Accounting for the County

Dr. Malcolm Cross

It’s ironic. 

My Facebook newsfeed contains many complaints about a possible Erath County tax increase.  Back in 2013, when the Stephenville City Council, with my support, passed its infamous one cent tax increase, members of conservative groups with which I was affiliated were citing the Erath County government as a paragon of fiscal rectitude, holding the line on its property tax rate, while we profligate spendthrifts on the city council were raising taxes for no reason other than to experience the joy of wasting the taxpayers’ money (left unsaid was the fact that the county government, by maintaining its tax rate, was actually raising taxes anyway, because it would get more revenue due to the increase in property values).  The times, they are a-changing.

As demands grow for explanations as to the proposed county tax increase, as citizens plan to attend budget hearings to protest, and as county commissioners prepare to deal with citizen feedback, let me offer a few observations and suggestions:

Remember that the decisions to raise tax rates, cut tax rates, or maintain tax rates are made by the local elected governing boards, including not only the County Commissioners Court, but the city councils, ISD boards of trustees, and other special district boards.  The County Appraisal District is not

A taxing entity.  It merely sets and supplies information on property values.  It has no control over what the governing boards do with that information.  It is the responsibility of those boards to set the tax rates.  And by the way, no governing board can honestly claim credit for cutting taxes unless it uses its power to cut the tax rate by more than the County Appraisal District determines property tax increases.

County citizens have every right to protest whatever parts of the county’s fiscal policies they want to.  However, as with the case of city residents participating in the city budget process, county residents will probably have more credibility if they focus not only on taxes, but on spending as well.

Given that the county must balance its budget, taxes and spending are inextricably interlinked.  

This is a point which seems to elude many.  In attempting to defend my support of the city’s last tax increase, I would challenge those who wanted lower taxes to tell me what services they wanted cut.  I rarely got answers other than that the government simply had to economize more, and that they were under no obligation to say how this was to be done.  And I notice that among the numerous complaints about the possibility of higher county taxes, there is little discussion of spending programs that should be cut to permit lower tax rates.  Nonetheless, no matter what anyone thinks, it remains true that if one wants lower taxes, one must accept less spending (and, of course, if one wants more services, one must accept either higher taxes or cuts in other services to supply the necessary funds).  

But those who make and adopt the county’s budget and tax policies must also understand that even if citizens discuss only tax cuts without discussing spending cuts, their concerns are real, and must be addressed rationally, lest even more anger and alienation result.  The county’s leaders must not underestimate either the number of angry citizens or the intensity of their anger.  Failure to either cut the proposed tax rate or adequately defend its proposed increase could well lead to more turmoil down the line, as well as to efforts to remove commissioners who are up for renomination and re-election in 2020.  

And everyone should understand that even an election which replaces supporters of the proposed tax increase with opponents thereof will not necessarily produce lower tax rates in the future.  The infamous one cent tax increase of 2013 was supported by five of the nine city council members that year, myself included.  The city council elections of 2014, wherein I was defeated for re-election, produced a council consisting of only two supporters of the tax increase, and seven members who had been on record, as council members in 2013 or council candidates in 2014, as having opposed the tax increase.  Yet even with seven of nine council members claiming to oppose the one cent increase, they didn’t repeal it.  True, they cut some spending that the previous council had supported. And they cut the new tax rate, but only by half a cent.  Moreover, they then maintained that tax rate for several years, thereby increasing the citizens’ tax bill as their property values climbed.  This is not to say that those who were elected to office as opponents of the tax increase were cynical, dishonest, or hypocritical.  The most rational explanation for their refusal to entirely roll back the tax increase is that once elected, they had more access to the same information on which I had based my ill-fated decision to support a tax increase, and saw that at least some increase had been necessary, if not an increase by an entire cent.

So, for everyone concerned about the county tax rate:  You have every right to work within the system to try to achieve your goals.  Just don’t expect to get everything you want.  

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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