Of Tax Rates, Governments, and We the People

Dr. Malcolm Cross

It’s that time of year again.  The County Appraisal District is sending out notices of appraised values of property for 2021 and many people, myself included, are seeing their property values go up.  As chairman of the Appraisal Review Board I expect to hold hearings for many protesters disputing their property valuations. Many will blame the CAD for having to pay higher property taxes.  But their anger will be misplaced.  Our elected governing boards and especially We the People are the ones who really have the power over tax rates.

It’s only natural to associate the CAD with tax increases.  When it increases property valuations, higher taxes normally follow.  Besides, sometimes elected officials will deny responsibility for tax increases, placing all the blame for tax increases on the CAD’s valuation increases.  

But it’s not the CAD raising the taxes.  It has no power to do so.  The power to raise (or lower) taxes usually rests with the governing boards We the People elect:  City councils, ISD boards of trustees; the county commissioners court, and the Middle Trinity Water Conservation District.

This is not to say the CAD plays no role at all in determining tax increases.  But its role is purely informational.  It tells the other local governments what each piece of property in their respective jurisdictions is worth.  It’s up to the elected decision makers to determine how that information will affect their decisions on tax rates.

Sometimes a governing board will leave its tax rate unchanged, for which it may get credit for “holding the line” on taxes.  But if it votes to leave the rate unchanged while property values have increased, it has actually voted for a tax increase, if not a tax rate increase.  The board may try to blame the CAD for the tax increase, saying it left the rate unchanged but the CAD increased the valuations, but that’s disingenuous.  If the board really wanted to avoid a tax increase, it should have cut the tax rate to offset the valuation increase.  It’s decision not to do so was its choice, not that of the CAD.

Actually, sometimes governing boards, including the Stephenville City Council, will cut their tax rates in response to the CAD’s increase in property valuations.  But unless a board cuts its tax rate by more than the valuations are increasing, it’s not really easing the tax burden.  It’s simply increasing taxes without increasing tax rates, with the more unscrupulous board members trying to shift the blame to the CAD rather than take responsibility for their own actions.  And they’ll keep doing that as long as We the People keep them in office.

Which brings us to the city bond election to be held on May 1, for which early voting has already begun.  I cannot think of a more honest or transparent approach to the issue of tax rates than that which is being taken by our current city council or by Vision Stephenville, the main group supporting the proposals on the ballot.

The supporters have spelled out, with commendable clarity, exactly how much each proposal on the ballot will cost, not only overall but also in terms of the tax increases necessary to finance the proposals if adopted.  They have, in effect, provided the voters with exactly the sort of information the voters require to cast intelligent votes.  

Moreover, by calling for a bond election, the City Council has recognized the fact that for raising and spending amounts of money as large as those at issue, the citizens of Stephenville must have the power to make the ultimate decision on whether the city is to get the money.  After all, the money ultimately belongs to We the People.  No government is entitled to more money than what We the People say it should have.  Our City Council deserves nothing but praise for respecting the rights of We the People in this instance.

And We the People always have ultimate control over our tax rates, even when no bond elections are being held.  Our tax rates are always determined, in the final analysis, by our elected officials, and no falsehoods or evasions of responsibility can change that simple fact.  If property values go up, they can always cut the tax rates enough to at least offset the valuation increase and possibly cut the tax burden as well.  And if our elected officials do not do what We the People want, then We the People can always replace them, through regular elections and recalls, with those who will.  The power to set tax rates does not reside with the CAD; it belongs to We the People—as well it should.

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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