fix our streets and drainage,” Jones said in a later statement. “…We are undertaking this suit to ensure that the law is upheld, that the promised funding is protected so that our street and drainage infrastructure receives the investment necessary to repair, replace and upgrade our street and drainage systems throughout the city over the next 20-30 years.”

Here’s what I wrote in 2018 about the ReBuild re-vote. You can click the links to the Chron stories, but there’s nothing in either of them that mentioned a percentage of property taxes. The story mentions this was a part of the original mix of funding for ReBuild Houston, and here I have to confess I don’t remember that. There was so much noise and drama about the drainage fee that anything and everything else got overpowered. If this is what’s supposed to happen, then the consequences will be unpleasant. On the plus side, maybe it’ll take another decade to get settled via the courts.

Cagle and Radack break quorum

They did it.

Two Harris County Commissioners Court members skipped Tuesday’s meeting to prevent the Democratic majority from voting on a property tax rate hike that would increase revenue by 8 percent.

Republican commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle were absent when County Judge Lina Hidalgo gaveled in the session at 10:03 a.m. A staff member for Cagle placed a two-foot stack of constituent comments at his place on the dais, indicating their widespread opposition to the tax increase.

Without a vote, Harris County will revert to the effective tax rate for the upcoming fiscal year, which will collect more than $195 million less than the rate Democrats had proposed, according to county budget analysts.

[…]

Cagle and Radack remained at large when their colleagues began discussing the tax rate at 11 a.m. In a statement, Cagle said he and Radack skipped the meeting to block an “unwise, unfair and unjustified” tax increase.

“The residents of Precinct 4 elected me to represent them. They did not elect me to lord over them or to repress them,” Cagle said. “This is the taxpayers’ money, not the government’s.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a statement from Commissioner Ellis. I will just say this: The people of Harris County, who voted 52-46 for Lupe Valdez over Greg Abbott, and 56-42 for Mike Collier over Dan Patrick, did not vote for the imposition of a restrictive and damaging revenue cap. Collier, for that matter, carried Radack’s precinct and came damn close in Cagle’s, so one could plausibly argue that their own constituents didn’t vote for that revenue cap, either. I can appreciate that Radack and Cagle opposed this plan and used the tool that was available to them to stop it, but they picked a really short-sighted hill to die on. The property tax system in Texas is rigged against homeowners, and Radack and Cagle’s fellow Republicans in the Legislature refuse to do anything about it. By this action, they demonstrate they are part of the problem. Commissioners Court can’t do anything about what the Lege has imposed on them now, but the voters can do something about Steve Radack next year. The Court has undergone a lot of change, but clearly more is needed.

Will Radack and Cagle break quorum to stop a tax rate hike?

We’ll find out today.

Harris County Commissioners Court has scheduled a vote Tuesday to hike property taxes by 8 percent, though the two Republican members can thwart the plan by simply skipping the vote.

A quirk in the Texas Government Code requires a quorum of four court members, rather than the regular three, to vote on a tax increase. The rule affords Republican commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle rare power, as they repeatedly have lost votes to their three Democratic colleagues this year.

The pair said they would not reveal their intentions ahead of the meeting.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said Radack and Cagle could attend the rest of Tuesday’s court meeting and leave the room when County Judge Lina Hidalgo decides to consider the tax increase.

“They can be present for part of the meeting and then leave,” Soard said. “That’s their option.”

Soard said that unlike the governor, Hidalgo has no power to compel any member to be present for a vote.

[…]

The Democrats on the Harris County Commissioners Court proposed a property tax increase of 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value, which the county budget office estimates would add $37.65 to the tax bill on a $230,000 home in the first year. The county would collect more than $200 million in additional revenue.

Garcia said the prospect of Republicans skipping the vote was “disappointing but not surprising.”

“It is their responsibility to come to court and be a part of the process, even if they don’t agree with it,” he said in a statement.

The relationships between court members have been fraught at times since Democrats took control in January. Divided votes have become the norm, and commissioners sometimes snipe at each other from the dais.

See here for the background. The main thing I would add here is that the fraught-ness and the sniping and the divided votes are not because of some generic notion of “politics”, or incivility, or even partisanship, as former Judge Robert Eckels says. It’s about a sincere and significant difference in values and priorities. Which, to be fair to Eckels, is reflected in the differences between the two parties. The Republicans had their way for decades, and then the voters voted for change. That’s how this is supposed to work, minus the anti-majoritarian avoidance techniques. We’ll see what these two do.

Do you believe in magical thinking?

I did not read this long profile of Tony Buzbee, because life is short and we all have better things to do. I did briefly scan the print version a bit, and in doing so I noticed the following paragraph, which tells you everything you need to know about Tony Buzbee, Loudmouth Rich Guy Who Wants To Be Mayor:

Buzbee opposes the idea of lifting Houston’s property tax revenue cap. Instead, he wants to enact budget cuts he says will fund his proposals, such as hiring 2,000 police officers in eight years — which would spike the department’s budget by almost 40 percent — and granting firefighters pay parity with police.

This is impossible. It literally cannot be done. Do you remember when Mayor Annise Parker was faced with a big deficit in 2010 following the economic crash, which caused property tax revenues to plummet? She ran on a promise of balancing the budget without making any cuts to the police or fire departments, and she achieved that in large part by laying off over 700 municipal employees. Someone with a more detailed knowledge of the current budget would have to run the numbers to check this, but to hire that many new police officers and give the firefighters a raise of that magnitude, I would question whether there are enough municipal employees left to lay off to pay for it. I mean, if we don’t want trash collection or a permitting department or building inspectors or anyone working in the parks and libraries – and maybe if we also defaulted on our bonds – you could make it work. I guarantee you, Tony Buzbee has not done the math to show how he could make it work.

On a side note, let me refer you to this:

Houston Police Officers’ Union President Joe Gamaldi questioned whether the department would even have enough cars, uniforms and equipment to handle the increased headcount.

“We would love to see that type of growth,” Gamaldi said. “But realistically, we’ve never hired more than 375 people in a fiscal year, so we would really need to look to see if HPD’s infrastructure can even handle that.”

Note that this story has Buzbee hiring those two thousand cops over his first four years. I mean, when the president of the police officers’ union says that your plan to hire 500 cops a year every year for four years is a bit much…

Other counties also considering property tax rate hikes

I have four things to say about this.

A statewide property tax relief plan that takes effect next year is prompting hefty tax increases this fall in many of the biggest cities and counties in Texas, even in places that have historically kept rates flat or decreased them.

Elected officials in some cities and counties say they have no choice but to raise taxes as high as they can this year to brace for the implementation of property tax reforms that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature called historic earlier this summer. The average effective tax rate for single-family homes in Texas was 2.18 percent in 2018, third-highest in the nation, according to a study by ATTOM Data Solutions.

Starting next year, cities and counties will be barred from increasing property tax collections more than 3.5 percent in any year without a vote of the public. Currently, the state has an 8-percent limit, called the rollback rate, that state lawmakers say has allowed cities and counties to overtax homeowners. The lack of a state income tax makes Texas municipalities especially reliant on property tax revenue.

A look around the state shows many counties and cities are pushing rates to the 8-percent rollback rate this year to bank money or, in a few cases, even to fund pay raises for themselves, in reaction to the new law. El Paso, Harris, Tarrant, Webb and Travis counties are among those pushing to the current rollback rate, or near it. And cities including El Paso, Arlington, Corpus Christi and Austin are similarly considering rates at or near the 8-percent limit.

“I think a lot of cities and counties know that we are putting them on a diet and they are going on one last bender before it happens,” said State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who was a key player in crafting the property tax reforms as the leader of the House Ways and Means Committee.

[…]

In Harris County, which hasn’t raised the tax rate in decades, county officials say the state’s new restrictions are forcing them to react by raising the tax rate by 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value. County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county needs to create a contingency fund to ensure it can pay for services, such as health care, transportation and flood control, once the state’s 3.5-percent cap goes into effect. The rate increase, if approved next month, would allow Harris County to collect more than $200 million extra in tax money than last year.

1. There are some extremely bitchy quotes in the story from Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who pushed the bill that led to this in the Senate. I may have rolled my eyes so hard that they will never unroll.

2. The counties and cities that are considering this are acting in what they believe is their best interest, and the best interest of their residents. Plenty of expenses that counties and cities face, from disaster relief to health care to salaries and pensions, aren’t subject to any kind of rate limit. HB3 radically changed their long term financial picture. They had no choice but to adjust.

3. Just as a reminder, there are plenty of things the Legislature could have done to improve our property tax system without putting the squeeze on local governments. The Lege could also greatly help counties on the expenditure side of the balance sheet by expanding Medicaid, which would do a lot to reduce the cost of health care on counties. The whining from the likes of Bettencourt on this is just beyond rich. All that is without even pointing out that having a property tax-based system, in which the main expense is completely disconnected from people’s annual incomes, instead of an income tax-based system, is always going to have problems like this.

4. The same voters who will be given the power to approve or reject future tax collection levels also have the power to approve or reject the local officials who may be raising tax rates now ahead of that. They also have that power over people like Paul Bettencourt and Dustin Burrows and Greg Abbott and so forth. Maybe some day that power will be exercised.

Quorum question

Who knew?

A quirk in Texas law could allow the two Republicans on Harris County Commissioners Court, despite being in the minority, to prevent the three Democrats from enacting a proposed property tax increase.

Typically, three court members constitute a quorum, the minimum number needed to conduct business. The Texas Government Code, however, requires four members be present to vote on levying a tax.

That exception affords rare power to Republican commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, who have been steamrolled on 3-2 votes on enacting bail reform, appointing a judge and a resolution on gun violence.

The pair simply would need to skip a tax hike vote to prevent the three Democrats from passing it, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said. The trio on Sept. 10 proposed raising the overall property tax rate 2.26 cents per $100 of assessed value. The existing rate is 63 cents per $100 of assessed value.

“We don’t know how exactly it would play out,” Soard said. “But if there are not four members present, Commissioners Court can’t vote on a tax increase.”

A final vote is scheduled for Oct. 8, and the deadline to set the county tax rates is Oct. 11, leaving the Democrats with little margin for error. Commissioners Court has scheduled public hearings on the proposal on Sept. 20 and Sept. 24.

Radack pointed out that he has not missed a meeting in more than five years, and said Oct. 8’s session is marked on his calendar.

Cagle, through a spokesman, said he has made a decision on the issue but does not want to share his strategy publicly. Cagle proposed a compromise at the Sept. 11 meeting, only increasing the flood control district rate, but his motion was defeated on a party-line vote.

[…]

The proposed property tax increase, which would be the first increase since 1996, would collect more than $200 million in additional revenue over the current rate. Hidalgo said the measure is necessary to ensure the county can continue to pay for services, including billion in flood control projects, after the revenue cap passed by the Legislature takes effect next year.

That cap limits year-over-year growth of city and county revenue to 3.5 percent, down from a previous ceiling of 8 percent. Revenue increases above that threshold would need voter approval.

The county budget office estimates the average Harris County homeowner’s tax bill would increase by $38, based on a home valued around $230,000.

You have to love an anti-majoritarian law. I had no idea this existed, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Let’s please dispense with this nonsense about Radack and Cagle being “steamrolled”, however. They’re on the losing end of majority votes. That’s how this is supposed to work.

The story notes that Rodney Ellis participated in a big quorum break in 2003, while he was in the State Senate and was trying to hold off the Tom DeLay re-redistricting effort. The Senate quorum-busting, which lasted for weeks while Ellis and his Democratic colleagues holed up in New Mexico, followed a similar effort by 51 Democrats in the House. This is fair to bring up. I will note that in these cases, the threshold for a quorum in each chamber was set by the rules they adopted at the beginning of the session, not by state law, and that one of the things that happened as a result of all this was that the quorum rules were changed to make this kind of exercise futile. Also, the reason that Ellis and others fled the state is because the DPS is authorized to round up wayward members and drag them back into the chamber for the vote they’re trying to scuttle. Whether the DPS has the power to place quorum-busting legislators under arrest was unsettled the last time I checked on it, but I feel confident saying that if Radack and Cagle try this, they will not be hauled back downtown in handcuffs by Sheriff’s deputies.

As to the matter of the tax rate increase itself, this is something that Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia think is necessary to enable the county to pay for the things it needs to do, including flood mitigation. They are concerned that thanks to the revenue cap provision of HB3, the county will be hamstrung going forward, forced to implement rate cuts because the county’s growth has been too fast for the law, so they’re taking action to mitigate against that now. You can certainly disagree with that, and you can express that at the next Commissioners Court meeting and at the ballot box. I’d just note that if the Legislature had left the county to its own devices, this wouldn’t be happening now.

On to the next big financial issue for the city

It’s always something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Four years ago, the main source of Houston’s deteriorating financial health — billions of dollars in unfunded pension obligations — loomed over the race for mayor, promising a massive test for the winner.

Now, Mayor Sylvester Turner, having overhauled the city’s troubled pension systems, is running for re-election and touting the reforms as his signature policy accomplishment. He faces several challengers, including Bill King, the businessman he defeated four years ago, millionaire lawyer and self-funder Tony Buzbee, City Councilman Dwight Boykins who has clashed with the mayor over firefighter pay and former Councilwoman Sue Lovell, as well as a handful of lesser known candidates.

Whoever wins will be forced to confront another simmering financial problem: Houston’s $2.4 billion unfunded liability for retiree health care costs, the result of years of deferred contributions, an aging city workforce and, experts say, growing medical costs that outpace the city’s revenue.

The total has grown in recent years by an average of $160 million a year, or more than $400,000 a day. That is less than the $8.2 billion unfunded pension liability’s $1 million-per-day growth rate, but enough to require swift and sweeping changes, experts and local officials say.

“We’re in the earlier stages in this. It’s not a crisis by any means, but it would be better to address it now,” Controller Chris Brown said. “We don’t want to let this thing grow to another $8 billion unfunded liability. … Let’s pay a little now instead of paying a lot later.”

The unfunded liability refers to the city’s obligations in the coming decades for retired employees’ medical, life and prescription drug insurance, commonly called other post-employment benefits, or OPEB. Houston has covered its OPEB expenses through a pay-as-you-go system, akin to making a minimum credit card payment while the balance grows.

[…]

“We have also been in discussions with the employee groups working toward consensus, while keeping in mind the sacrifices employees have made to help us achieve the city’s historic pension reform,” Turner said.

The proposals align with recommendations from a separate firm, Philadelphia-based PFM, which said in its 10-year Houston financial plan the city should eliminate OPEB coverage altogether for retirees or dependents who have access to other coverage.

Other cities have taken a similar approach, limiting cuts for retirees and older employees who were promised certain benefits, while requiring bigger sacrifices from younger and future employees with more time to prepare.

The good news here is that the city doesn’t need to go through the Lege to fix this, and the basic plan for a fix is already in the works. Mayor Turner will be proposing his plan later in the year, and most likely that will put the city on a path towards containing this problem. There’s still a big piece of the puzzle missing, though.

Even after reigning in the city’s OPEB liability, Brown said, the city faces numerous looming financial problems, including annual deferred maintenance and, in the recent city budget, recurring spending that outstrips recurring revenue. In addition, Houston has been operating under a voter-imposed cap on property tax revenue since 2004 and has trimmed its tax rate to avoid collecting more money than allowed.

“This is another piece of the larger problem that’s looming for the city of Houston, which is the structurally imbalanced budget,” Brown said. “Essentially, we want to be paying for all of our current expenses in the fiscal year in full. And we don’t want to defer anything out, i.e. kick the can down the road.”

Yes, the revenue cap, which costs the city many millions of dollars for no good purpose. There’s a lot the city can do to control costs, but not everything is within its power. Some things just get more expensive over time, and if the city is not allowed to reap the benefit of economic growth, it cannot deal with those expenses. If we can get past this issue, and Mayor Turner gets re-elected, then maybe, just maybe, we can get a rev cap repeal measure on the 2020 ballot. There will never be a friendlier electorate to deal with t.

Ed Emmett is not a fan of SB2

So he opines.

Ed Emmett

At its core, SB 2 continues state leaders’ war against local governments. For years local governments have had to make up for the state’s underfunding of public education. But the state’s top elected officials, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, didn’t want the public to understand that those state budget decisions were the main reason property taxes were going up. So they criticized city and county policies.

In its final form, SB 2 limits revenue growth from property taxes for cities and counties to 3.5 percent annually. School districts are limited to 2.5 percent, although implementation for school districts is delayed for two years so that for now, the state won’t have to pay an even higher share.

The bill fails to recognize that Texas counties differ widely, so an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all approach is bad policy for a county such as Harris, where almost 2 million people live in the unincorporated part of the county and so rely on county government to provide roads, flood control, parks and other infrastructure — as well as law enforcement.

To make matters worse, the state has saddled counties with unfunded mandates, particularly in criminal justice and courts. The bond rating agencies have already issued warnings that the legislation might cause Texas local governments’ credit ratings to be downgraded, which will increase the amount of interest that taxpayers pay.

So when county services or infrastructure lag behind growth, don’t blame county government. Blame the state officials who supported SB 2.

Beyond the impact on local governments, SB 2 is actually bad for homeowners because it keeps in place a complicated, convoluted property tax system. The big winners from the so-called property tax reform are property tax consultants and their clients.

It is not a coincidence that the author of SB 2, Sen. Paul Bettencourt, makes his living as a property tax consultant. Bettencourt even had the audacity to advertise his services on the radio during the legislative session while SB 2 was being considered.

Sick burn, y’all. There sure is a certain freedom in not having to run for re-election. Emmett is of course correct about the main purpose of SB2, but let’s not overlook the side benefit.

The real goal of SB2

Let’s take a look at the quotes from the supporters of SB2, the new law that will impose revenue caps on all Texas cities, to see what they say about it.

“They’re going to have to start looking at spending this money like it was their own and not somebody else’s money,” said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. “And they’re going to have to look at priorities.”

[…]

But Ellen Troxclair, senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and former Austin City Council Member, said those dire warnings imply a city has no control over its spending.

The reason this bill was one of legislators’ top priorities this year, Troxclair said, is because Texans are frustrated by rising taxes, and if it forces cities to rethink their spending, that’s a positive.

“The bottom line of SB 2 is it brings the rate at which cities are spending money more in line with the people’s ability to pay,” Troxclair said. “I hope that what the cities do is hear the pleas from citizens who elected them to make more responsible decisions when it comes to spending.”

Troxclair added that the bill doesn’t stop cities from going to taxpayers and asking to raise their taxes above 3.5 percent if officials deem it necessary.

[…]

Austin and San Antonio, which both have the highest credit rating of AAA, are also concerned that the caps will have an effect on their ability to borrow. The nation’s three major credit rating agencies have warned that the caps could have a negative impact.

Bettencourt and Troxclair, however, dismissed those concerns, saying that as long as cities are being fiscally responsible, credit rating agencies will have no reason to dock their scores. Bettencourt added that SB 2 doesn’t affect the debt portion of the tax rate, which are set by bond elections.

SB2 was sold as a way of reining in property taxes, to provide savings to homeowners. (Renters are on their own, the Republicans don’t care about them.) But no honest broker actually believes there will be any real savings. Literally no one is going to review their household expenses at the end of a year and say “thank goodness for that revenue cap, it saved us so much money”. Just look at the Houston experience, in which the typical reduction in taxes is less than $100 per year, while the city has been starved of revenue. The whole point of this exercise to to constrain cities’ ability to prioritize its spending needs, because with a revenue cap property tax reduction, no matter how trivial, always comes first. Paul Bettencourt and his cronies want cities to spend less. If that means laying off employees, if it means deferring maintenance and repairs, if it means not offering new services to meet the needs of a changing and growing population, that’s too bad. Or not bad at all, from his perspective, because what does he care about any of that? He wants government at all levels to spend less – more specifically, to spend less on things he doesn’t like – and SB2 will help accomplish that goal. Mission accomplished.

Houston’s up-and-down population growth

It was up and now it’s down.

San Antonio gained 24,208 residents between July 1, 2016, and July 1, 2017, annual population estimates just released by the federal agency show. That amounts to an average of 66 people per day, the Census Bureau said.

The surge pushed the city’s population above 1.5 million for the first time. That marks an increase of almost 185,000 people in the city limits since the 2010 census.

San Antonio remains the seventh-largest city in the country. Its latest population estimate is 1,511,946.

[…]

By contrast, growth in Houston, which just a few years ago seemed poised to take over Chicago’s position as the third-largest city in the U.S., has hit a snag with fewer and fewer people moving there.

Houston added just over 8,000 residents, placing it seventh in growth among other Texas cities like Austin, Fort Worth, Dallas and San Antonio.

For five consecutive years from 2011 to 2015, Houston remained in the top three cities that had added the most people. But now the Bayou City — known for its sprawl and elastic economy — has fallen behind a trend that began in 2016 when Houston first showed signs of slowing down. The city recorded four consecutive years of averaging more than 30,000 new residents between 2011 and 2015.

[Texas State Demographer Lloyd] Potter says the substantial change in Houston growth is perplexing.

No demographic breakdown is available for the city population data just released, so there’s no way to know the ages, races, ethnicities or genders of San Antonio’s or Houston’s newest residents.

Couple things here. These are estimates based on available data, not on a count. They’re usually pretty good, but they’re not the official Census totals like what we will get next year, and they can be off by some amount. This is one reason why getting the most thorough and accurate count we can is so important, because every resident we overlook results in lost resources for the city. There’s no obvious reason for the deceleration – it could be just a blip – and it’s too soon to call it a trend, but it definitely bears watching.

Because, of course, Houston’s population growth affects its finances in more ways than just Census apportionments. The dumb and arbitrary formula used in the revenue cap combines population growth and inflation rate to set a limit on how much of a revenue increase the city is allowed to have. It doesn’t matter if new things are being built and old things are being renovated and upgraded, either we fall below the limit set by this number cooked up by the likes of Paul Bettencourt and Bruce Hotze or we are forced to throw away a few million dollars via a property tax rate cut that no one will notice. The whole point of the revenue cap is to constrain the city’s ability to provide services. It’s stupid policy pushed by people who did not and do not have Houston’s best interests at heart. And it has us stuck hoping this slowdown in population growth is just an aberration, because it will increase the pressure on our city finances if it is not.

Appeals court affirms pension bond lawsuit

Hope this is now over.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas 1st Court of Appeals has struck down an appeal from a Houston businessman who contested the city’s 2017 pension bond referendum, appearing to end the legal challenge that began almost a year and a half ago.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office had denied former housing director James Noteware’s allegation that the mayor misled voters into approving the $1 billion bond sale with a “materially misleading ballot description.”

Noteware claimed that the election authorized the city to pay off the bonds by levying a tax that exceeds its voter-imposed revenue cap.

A state district judge last year dismissed Noteware’s claim without ruling on his motion for summary judgment in the case.

In the ruling, the judge agreed with the city’s argument that the court lacked jurisdiction because Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had issued an opinion approving and validating the bonds, while Noteware’s claim “depends on contingent or hypothetical facts.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for the ruling. Noteware’s claims are summarized in the Chron story, while the city countered that 1) the Attorney General certified the bonds as being in compliance with the revenue cap; 2) the election was held, the bonds were sold, and the taxes to pay for them were levied, so there’s no action for the court to take; and 3) any claim that payment of the bond may violate the revenue cap in the future cannot be litigated now. The court accepted the city’s arguments and the appeals court upheld the ruling. Based on this ruling, it’s theoretically possible there could be future litigation over that last point, but if so it will most likely be someone else’s problem.

More info on the school finance bill

Here’s what we know.

Before final negotiations, the House’s version of HB 3 cost $9.4 billion, and the Senate’s cost a whopping $14.8 billion, according to Texas Education Agency calculations. The final cost is around $11.6 billion, according to lawmakers, though an official cost analysis has not been made public.

The House wanted to raise the base funding per student from $5,140 to $6,030, while the Senate wanted to raise it to $5,880. They decided on an even higher number of $6,160.

Both chambers had previously agreed to spend $6.3 billion on public education, including salary increases for teachers, and $2.7 billion for property tax cuts. This final bill appears to include about $6.5 billion for public education, including extra raises and benefits for school employees, and $5.1 billion for tax cuts.

Lawmakers estimated the negotiated version of the bill would lower tax rates by an average of 8 cents per $100 valuation in 2020 and 13 cents in 2021. That would mean a tax cut of $200 for the owner of a $250,000 home in 2020 and $325 in 2021. Legislators also said it would increase the state’s share of public education funding to 45% from 38%. They said it would lower school districts’ cumulative recapture payments, which wealthier districts pay to subsidize poorer districts, by $3.6 billion over two years.

[…]

In the negotiation, lawmakers also decided to drastically change the formulas that determine how local and state funding is allocated to school districts — taking heavily from the Senate’s school finance proposal.

The House had proposed a decrease in school district tax rates by 4 cents per $100 valuation statewide, as well as a mechanism to further decrease higher tax rates. State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, unveiled a version of HB 3 near the end of April — relatively late in the legislative process — that included billions of dollars to lower rates by about 15 cents per $100 valuation, more than either chamber had budgeted.

The negotiated bill lowers tax rates statewide by 7 cents per $100 valuation, with the potential to go lower in future years. That’s a $175 annual cut for the owner of a $250,000 home, not counting other mechanisms in the bill to lower tax rates further.

According to lawmakers, HB 3 includes about $5.1 billion for school district tax cuts — again, more than the initial budget proposal of $2.7 billion. Some of the additional money comes from a new fund established to pay for those cuts. The state comptroller is required to deposit some money from the Available School Fund, which provides funding for schools derived from state-owned land and fuel taxes, and some money from an online sales tax into the new fund.

It is not immediately clear exactly what other sources of money contribute to cuts this biennium or how lawmakers expect to pay for tax cuts in the future. The bill requires the state’s nonpartisan budget board to study potential sources of money for future school district tax cuts and their anticipated impacts on taxpayers, schools and the state.

There’s more, but it doesn’t really answer my initial questions. I hope someone I trust who knows this stuff well comes forward with an analysis, because this is big stuff and it’s going to get passed in the next day or two without a whole lot of public vetting.

Also, too, there are the property tax changes.

In its final form, Senate Bill 2, the reform package, appears to have changed little from when it passed out of the House earlier this month on a 109 to 36 margin.

If signed into law, the measure would require cities, counties and emergency service districts to receive voter approval before raising 3.5% more property tax revenue than the previous year. Community colleges and hospital districts will need to hold an election before surpassing 8% property tax revenue growth.

The constraints only apply to revenue collected on existing property, not new developments.

School districts appear to have been carved out of the bill, but their tax revenue increases are constrained in a high-priority public education bill, House Bill 3. That legislation could lower school tax rates by an average of 8 cents per $100 valuation in 2020 and 13 cents in 2021. For the owner of a $250,000 house, that could yield a tax cut of $200 in 2020 and $325 in 2021.

Currently, taxing units can raise 8% more property tax revenue before their voters can petition to roll back the increase. The 8% figure was set during a period of high-inflation in the 1980s.

The final version of the bill, now titled the Texas Property Tax Reform and Transparency Act, appears to have several provisions intended to add flexibility around the reduced election trigger.

Some of the money taxing units spend providing indigent defense attorneys and indigent healthcare would not be factored into the revenue growth calculation. Taxing units would be able to bank unused revenue growth for three years, allowing them to exceed the 3.5% threshold in some of them. And tax districts can raise $500,000 without having to hold an election, as long as that increase does not exceed 8% revenue growth.

Again, what I really want to know is how this will affect the big cities like Houston, because we’ve had a big target on our backs this session. Thankfully, some of the nastier bills did not survive, but cities’ revenues have already been reduced, for no obvious reason. I just want to know at this point how much worse things will be. And how it will change in the coming years.

A tale of screwed cities

That’s my unofficial title for this legislative session.

The interest group representing Texas cities used to be one of the most powerful legislative forces at the Capitol. This session, it has become the GOP’s most prominent adversary.

Its members have been harangued at hearings. Targeted by a proposed ban on “taxpayer-funded lobbying.” And seen multiple proposals sail ahead over its protests.

When, around March, one mayor inquired about the reasoning for a controversial provision in a property tax bill, he said an advisor to Gov. Greg Abbott suggested, “you reap what you sow.”

The message was clear, said McKinney Mayor George Fuller: Local officials had been obstructionists in the past.

Though the antagonistic relationship between Texas cities and the state has been building for years, this session has reached the fever pitch of all out legislative assault, said Austin Mayor Steve Adler, in April. Typically, the Texas Municipal League tracks bills it opposes that are gaining momentum in the Legislature. This session, the group had amassed more than 150.

Among them, was a cable franchise fees bill authored by state Rep. Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and chair of the powerful State Affairs Committee. After the Texas Municipal League warned its members the proposal could cut into cities’ revenue, Phelan had a concise response for the group, which represents 1,156 of Texas’ roughly 1,200 cities.

“When you are in a hole — you should stop digging,” Phelan recommended, in an email obtained by The Texas Tribune.

In an interview, Phelan said he harbored no animus toward the organization, but took umbrage with its opposition to legislation his constituents want. The sentiment is widely-shared in the Legislature, Phelan said, as evidenced by the support the bills on taxpayer-funded lobbying and franchise fees have garnered.

“Those bills have never gotten out of committee before,” he said. The Texas Municipal League represents “their own interests and we are representing the taxpayers.”

“I think there’s a disconnect sometimes,” he added.

The group’s leaders see a different trend. They say model legislation with an anti-city bent has been exported from conservative think tanks and taken root at statehouses across the country. At the same time, Republican strongholds have shifted to the suburbs, making progressive city leaders convenient whipping boys for politicians from the president on down.

There’s more, so go read the rest. It really does boil down to two things. One is the Republicans’ refusal to address our tax system in a meaningful way. There are things we could do to make the property tax system more equitable. There are things we could do with sales taxes to bring in more revenue in a way that wouldn’t be so regressive. Our whole tax system is a byzantine mess, but the only thing that we’re allowed to talk about is cutting property taxes. This session that means putting the screws to cities, even though local property taxes aren’t driving the growth of property tax collections. The Republicans are looking for a political solution, and cities are a convenient target.

Which leads to point two: Cities are liberal and Democratic, so it’s a twofer for state Republicans to stick it to them. And don’t think that having a Republican mayor would change anything:

“I understand the political atmosphere to reduce taxes; there’s no one that would be more aligned with that than I am,” said El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a former Republican state lawmaker. “But I’m also trying to deal with basics. I say I’m the mayor of public safety, potholes, and parks.”

El Paso’s property values — and so its tax base — is growing at a slower clip than other parts of the state, he said. Though the factors differ from city to city, each municipality has different needs and budgets, and local leaders say they are unaccounted for under a blanket property tax reform policy.

“The frustration is that we are grouped, coupled with across-the-board perceptions,” Margo said.

That’s because your Republican former colleagues don’t care about any of that, Mayor Margo. The only way forward here is to vote them out.

Mediation fails to achieve Prop B agreement

I have three things to say about this.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday said a court-appointed mediator has declared negotiations between the city and firefighters union over the implementation of Proposition B at impasse, potentially leaving the future of the measure in the hands of a state district judge.

The announcement ends what had appeared to be some progress toward resolving the months-long dispute over how to phase in raises to firefighters required by the pay parity measure voters approved last November. The charter amendment requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police of corresponding rank and experience.

[…]

State district Judge Tanya Garrison had ordered the city, firefighters and the Houston Police Officers Union into non-binding mediation three weeks ago. Garrison’s order came as part of a legal battle between the three sides over the constitutionality of Prop B; she declined to rule on that issue until the three parties reached a settlement on implementation or an impasse was declared by the third-party mediator.

The three groups had met at least three times since.

At issue is how to implement the raises. The fire union has said it would ask its members to consider a three-and-a-half-year phase-in as long as no firefighters are demoted or laid off. Turner had said the city cannot avoid layoffs unless Prop B raises are phased in over five years.

At a Friday morning press conference, however, Turner said the city had agreed to the fire union’s previous offer to phase in the raises over three and a half years, with no firefighters demoted or laid off.

Turner said the union then refused to accept that agreement, as well as another offer that would have given it hundreds of millions of dollars in a block grant-like arrangement that the union could use at its discretion.

He accused the union of repeatedly “moving the goal posts,” and said that agreeing to its full demands would devastate Houston’s finances and credit rating.

“The city cannot go beyond what we have proposed without bankrupting the city,” he said. “As long as I am mayor, we are not going to bankrupt this city. Everyone in the city would pay the price.”

Mediator David Matthiesen did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

In a statement, the fire union said it had agreed to take a four-year phase-in to its members if pay parity was implemented “effective immediately,” the city agreed to no layoffs and if the city disclosed “what each firefighter will earn in salary and incentive pay.”

HPFFA President Marty Lancton also said the city demanded in negotiations that Prop B be rescinded and declared unconstitutional, a request he adamantly opposed.

“Citizens’ rights to petition the local government must be protected,” he said.

1. You really have to admire Marty Lancton’s ability to keep the focus of this debate on one point, which is the pay raise that the voters agreed to give the firefighters. The fight here is not over whether or not to implement Prop B, it’s over how to do it. That’s what the mediation was about, that’s what the layoffs are about. The firefighters don’t like the way the city is implementing Prop B and have been complaining nonstop – and very successfully, at least from a short term political perspective – about it. Their grievance is that some firefighters will be laid off, and some others demoted, in order for the city to pay for Prop B. If the city had decided instead to lay off police officers, solid waste workers, and more municipal employees instead, there’s nothing in the firefighters’ rhetoric to suggest they’d have had a problem with that. Beyond the fact that it was clear from the beginning that the city could not afford Prop B, this right here is why I don’t have much sympathy for the firefighters.

2. That said, part of the litigation that was brought by the police officers’ union was a claim that Prop B is illegal and should be invalidated by the court. The argument here is that the pay parity law conflicts with state law about collective bargaining. I Am Not A Lawyer, and I have no insight into that question. I had thought originally that the litigation over Prop B would follow the template of previous lawsuits over city referenda and be about ballot language. I was wrong about that, which is why I like to emphasize my not-a-lawyer status in these matters. Be that as it may, it seems like a big stretch to get an election overturned. I will be surprised if Judge Garrison (who, full disclosure, is a friend of mine) rules for the plaintiffs. But again, I Am Not A Lawyer, so place your bets at your own risk.

3. The last couple of paragraphs in this story are about how the people other than Sylvester Turner who are running for Mayor are also critical of his handling of Prop B implementation, without a single word being quoted about what these alternative Mayors think should be done instead. They don’t like what the Mayor is doing, they oppose what the Mayor is doing, but what would they be doing if they were Mayor? You cannot tell from reading this story. Perhaps the reporter chose not to include what they said about that, perhaps the story editor excised it for space, or perhaps none of them had anything useful to say on the topic. You can probably guess which one I think it is.

School finance and property tax update

From last week.

Rep. Dustin Burrows

Blasting the Senate for taking a symbolic approach on school district taxes, a panel of House lawmakers heavily altered then approved the upper chamber’s version of priority property tax legislation late Thursday. And committee members pointedly included a provision meant to rebut claims that they were not committed to wholesale reform.

The chair of the tax-writing Ways and Means committee, state Rep. Dustin Burrows, said the House had kept a provision in Senate Bill 2 that attempts to constrain school district property taxes. While he and finance experts have said the language needs to be addressed in the Education Code, there “is an intent in the Senate to symbolically express that they are committed to lowering school property taxes,” Burrows said.

“Well, because of that, I want to make sure that the House also expresses its full commitment to lowering people’s property tax bills related to schools,” the Lubbock Republican said.

The Senate had tried to limit schools’ tax rate increases to 2.5%, without an election.

“We actually used a 2.0 number,” Burrows said, “to show that the House is equally as committed to doing significant things this session for the property taxpayers of the state of Texas.”

The insertion of the 2.0 figure may be a dig at hardline conservatives and Senate lawmakers, who have suggested the House gutted its own property tax reform package when they removed school district language from it in March. The lower chamber’s approach, however, has earned the backing of experts who say a separate public education bill is the most feasible way to make changes to the school finance system.

“To do property tax reform for schools, you really have to do it in the Education Code. I think that all of the experts agree,” Burrows said. “This bill has never touched the Education Code. It can’t touch the Education Code, that is House Bill 3,” he said, referencing the lower chamber’s omnibus school finance package.

As adopted in a 8-3 vote Thursday, SB 2 now closely resembles House Bill 2, a companion measure passed by the House committee last month — even taking on the same name: The Texas Taxpayer Transparency Act. The Democratic vice chair of the committee, state Rep. Ryan Guillen, joined Republicans in support of SB 2’s passage Thursday.

In the latest version of the bill:

  • Cities, counties and emergency service districts must hold an election if they wish to raise 3.5% more property tax revenue than the previous year
  • Those entities can increase their property tax levies by $500,000 a year, without triggering an election
  • Other taxing units — namely, hospital districts and community colleges — remain at an 8% election trigger, with Burrows’ citing the inflation of medical and education expenses
  • Homestead exemptions offered by local municipalities can be factored into the revenue growth calculation, preventing cities and counties from being penalized if they offer their residents tax reductions
  • A five-year carry-over provision lets taxing units bank unused revenue growth

[…]

A final change Thursday makes passage of SB 2 contingent on HB 3’s approval.

“These two are tied together,” Burrows said.

See here for more about HB3, and here for more on SB2. Ross Ramsey gets into the politics of the moment, which includes the Republican leadership’s continuing fealty to the property tax for sales tax swap that isn’t going anywhere. It’s hard to compare, because each session is its own story, but it sure feels to me like not a whole lot has happened so far, with less than five weeks to go. The big ticket items dragging along and seeming to go nowhere isn’t unusual, but what else has even made it to the floor of the other chamber? Not that I’m complaining, mind you, I’m just curious. Word is that SB2 will be up in the House today, so we’ll see how it goes. There’s still a wide range of possible outcomes.

What will Council do about Prop B layoffs?

We’re gonna find out.

Mayor Sylvester Turner told the Houston fire union Monday he would provide it with financial data leaders requested, a sign of progress at a critical point in negotiations between the mayor and union to phase in Proposition B raises for firefighters.

Officials from the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association have asked Turner to open the city’s books, allowing firefighters to verify that the mayor’s offer to phase in the pay raises over multiple years honors the terms of the charter amendment, which requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

Turner’s refusal to do so has been a key sticking point preventing a deal, union President Marty Lancton said.

The development comes two days before Houston city council is scheduled to consider a measure to lay off 220 Houston firefighters, which Turner has said is necessary to offset the cost of pay raises if Prop. B is not phased in over multiple years.

[…]

Fire Chief Sam Peña said he was “encouraged” by Monday’s talks, even if they did not produce immediate results.

“Anytime we’re sitting at the table and having a conversation is progress,” he said.

Peña said he was not sure whether Wednesday’s scheduled council vote would be delayed, but the department is moving ahead with implementation of Prop B anyway.

“The process needs to move forward, because the books do need to be balanced by the end of the fiscal year” in June, he said. Among the biggest changes Peña has sought is a switch from a four-shift work schedule for firefighters to three. Currently, firefighters work 20 24-hour shifts every 72 days, with occasional extra shifts for which Peña has said there is a high absentee rate.

The new, three-shift model would give firefighters regular days off. Peña said he was considering that switch even before Prop B’s passage as a way to save money that could be reinvested in fleet upgrades, among other things. Now, he said, it is about maintaining public safety while confronting HFD’s roughly $25 million share of Prop B’s annual costs.

The proposal headed to council on Wednesday shows that most of the staff reductions would come from firefighters, engineers and captains, though Pena said that absent any phase-in agreement, some employees could be demoted instead of having their positions absorbed through attrition.

See here for the background, and here for Mayor Turner’s letter. According to KUHF, the firefighters’ union tentatively agreed to the 3.5-year phase-in idea, though it sounds like there may still be sticking points as Mayor Turner is not saying that will eliminate layoffs – he’s been clear about needing a five-year plan for that – but merely reducing them. Like I said, we’ll see. In the meantime, 47 city employees who had nothing to do with foisting a large new budget item on us received their layoff notices late last week. I personally find that to be the most upsetting part of this whole saga. Just so we’re all clear, the stupid revenue cap prevents the city from raising taxes to pay for Prop B, and the city charter mandates a balanced budget. That’s why layoffs are inevitable barring a sufficiently slow phase-in. It was true (and communicated) before Prop B was ratified, and it remains true now.

House approves budget, and other news

Always a major milestone.

In Dennis Bonnen’s first major test as speaker of the Texas House, the chamber he oversees resoundingly passed a $251 billion budget Wednesday after a long but largely civil debate — a departure from the dramatics that have typically defined such an affair.

Though lawmakers proposed more than 300 amendments to the spending plan, Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and his chief budget writer, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, finished the night with their budget plan largely intact. After 11 hours of relatively cordial discussion, lawmakers agreed to withdraw the vast majority of their amendments or move them to a wish list portion of the budget, where they are highly unlikely to become law.

The budget passed unanimously on the final vote. The legislation, House Bill 1, now heads to the Senate, whose Finance Committee was set to discuss its budget plan Thursday.

“I’m proud of where we are in the bill that we are sending to the Senate,” Zerwas said at the end of the marathon debate. “Each and every one of you should be incredibly proud of the work that you’ve put in here.”

The two-year spending plan’s highlight — a $9 billion boost in state funding for the public education portion of the budget — remained unchanged. Of that, $6 billion would go to school districts, and the remaining $3 billion would pay for property tax relief, contingent on lawmakers passing a school finance reform package.

The budget plan would spend $2 billion from the state’s savings account, commonly known as the rainy day fund, which holds more than $11 billion.

“I’m not here to compare it to previous sessions,” Bonnen told reporters after the House budget vote. “But I’m here to tell you we had a great tone and tenor tonight, and I’m very proud of the business that we did.”

[…]

So while Bonnen’s first budget night as speaker was hardly free of controversy — an argument over the effectiveness of the state’s “Alternatives to Abortion” program, for example, derailed movement on amendments for nearly an hour — the occasional spats paled in comparison with those of years past. There were no discussions at the back microphone of lawmakers’ sexual histories, as happened in 2015, and no one had to physically restrain House members to prevent a fistfight over the fate of a feral hog abatement program, as happened in 2017.

Still, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, continued his long-running campaign against the feral hog program. And though the exchange ranked among the evening’s rowdiest, it was more than tame by last session’s standards.

State Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, again opposed Stickland’s amendment to defund the program, which reimburses local initiatives to eradicate wild hogs. Stickland responded, “Members, although I respect the thoughtful words of Rep. Springer … let’s end this program right here, right now.”

Stickland’s amendment failed, with just four votes in favor.

See here for more on last session’s House budget debate. One should never miss an opportunity to illustrate Jonathan Stickland’s failures. The House also approved a supplementary budget for the previous biennium, to cover expenditures that were not previously appropriated, such as the traditional underestimating of Medicaid’s costs and all of the Harvey recovery funding.

Speaking of revenues:

House Republicans muscled a heavily altered version of their property tax reform bill through a committee early Thursday, notching a single Democratic vote and swiftly shooting down attempts to further modify the draft.

A top priority for state leaders, House Bill 2 would require cities, counties and other taxing units to receive voter approval before levying 2.5 percent more property tax revenue than the previous year. A vote was expected to come Wednesday morning on a new draft of the legislation, which contains changes likely to appease small and special taxing units but leave big municipal leaders staunchly opposed.

But the hearing on the new version was postponed until past midnight. The 16-hour delay gave an unusual cluster of critics time to trumpet their concerns with the measure — and then for top House leaders to respond in an informal late-night news conference.

“Sometimes when everyone’s a little bit upset with you, maybe you have a good balance — that’s probably a good sign,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dustin Burrows, the author of the legislation and a Lubbock Republican. “We worked really hard; we talked to a lot of different constituencies” and a lot of members. “I think you’ll see in the committee substitute, the work product and a lot of collaboration.”

As amended, HB 2 now exempts community colleges, emergency service districts and hospital districts from abiding by the 2.5 percent election trigger. Another provision lets certain districts, including cities and counties, bank unused revenue growth, so long as they average below 2.5 percent over five years. And new “revenue enrichment” language could cushion some taxing units by letting them raise $250,000 in new property taxes a year, even if it exceeded the growth rate. The threshold, set at $250,000 for 2020, would be adjusted by the state comptroller annually, based on inflation.

[…]

Currently, voters can petition for an election if property tax revenue growth exceeds 8 percent, a rate set during a period of high inflation in the 1980s. State leaders have touted the lower chamber’s proposal and a Senate companion as an overdue correction and as a needed check on spiraling property tax bills. But critics say the reform efforts would not reduce tax bills, just slow the rate at which they grow — and, in the process, hamper local officials’ ability to provide public services for growing populations.

As you know, I oppose revenue caps, no matter how well intentioned. The reason the Lege ties itself into knots every two years in a vain attempt to limit property tax growth is that a taxing system that so heavily relies on property taxes fundamentally relies on a system that is divorced from people’s ability to afford their taxes. As I muse every two years, if only there were some system of taxation that was proportional to how much money people made in a given year, that would solve so many of these problems. Too bad no such system exists anywhere in the world.

Of course, another way to limit property tax growth for homeowners would be to ensure that everyone is paying their fair share of property taxes.

As state leaders promote their property tax reform package as needed relief for everyday Texans, some Democrats and county appraisers suggest a provision in the tax code has stacked the system in favor of corporations that can appeal their valuations with a combativeness most homeowners can’t muster.

At issue: a 1997 amendment, drafted by a prominent tax attorney, that critics say has allowed business and industry to lower their property tax burden at the expense of other taxpayers. The provision offers all Texans a way to fight their appraisals by arguing they were treated unfairly compared to other properties. But critics say large property owners have capitalized on it to drive down their costs, while residences and small businesses can’t afford to do the same.

“If you have a whole category of property that is nonresidential systematically paying less, well who do you think is paying more?” said Bexar County chief appraiser Michael Amezquita.

Amezquita is one of several officials who say their districts have been inundated by appeals and lawsuits from commercial owners trying to lower their appraisals, which determine what taxes are owed on a property. Supporters of the “equity” provision say it’s a critical tool for all property owners, and that commercial properties aren’t afforded the tax exemptions many home and agricultural land owners receive. Critics counter only well-funded property owners can afford to sue — and when they do, there’s often little an appraisal district can do to fight back.

“The deck is stacked against us,” said Amezquita, who has been sued by a J.W. Marriott resort seeking to have its taxable value reduced. A spokeswoman for the hotel declined comment.

I’ve written about this before. This issue of equity appeals was a cornerstone of Mike Collier’s campaign for Lt. Governor. We’d be having a much broader conversation about fairness and equity in taxation if he had won that race, but he didn’t and so we aren’t. Better luck next time, I guess.

Anyway. The Senate still has to approve its budget, and school finance reform remains a work in progress. There’s a decent amount of harmony now, but plenty of opportunities for tension, drama, and good old fashioned nastiness remain. Which is as it should be.

How would you implement Prop B?

Here, from last week, is Mayor Turner’s official announcement about layoffs, following a failure to come to an agreement with the firefighters’ union about a time frame to fully implement Prop B. Here’s the Chron story about the firefighters protesting the layoffs, which we knew were coming – indeed, we’d known since last year, as that was one of the main points Mayor Turner made during the Prop B campaign. The Chron editorial board agrees with Turner that given the limited options available, layoffs are the only reasonable choice.

Now, to be sure, there is the garbage fee proposal, which Council will vote on this week. It would, at least in theory, pay for the increased costs that Prop B imposes, though there are objections. I’ve laid some of them out – a trash fee should be used for solid waste collection, the potential for litigation is non-trivial – and I’ll add another one here: If a garbage fee is the mechanism for funding Prop B, that necessarily means that only some Houstonians are contributing to that. Anyone who doesn’t live in a house that has city of Houston solid waste service would not be subject to this fee. (At least, I assume so – it’s not clear to me how this fee will be assessed.) Maybe you think that’s a big deal and maybe you don’t, but I guarantee someone will complain about it.

So the question remains, how would you implement Prop B? We all agree Prop B will cost some money to implement. The firefighters have never put a dollar figure on it themselves – they have made claims that the fire department brings in revenues that could be spent on the fire department instead of other things, which doesn’t actually solve anything but just recapitulates the argument that the city should spend more on firefighters. Raising the property tax rate is out, as it would violate the stupid revenue cap. Indeed, as we know, the city has had to cut the tax rate multiple times in recent years, costing itself a lot of revenue in the process. The basic options are a flawed fee that will charge some households up to $300 a year and others nothing, and layoffs. And if you’re going to do layoffs, the ones that make the most sense are the firefighters themselves, as the vast majority of calls to HFD are for emergency medical services and not fires – EMTs are cheaper to hire, don’t require expensive fire trucks to get to where they’re going, and aren’t in scope of Prop B. And that, barring any late-breaking agreement to implement Prop B more slowly, is what we are going to get.

So then, what if anything would you do differently? I’m open to suggestion.

UPDATE: Here’s City Controller Chris Brown saying the cost of Prop B is unsustainable outside an agreement to phase it in over five years, which is what the city has been pushing for.

Garbage fee on the agenda

I don’t think this is going to pass, but it will get a vote.

CM Dwight Boykins

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said he would put a proposed garbage fee on next week’s city council agenda, but will not vote for it.

Turner agreed to put the idea promoted by Councilman Dwight Boykins as a way to to offset the cost of firefighter raises mandated by Proposition B to a council vote, even as he called it “regressive” and said it would hurt low-income Houstonians.

“I will put it on the council agenda next week to let council members have their say, but I will not vote to impose this fee on the people of Houston,” he said on Twitter.

[…]

Boykins’ original proposal largely fell flat among his council colleagues, some of whom said the fees were far too high. Boykins since has floated lower rates, and said Wednesday that he would call for fees between $19 and $27 a month when council votes.

In a statement Wednesday, Boykins said he was the “only member of City Council to put forth a proposal that creates a steady revenue stream while preventing massive and destructive layoffs.”

“My proposal is an alternative that secures public safety while saving the jobs of up to 500 firefighters, 200 police officers and up to 300 city employees,” Boykins said. “It’s an opportunity for city leaders to lead, and I hope my colleagues will join me in supporting this measure.

See here for the background. As you know, I support the concept of a garbage fee for the purpose of improving and expanding our existing solid waste services. I don’t support it for other purposes, such as using it to pay for firefighter raises. Fees are generally exempt from the revenue cap stricture – Mayor Parker raised a bunch of fees as part of her budget-balancing in 2010-2011, with some language at the time about what it cost to provide various services and how the fees for one service should not be subsidizing the cost of another. That said, I would wonder if something like this, which is both a big increase in what most people pay each year plus an obvious ploy to raise money to pay for something else, would run into a lawsuit challenging its validity under the revenue cap. Surely someone will seize on the opportunity to cause trouble. Be that as it may, the first question is who will vote for this. My gut says Boykins will have some support, but probably not a majority. But who knows? We’ll find out next week.

One more thing:

If the Mayor is opposed [to the garbage fee proposal], why put it on the agenda?

For one thing, so the firefighters will not be able to claim later on that Turner never even put a valid proposal to pay for Prop B up for a vote. The ads write themselves – “He never even gave it a fair chance!” They can still claim he opposed it, of course, but if Council votes it down by (say) a 12-5 margin, that takes some of the bite out of it. Also, too, by letting the vote go on there will necessarily be a discussion about how much the fee would be, which might make people think a bit differently about Prop B. It’s not like the firefighters ever put a price tag on it, after all. If people realize that paying for Prop B will cost them personally $200 to $300 a year – down from $300 to $500 as in the original proposal from Boykins – they might see the Mayor’s point more closely. Finally, if Turner is wrong and the proposal passes, he no longer has to lay anyone off and he can let individual Council members explain their vote. I think letting the garbage fee be voted on makes more sense from Turner’s perspective than refusing to put it on the agenda would have.

Firefighter layoffs

Hoo boy.

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to lay off up to 400 firefighters as he prepares to award pay raises required by Proposition B, the voter-approved charter amendment that grants firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank, according to five Houston City Council members who were briefed on the plan Thursday.

The apparent move to fully implement the pay parity measure comes after talks between the city and fire union about phasing in the raises over five or more years became strained last week. Meanwhile, city officials are preparing council members for the difficult task of closing a $197 million deficit in the annual budget that must be adopted for the upcoming July 1 fiscal year. About $80 million of that budget gap comes from the firefighters’ raises, council members were told.

In addition to the firefighter layoffs, Turner will seek to close the deficit by asking all city departments to cut their budgets by at least 3 percent, a move that is likely to require layoffs of, perhaps, 100 municipal workers, the council members said. Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said she was told no police officers will be laid off.

On May 9, Turner’s administration plans to issue back pay to firefighters retroactive to Jan. 1, which will total about $30 million, multiple council members said.

“So, basically, on May 9 you want to be hanging out near a firefighter because he’s going to be buying,” said Councilman Greg Travis. “He’s going to have a lot of money on that day.”

The city plans to mail layoff notices to firefighters within weeks, Travis said. Among the layoffs are 68 fire cadets who Turner has declined to promote amid a citywide hiring freeze than has spanned more than five months. The mayor nonetheless promoted more than 60 police cadets Monday.

The fire cadets filed grievances against Turner Thursday alleging that the mayor was discriminating and retaliating against them.

[…]

Turner, who repeatedly has warned of potential layoffs, told reporters his hands were tied because the charter amendment did not come with a funding mechanism. He also said the fire union rejected a city proposal to phase in pay raises. That offer did not appear to fully implement the charter amendment over the city’s proposed five-year window, falling short of increases in incentive pay that the finance department projects would be necessary to reach full parity.

“People want to put the administration in a box,” Turner said. “If you don’t implement Prop. B, people criticize you for not implementing Proposition B. When we move to implement Prop. B, people say, ‘We don’t want the layoffs.’ Well, you can’t have it both ways.”

During negotiations, the firefighters proposed to phase in Prop. B raises over three years, retroactive to July 1, 2018. The raises then would be distributed based on firefighters’ length of service, with all members reaching full parity by July 1, 2020.

No one can say they didn’t see this coming. One of the main arguments against Prop B was the cost, which would inevitably lead to layoffs because the vast majority of the city’s expenditures are personnel costs. It seems a little crazy that there wasn’t a way to agree to a phase in to avoid any drastic actions, but here we are. Note that the city has very limited capacity to raise revenues thanks to the stupid and harmful revenue cap, and the city is not allowed to run a deficit. That severely restricts options, and that’s the place we are in now. We’ve been through this before, back in 2010 when then-Mayor Parker faced a huge deficit caused by the downturn in the economy. She wound up laying off hundred of municipal employees. Police and firefighters were exempted from that, but this time it’s the firefighter pay parity referendum that is driving a big part of the deficit. Where should the cuts come from this time? You tell me.

One uncertainty appeared to stem from differences in educational requirements between the departments. For example, police officers must have a master’s degree to be promoted to assistant police chief, a stipulation that does not exist for assistant fire chiefs and fire marshals. Some firefighters may receive reduced raises due to the differing requirements, multiple council members said, explaining why the latest cost estimate of $80 million falls more than $30 million below Turner’s previous estimate.

There is speculation this will lead to a lawsuit. I’ve expected that from the beginning. And I fully expect it will still be litigated the next time the Mayor is on the ballot in 2023.

Always beware revenue caps

They’re always a bad idea.

Flanked by the state’s top legislative leaders, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that both chambers of the Texas Legislature will push to curb property tax growth by limiting how much money local governments collect without voter approval.

Fellow Republicans Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, as well as the heads of both chambers’ tax-writing committees, joined Abbott in making the announcement. Their news conference followed the filing of identical bills in both chambers, Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 2.

Abbott said it was “completely unprecedented” for lawmakers to be so closely aligned on such an important issue this early in the session.

“Most importantly, it’s a testament to the voters in this state,” he said. “The voters demanded this, and this demonstrates that the Texas Legislature is responsive to the needs of our voters.”

But two Democrats who sit on the House Ways and Means Committee said the proposed legislation is far from being a done deal. And an advocate for city governments said there are plenty of unintended consequences that need to be worked out. Chief among them is ensuring that cities aren’t suddenly unable to afford police officers and firefighters.

Thursday’s bills seek to require voters to approve tax rates that allow government entities like cities, counties and school districts to collect an additional 2.5 percent in revenues from existing property compared with a previous year. The threshold would not apply to small taxing units — those with potential property and sales tax collections of $15 million or less.

Currently, cities and counties can collect an additional 8 percent in revenues without involving voters. But even then, residents must collect enough signatures to force an election. The new pair of bills would automatically trigger what’s called a rollback election. If voters shoot down the measure, the government entity would have to set a tax rate that allows it only to collect revenues from existing properties that are less than 2.5 percent more than the previous year.

The rollback rate is also based on the appraised value of properties within a taxing unit’s borders. That means a city or county could hit the rollback election threshold without changing its tax rate — or even if it lowers the tax rate — if there is a significant increase in local property values.

The legislation does not apply a cap to individual property tax bills. Because it would limit only how much government entities can collect in property tax revenues before getting voter approval, an agency could stay below the rollback election rate, and that portion of a property owner’s tax bill could still increase.

Local officials are almost certain to to push back. Bennett Sandlin is the executive director of the Texas Municipal League, which advocates for city governments. His organization estimates that about 150 of the state’s largest cities would be affected if the legislation passes. He said that the rollback threshold is lower than inflation and could prevent cities from paying for first responders’ raises, filling potholes, and keeping recreation centers or libraries open.

As the story notes, this is more ambitious than what Abbott and Patrick pushed for in 2017, and they’re doing it with smaller majorities. On the other hand, these are the highest-priority bills they have (hence the HB2 and SB2 designations), and they’re no doubt going to go all out. It’s very possible they could succeed.

But here’s the thing. This is what they rolled out after making big promises about reforming school finance and giving more money to schools. Did you notice what was missing in this rollowt?

They were so tuned in to their harmonic convergence, they didn’t talk much about what their legislation would actually do, leaving the details to the bill sponsors to explain later.

They did say they were going for a 2.5-percent growth limit on property taxes in local school districts, cities, counties and other government bodies. It’s aimed at overall taxes, a leash on the overall mix of property values and tax rates that determine what happens to the average taxpayer’s bill. Anything that increases a local government’s property tax revenues by more than that would trigger an automatic November election asking voters for permission.

You might wonder how public education is going to get more financial help, as proposed by this same group of elected officials, if the state is going to limit school districts’ ability to levy taxes.

The short answer is that the state’s going to pay for it. The House’s proposed budget for the next two years adds billions to what the state is spending on schools. The Senate’s plan doesn’t spend as much, but the increases are significant (and in one case, more specific: Patrick has proposed $3.7 billion in teacher pay raises). Abbott floated the idea of holding down local taxes and tax increases — an answer to loud and persistent complaints about property taxes — and increasing state spending to fill the gap. And Comptroller Glenn Hegar, the fourth official at those weekly breakfasts, has proposed requiring the state to pay at least 40 percent of the cost of public education, along with any increases due to inflation.

But they haven’t said where the state money will come from. Nobody in the state government’s high places has proposed raising a tax, cutting other state spending to produce money for education, or weeding through the state’s tax exemptions and loopholes to shore up the state’s share of the public education load.

In other words, right now it’s all underpants gnomes. I don’t know about you, but I’m not expecting much more in the way of details about how this is supposed to do all the things they say it will do.

We’ll have to wait a little longer for the inevitable Prop B lawsuit

It’s still coming, just not, like, today.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said he would delay a City Council vote to hire a law firm to represent the city in possible litigation over Proposition B, the ballot item passed by voters to grant Houston firefighters pay parity with police.

City Council had been set to consider a contract with Norton Rose Fulbright for $1.3 million. The contract would set aside $250,000 for the firm to handle litigation over real estate purchases in connection with infrastructure projects, with the rest set aside for a court fight over the parity measure approved Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Turner said he will look to Fire Chief Samuel Peña to restructure the fire department to absorb the measure’s additional cost, which both Turner and City Controller Chris Brown say will total more than $100 million in its first full year.

Turner said Wednesday he does not know “how we’re going to pay for it,” but he made clear initial layoffs would come from the fire department. For months, Turner has warned that the city would need to make cuts if voters approved Proposition B. It passed with 59 percent of the vote.

The measure would tie firefighters’ pay to that of police of corresponding rank and seniority. City Council, which is not meeting Thanksgiving week, agreed to bring the item up at its Nov. 28 meeting.

“I don’t know the answers,” Turner said. “I don’t know how we’re going to balance the books when we have been given an added bill of $100 million each year.”

He added: “The tough decisions start now. They start right now.”

The mayor said the fire department “restructuring” would include a reduction from four shifts to three, as well as other methods of reducing costs.

See here (at the bottom) for the background. I suppose one possible path to brokering a peace treaty might include an agreement to get everyone possible on board for a push to repeal – not amend, repeal – the stupid revenue cap, which would at least prevent the city from losing revenue for no good reason. There can’t be a vote on that before May of 2021, however, so that may be too long-term for any benefit, but one way or another this needs to be tackled, and it’s in both sides’ best interests for it to go away. I’m just spitballing here. The smart money is still on a lawsuit being filed, and after that who knows.

The problem with the revenue cap, in two short paragraphs

From the Chron:

The average homeowner has saved a cumulative $436 thanks to the rate adjustments driven by the revenue cap since 2014, an average of $87 per year.

The same adjustments have prevented the city from collecting $533 million than it otherwise would have.

So in return for a negligible reduction in your property tax bill, which you almost certainly didn’t notice, the city of Houston lost over a half billion dollars in revenue over the past five years. That’s more than enough on a per-year basis to bridge all the shortfalls that have been projected, more than enough to cover even the highest-end estimate of what the firefighters’ pay parity proposal would cost, more than enough to hire however many more cops we’re supposed to need, more than enough to make all of the employee pension systems a hell of a lot more stable, more than enough to buy out a crapload of floodplain-located homes, etc etc etc. Amazing what a little thing like $500 million dollars can do, isn’t it? And don’t forget, even though the average property tax cut was small, the biggest share of it went to the people with the most expensive property. (Not to mention, if you’re a renter, you got exactly zero out of this.) This right here is why I hold self-proclaimed fiscal peacocks who favor the revenue cap like a certain former Mayoral candidate I feel no need to name in such contempt. We cannot undo this stupid, harmful policy soon enough.

Council approves Mayor’s budget

The annual ritual is observed.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council adopted Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $4.9 billion budget by a vote of 13-4 Wednesday, ending three hours of otherwise amiable debate with an impassioned speech from Councilman Jack Christie that concluded with the councilman resigning his post as budget committee chair and voting no.

Christie was joined in opposing the budget by council members Mike Knox, Greg Travis and Michael Kubosh, who said they wanted the mayor to make more of an effort to cut spending.

“I can keep playing politics, go along to get along, or start fighting vigorously for our tax-paying citizens and not waste their money,” Christie said, listing his past ideas for constraining costs or forming commissions to study cost-cutting that were not implemented. “As a political body, we are failing the people of Houston.”

Turner rejected the criticism. He said the budget is “sound,” and noted that Kubosh’s lone amendment would have given each council member an additional $100,000 for staff salaries. Knox submitted no amendments, and Travis submitted amendments that sought cost-cutting recommendations from the administration but listed no specific cuts.

Christie also submitted no cost-reduction amendments, and, in fact, twice admitted one of his items — earmarking $150,000 to fund an external study on the emissions of the city’s vehicle fleet — was “a waste of money” because he already knows a shift to alternative fuels is the right move.

“It’s so easy to just say to the administration, ‘Mayor, you didn’t cut enough,’” Turner said after the meeting. “Every individual that voted ‘no’ put forth no ideas, no amendment to reduce the cost. Not one. Not that they offered it and we voted them down — they didn’t offer any. To the contrary, they put forth amendments that would increase the amount that we were going to have to expend.”

[…]

The general fund budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is $2.5 billion. That fund is supported primarily by property and sales taxes and funds most core services, such as the police and fire departments, parks, libraries and trash pickup.

That is $83 million, or 3.5 percent, more than the current budget. The increase largely is driven by a $42 million increase in debt service, related mostly to the issuance last year of $1 billion in pension obligation bonds as part of the mayor’s pension reform package.

Also driving the increase is $14 million in previously-agreed-to raises for police that take effect July 1. About 57 percent of the general fund, or $1.4 billion, goes to public safety — the police and fire departments, the municipal courts and emergency operations.

See here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s press release. The story also notes the $17 million the city may wind up being short thanks to an unfriendly Census estimate and the stupid revenue cap; it’s not clear to me if that would apply to this year or next if the city’s appeal fails. I’m not surprised there were no cost-cutting amendments of any substance. Turns out that’s a hard thing to do, especially in a budget that’s mostly about public safety, trash pickup, parks, and libraries. You know, basic things that people want and need. Good thing talking about it remains free.

The revenue cap is stupid and harmful

Reason #4,739:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

In posting a sluggish population growth estimate for Houston, the U.S. Census Bureau blew a $17 million hole in the city budget.

City officials had expected the count would show Houston had added about 30,400 people by January from the year prior. The Census Bureau on Thursday, however, estimated the city grew by just 9,200 between July 2016 and last summer.

Because the revenue cap voters approved in 2004 limits the city’s annual increase in property tax collections to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, that means Mayor Sylvester Turner must adjust his proposed $2.5 billion general fund budget.

Or he will, if he is unsuccessful in challenging the Census estimate. The city’s estimates, he said, are more up to date and are “based on greater familiarity with local indicators.”

To challenge the estimate, Houston can submit data on topics such as residential building and demolition permits, mobile home placements, household sizes and apartment occupancy rates.

Houston successfully challenged its formal count in the 2010 Census, and also added 3 percent to its population estimate via an appeal in 2006, and a little more than 1 percent to its 2008 count, according to the Census website.

The city’s press release is here. Neither the rate of inflation nor the rate of population growth have anything to do with the city’s needs or its financial capacity. It also as you can see puts an awful lot of power in the hands of unelected federal bureaucrats. Who I’m sure are fine people, but they’re not accountable to the voters of Houston. I mean seriously, who thinks this makes sense? The whole stupid thing needs to be repealed.

The revenue cap and the police

It’s something. Not what I want, but something.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner used his third State of the City speech to call — again — for the city to be able to collect more revenue than allowed by the property tax cap voters imposed 14 years ago, this time floating the idea of collecting extra dollars specifically for public safety.

Turner had taken a similar line during the 2015 campaign, then moved to advocating for a full repeal of the cap during much of his first two years in office. He backed away from placing such a request on last November’s ballot, however, fearing it would imperil the $1 billion bond referendum that was needed to secure the landmark pension reform package he shepherded through the Legislature last year.

The mayor on Tuesday instead highlighted the need to increase staffing in the Houston Police Department, and he suggested the idea of following former Mayor Bill White’s playbook from 2006, when White got voters’ permission to let the city collect $90 million more than the cap otherwise would have allowed for spending on public safety.

It took Houston eight years to exhaust that breathing room and run into the cap for the first time. Amid rising property values, the City Council has been forced to cut the property tax rate every fall since to avoid collecting more revenue than the cap allows. Council cut the tax rate to 58.42 cents per $100 of assessed value last September, the lowest rate since 1988.

The revenue cap limits the annual growth in city property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the combined rates of inflation and population growth, whichever is lower.

Turner did not commit to White’s approach, to a dollar amount, or to placing an item before voters this November, saying he intends to force a conversation on the need to invest in more officers and in ancillary areas such as cybersecurity protections, adding “the current model is not sustainable.”

“I’m just simply sounding the alarm. We cannot continue to cut and cut and cut and add 500 to 600 more police to our force,” Turner said after his speech to a luncheon hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership. “I did not want to throw out a number because people then tag onto that number and we don’t have a robust conversation on the need and then how we should meet that need.”

Tweets from his official Twitter account, however, were more definitive about taking the matter to voters: “I will move to put an item on the ballot on (sic) this November to make sure Houston continues to be resilient and strong when it comes to protecting innocent people.” said one. Another said, “Our city sorely needs revenue to increase staffing & resources for first responders at Police & Fire Dpartments. But we’re constrained by the #revenuecap. That’s why it’s time to ask voters to lift the cap solely for strengthening public safety & city services.”

[…]

What makes Turner’s Tuesday comments different, said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, is that he is focusing solely on public safety.

“There does not exist a strong public appetite for lifting the revenue cap unconditionally,” Jones said. “The only way to really sell it is via public safety. That’s probably the only winning method.”

Turner seemed to acknowledged as much Tuesday, saying in part, “It’s quite clear, it seems to me, people want to maintain the revenue cap. OK, fine. What I’m simply saying is, we need to find a way to generate some additional dollars on top of that revenue cap.”

It’s depressing to me that people have come to believe the BS about this stupid policy, which was imposed on Houston and basically noplace else by the usual gang of governmental nihilists, but propaganda does work. I’d love to see an all-out assault on the revenue cap, marshaling all the arguments about how it undercuts the city’s ability to prosper from economic growth and how it forces budget priorities on us whether we want them or not, but I recognize that this would be a tough fight against a wealthy and motivated opponent, which we could lose. It’s a fight we can engage another day, perhaps when the climate has changed enough. In the meantime, we all know that budgets can be flexible, and money is often fungible. Even earmarking extra revenue in this fashion makes the budget more manageable. If it’s the best we can do, then let’s do it.

Looking to hire more cops for Houston

We’ll see about this.

The head of the Houston police union announced Wednesday that city leaders had pledged to grow the Houston Police Department ranks by 500 officers over the next five years, far fewer than the city’s police chief said he needs.

“It’s no secret the Houston Police Department has been doing more with less, for far too long,” HPOU President Joseph Gamaldi said Wednesday afternoon at a crowded news conference at union headquarters.

The influx of officers would still be a fraction of the 2,000 new officers Chief Art Acevedo has said he believes the department needs to deal with the city’s growth, but comes as Houston has struggled for years to meaningfully increase the staffing in the department.

Gamaldi’s initiative, which the union is calling the “Drive for 500,” came after union officials visited all of the city’s council members, as well as Mayor Sylvester Turner, and asked them to pledge their support to increase the department that has nearly 5,200 officers on the job.

[…]

Currently, the HPD operates on a yearly budget of $827 million, and it costs the department around $3 million to run each class of recruits through its in-house academy.

The call for more officers comes as the city management last year had to close a $130 million budget shortfall.

The staffing proposal follows a concerted campaign last year to reform the city’s pension system, which officials warned was underfunded and threatened the city’s long-term financial health.

Meanwhile, Chief Acevedo and Gamaldi have stepped up calls for an large infusion of new officers into the department, saying it is dangerously understaffed, particularly compared to other large cities around the country.

Though Houston has fewer police officers per resident than other large cities, I remain unconvinced that we need to go on a hiring spree. At the very least, I’d like to understand what the plan is for a larger force. HPD’s solve rate isn’t so hot, so if the idea is to staff up on investigators with the goal of closing out more cases, then I can be on board with that. If it’s more like hire now and figure it out later, I’ll take a pass.

As the story suggests, hiring more cops would likely be part of the argument to alter or lift the revenue cap. Not my preferred approach, but I admit I’m not representative on this. I am ready for this argument to be fully rolled out, in anticipation of a vote this year.

The elections we may get in 2018

We know there are going to be a lot of contested elections up and down the ballot in 2018, both primaries and the November general, for state, county, and federal office. There are also at least four possible elections I can think of that we may get in addition to these. Let’s review.

1. Firefighters’ pay parity referendum

Remember that one? Petitions submitted, but it took a long time for them to get counted and certified, so the deadline to get on the ballot was missed? Yeah, that’s still out there, and barring a verdict that the petitions were insufficient, we’ll get to vote on it. Everyone I’ve talked to says that it would be in May, which would be the next uniform election date. After going a number of years without any May elections, we could have them two years in a row. This one would almost certainly be contentious.

2. Revenue cap repeal/modification

Another one that we thought would be on the November ballot was a revenue cap referendum. In the end, the plan was shelved so as not to endanger the pension obligation bonds. The strategy worked – the bonds passed – so now it’s time to finish off this piece of business. The main question is one of timing. If the firefighters’ pay parity proposal passes, then no further charter amendments can be voted on for two years. That presents Mayor Turner with a choice: Work to defeat the pay proposal, and thus vote on revenue cap reform in November, or put the rev cap issue on the ballot in May alongside this issue? I can make a case for either, but I’m sure the Mayor would prefer to have this up in November. We’ll see how that plays out.

Also, too, there’s the question of what exactly this referendum will do. Initially, Mayor Turner spoke about modifying it, to allow more revenue growth that would apply to public safety. More recently, he seemed to be talking full repeal, which is of course my preference. Again, we’ll see what happens.

3. Metro referendum

Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman has been talking about a new comprehensive Metro referendum, to fund further rail expansion and bus system upgrades. That was put off from last year, and appears to be on track for this year. Details and scope are yet to be determined.

4. Harris County flood mitigation bonds

In the immediate aftermath of Harvey, Commissioners Court discussed the possibility of a bond issue for flood mitigation projects. I presume this is still on the table, but as yet it isn’t more fully formed than that. If I had to bet, I’d say this happens, but it’s by far the least developed. Look to see what the Court does and we’ll know from there.

Finally, I should note that there is ongoing litigation related to the 2010 Renew Houston referendum and the 2015 term limits referendum. The former has been sent by the Supreme Court back to the lower courts, and I suppose it’s possible that there could be an order for a do-over election this year. It’s not clear to me what we might vote on if that happens, as it was City Council action that actually authorized and set the fee, but that would be among the things argued about in court, so we’ll see. For the latter there has not been a trial on the merits of the lawsuit as yet, so we are a long way from a resolution. I just wanted to touch on these since I’m sure someone was wondering about them.

Inevitable lawsuit over pension bond ballot language filed

Like night follows day, like flies garbage.

Mayor Sylvester Turner misled voters into approving a $1 billion pension bond referendum last month, a new lawsuit alleges, claiming that city officials plan to use the bonds’ passage to sidestep a voter-approved limit on the property tax revenue Houston can collect.

A local businessman and former Houston housing department director, James Noteware, sued the city on Friday in state district court, contesting the Nov. 7 election on the grounds that the ballot language was “materially misleading.”

The full language, rather than the summary listed for voters on the ballot, stated that the taxes levied to repay the bonds would not be “limited by any provision of the city home rule charter limiting or otherwise restricting the city’s combined ad valorem tax rates or combined revenues from all city operations.”

The suit claims that phrasing means the taxes levied to pay for the bonds will be exempted from the 13-year-old revenue cap, which limits the annual growth of property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

“Omitting the fact that the proposition created a billion-dollar exception to default limits on the city’s taxing authority renders the proposition materially misleading and void,” the suit states.

More coverage from the Chron here. This is, in a word, nonsense. I mean look, Paul Bettencourt, who insisted on the pension bond referendum and who loves the revenue cap and the spotlight more than his own children, had nothing to say about this during the campaign. Nobody complained about the ballot language. At this point, this kind of lawsuit is basically pro forma, and serves as nothing more than an attempt by the losing side to get bailed out by the Supreme Court. If you have the resources to hire a lawyer to file this kind of crap, you have the resources to mount some kind of campaign against the referendum before the election, even if it’s nothing more than sending an incendiary press release to a gaggle of reporters. If James Noteware, who by the way was a Mayoral candidate for about 15 minutes in 2013, did anything like that, he failed spectacularly to get a news story out of it. If this thing goes anywhere, it can only mean that the Supreme Court is now an official part of the referendum process, and we may as well ask their opinion before we bother wasting our time voting on anything.

(Also, too: Yet another reason to kill the awful, terrible, no good, very bad revenue cap. I’m just saying.)

Council passes dumb forced tax cut

This is where we are.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

City Council rejected Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposal to leave Houston’s tax rate unchanged from last year Wednesday, instead approving a tiny rate cut to comply with the voter-imposed cap on property tax revenues.

Turner had proposed using Hurricane Harvey to invoke a disaster exception clause in the 13-year-old revenue cap and leave the rate at 58.642 cents per $100 in assessed value. That plan would have let the city collect $7.8 million next year for storm recovery costs in addition to what the cap otherwise would allow, or about $7 next year for the typical homeowner.

It was the same process, Turner stressed, that his administration and former mayor Annise Parker’s administration had followed to collect funding above the revenue cap after floods in each of the last two years – actions that went unnoticed by council members and news media at the time.

The council nonetheless voted 15-2 to approve an amendment from Councilman Mike Knox to lower the rate by 0.221 cents – the rate City Controller Chris Brown had said the revenue cap dictated independent of Harvey-related expenses.

You can read the rest if you want to. I’ve said my piece, and I don’t have anything to add to that. If you need a little more, go read Mayor Turner’s response to Paul Bettencourt, which is exactly what needs to be said to that little toady.

Another property tax rate dustup

I have four things to say about this:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to ask city council on Wednesday to sidestep the voter-imposed revenue cap by approving the same property tax rate as last year.

According to City Controller Chris Brown, the city would need to cut the property tax rate by about one fifth of one cent to comply with the revenue cap. The difference would mean about $7 next year to the average Houston homeowner, but the potential political damage to Turner could be much more.

Council must set the tax rate at its Wednesday meeting, but no specific rate was listed on the council agenda and no explanatory backup material was provided to council members until Monday night. Several council members, informed of Brown’s Monday afternoon memo outlining the mayor’s plan, responded with an incredulous, “What?”

The information angered the mayor’s critics and confused his allies on the council a week before voters begin heading to the polls to consider a crucial $1 billion bond that would cement Turner’s landmark pension reforms and another $495 million in city improvement bonds.

To comply with the revenue cap, Brown said, the council would need to set the tax rate at 58.421 cents per $100 of assessed value, not leave it at last year’s 58.642 cents. The difference to the city general fund, he estimated, is $7.9 million.

“I’d love to think of it as a misunderstanding,” Councilman David Robinson said. “Conspicuously on the agenda today it was not disclosed, so it certainly raised a lot of questions. Call it, what – $8 million? It sounds like a very small amount to have a standoff about.”

[…]

Turner’s spokesman Alan Bernstein said Monday afternoon that the mayor’s proposal to leave the rate flat did not rely on invoking the disaster declaration language, but hours later acknowledged that clause is the basis for keeping the same rate.

“The mayor clearly said at this meeting, the press conference with the governor and everybody, ‘We are not going to be invoking the disaster clause,'” Brown said late Monday. “So, now they’re saying they’re going to do it. OK, they can do that. My opposition is not if they do it or don’t, my opposition is that they do it and nobody knows about it.”

A Monday evening memo from interim finance director Tantri Emo said the charter not only allows the mayor to invoke the disaster clause to collect an extra $7.9 million for Harvey expenses, but also provides no process by which Brown is required to verify the tax rate. Therefore, Bernstein added, it is not relevant that Brown cannot verify the city’s estimated $1.1 billion in general fund damages from Harvey before federal and insurance reimbursements.

“Since he can’t independently validate them, he’s not counting them,” Bernstein said. “Well, we’re counting them, and we feel like he’s not interpreting this all correctly. We’re certainly not busting the tax cap. The mayor disagrees with the controller’s conclusion.”

1. Let’s get one thing straight up front: This is not in any way an “increase”. This is because leaving something the same as it was before is not an increase, in the same way that my remaining the same height does not mean that I have gotten taller even if for some reason I was supposed to shrink. One of the Council members quoted in the story referred to this as an “increase”, and you can be sure others will echo him. Don’t fall for it.

2. I don’t know what was going on in the Mayor’s office with this, in particular with the peculiar lack of communication followed by the about-face on their rationale, but this was handled badly. They should have been up front about the fact that all their calculations were based on leaving the tax rate the same. Which, let’s be clear, in a sane non-revenue-cap world is exactly what would have happened without anyone even noticing that it was a thing that was happening. Bring it up early on, during the (successful) standoff with Greg Abbott, and there would be nothing more to it by now. Like I said, I don’t know what they were thinking, but this is a mess of their own making, and they need to clean it up.

3. More to the point, this was a missed opportunity to drive home the message that the revenue cap is stupid, harmful policy. If we didn’t have a revenue cap forcing this on us, would anyone have proposed a tax rate cut right now? Can you imagine it: “Hey, let’s make a tiny little cut to the tax rate that will have no effect at all on anyone but will cost the city eight million dollars at a time when we’re up to our necks in hurricane recovery expenses”? It’s stupid policy that forces us to make stupid choices. The revenue cap needs to go.

4. All that said, I think CM Robinson has the right answer. If this were the Lege, as Mayor Turner surely knows, they’d have solved this by delaying payment of an invoice or two from this accounting cycle to the next one, thus making the “deficit” disappear in a puff of magic pixie dust. I have to believe that the city can do something similar if it comes down to it.

HFD and disaster preparedness

There’s a lot here to think about, and to do something about.

The Houston Fire Department’s limitations quickly became clear as Harvey’s floodwaters rose.

Just one high-water rescue vehicle. Decades-old evacuation boats. Sparse training for swift-water rescues. And limited staffing after an 11th-hour decision not to call in major reinforcements to face the catastrophic storm.

The department had been warned. Lethal flooding two years ago exposed shortcomings and prompted sweeping recommendations to improve future responses.

And yet, when firefighters rushed fearlessly into Harvey’s currents in late August, they were again hobbled by a lack of resources, old equipment and a shortage of manpower ready to go when the storm hit, according to a Chronicle review of internal reports and emails, and dozens of interviews with firefighters and other officials.

The review found a department – and a city – that failed to follow the hard-earned lessons of previous storms, even as one of the worst in U.S. history descended on the region.

“Civilians had to step up – which was a great thing – but that’s not their job,” one high-ranking fire official said. “It’s our job to protect and serve the public. We couldn’t do that because we didn’t have what we needed.”

Fire Chief Samuel Peña, who stepped in to lead the department in December, defended the response and commended his firefighters, who performed 7,000 rescues and answered more than 15,000 calls for help during the first five days of the storm.

But he acknowledged that Harvey exposed shortcomings in the department’s fleet and training.

“Harvey punched us in the mouth,” Peña said. “No municipality is ever going to have the number of resources to be able to respond to a catastrophic incident the size of Harvey. But we know the anticipated risk in this community. We know that the 500-year flood is going to come again next year … We don’t have the adequate resources to address even the expected risk in this community.”

Critics, however, say the department’s response suffered from more than neglect.

“Anyone with common sense could see with relative certainty there was going to be an enormous rescue effort that was going to be required following the impact of Hurricane Harvey,” said Jim Brinkley, director of occupational health and safety for the International Association of Fire Fighters. “It’s expected a department would allocate enough resources – in terms of staffing alone – to make sure they’re capable of responding.”

There are a lot of reasons why HFD’s ability to deal with mass flooding events isn’t any more advanced now than it was a few years ago, before such things had become annual occurrences. You can come to your own conclusions about who shoulders how much of the responsibility for that. I would just point out that any effective solution to this is going to cost money. Equipment costs money. Training costs money. Firefighters who have better training can earn more money, if not here then elsewhere. We can and should review how HFD uses the resources it has now – as we know, most of the demands on the department are for emergency medical services and not for fire, and HFD has a track record of being profligate with overtime – but there’s only so far you can squeeze before you start displacing things you’d rather keep. If we want HFD to be better at responding to these events, we’re going to have to make an investment in them, and not just a one-time investment. That means we the voters are going to have to come to grips with the need to spend more money, or with the reality that we’re going to keep getting what we’re already paying for. If there are hard choices to be made by our leaders, we have to be prepared for what that means to us.

Council to hold hearings on proposed tax rate increase

Here’s your chance to be heard.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council set the ball rolling Wednesday on Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed 8.9 percent tax rate hike to help fund Houston’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey, in what would be the first hike from City Hall in more than two decades.

The council voted to schedule three public hearings on the issue, which is expected to reach a formal vote on Oct. 18.

Those hearings will be held at City Hall on:

Sept. 25 at 6 p.m.
Oct. 2 at 6 p.m.
Oct. 11 at 9 a.m.

[…]

The mayor said his staff will work over the next two to three weeks to better estimate what the insurance policies will cover, what the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse, and what the city will be left to pay itself.

After that review, Turner said, the proposed 8.9 percent increase could be reduced.

See here for the background. Campos says he wants specifics. Sounds like we ought to have them by the end of this process. I note in passing that the Harris County GOP has put out a statement opposing this proposal. I say no trash collection for them until all the Harvey debris has been carted off, too.