Lessons from the Past, for the Future

Dr. Malcolm Cross

Nobody should be too surprised at the defeat of all 5 propositions in last week’s bond election.  The city council and the propositions’ other supporters are no doubt beginning to deal with the obvious question: “What now?”  Stephenville’s recent political history may suggest the best course of action for the future.

No doubt the prospect of higher taxes should the propositions be adopted helped sway public opinion to reject them.  Vision Stephenville had announced that should all the propositions be adopted, voters could expect their property taxes to go up by roughly ten cents per hundred dollars assessed valuation of their property.  The owner of a house worth $100,000 could expect to pay $100/year more in taxes.  The owner of a $200,000 house would pay about $200/year more, and the owner of a $350,000 a year house could pay $350/year more, and so forth.

Whether these tax increases would have constituted a little or a lot would have been in the eye of the beholder.  To some, an increase of, say, $200/year (which works out to less than $17 a month or about 55 cents a day) would seem perfectly manageable.  Others might have found it the straw that broke the camel’s back as they dealt with the problems of the pandemic and the recession, especially if they had personally become both ill and unemployed.

And it may not have been just the amount of the prospective tax rate increase.  To many, any tax increase is intolerable not because of the amount involved but because the increase symbolizes an arrogant, apathetic, wasteful, out of touch government.  I learned this the hard way when I supported the infamous 1 cent tax increase in the fall of 2013.  Angry citizens were unmoved by my argument that such an increase raised the tax burden on the owner of a $100,000 house by only ten dollars a year—less than a dollar a month or 3 cents a day.  It was not the amount by which I wanted to raise taxes, but the fact that I wanted to raise taxes at all, no matter how small the amount, which led them to vote me out of office.

But whatever the reasons for the defeat, recent history indicates that the city council’s best course of action is to shelve the projects at issue for the time being, and not try to finance them by any borrowing for the foreseeable future unless it can get public approval to do so.  Any attempt to do otherwise will almost certainly arouse the voters’ anger.  At least that’s what happened the last time the city council saw a major bond proposal defeated at the polls.

In 2000 the city council tried to seek from the voters’ approval to sell about $15,000,000 worth of bonds to finance various projects to upgrade the equipment with which the city pumped, treated, and distributed drinking water.  The lion’s share of the money, had it been raised, would have been spent to build a pipeline from Lake Proctor to bring more water into our system.  When the voters went to the polls that summer, 87% rejected the Proctor Pipeline proposal.

Nonetheless, in 2004, the city council voted to borrow $7,000,000 to build the Proctor Pipeline anyway by issuing certificates of obligation, a debt instrument which did not require voter approval.  Big mistake.  The best engineering and demographic studies at the time showed Stephenville should soon acquire more water from Lake Proctor to supplement what’s pumped out of the ground.  But many voters were nonetheless angry with the council.  They remembered that only 4 short years earlier they had voted “NO!” to borrowing money to finance the Proctor Pipeline, and yet the city council was going ahead with the project anyway.  They felt betrayed.  Several council members who retired after casting their votes for the Proctor Pipeline were defeated at the polls when they attempted to make comebacks and rejoin the council in 2014.  On this issue, the voters’ memories were long.   

A member of the current city council told me the law requires the council to wait at least 3 years before making another attempt to borrow funds to finance the projects at issue.  But whatever the law says, the council should take a long “time out” and rethink its proposals.  It should try to redesign them when possible to lower the costs, and it should begin to build up cash reserves to help finance them and keep the amounts to be borrowed lower as well. 

And if and when the city council chooses to try to borrow money again, it must do so only with the sale of bonds requiring voter approval.  Although legal, as it was in 2004, to borrow through certificates of obligation, the council must not do so lest it anger and insult the voters as it did in 2004.  In other words, the council must not borrow funds without a prior vote of approval by the people.  After all, whatever is borrowed must ultimately be repaid by the voters themselves.  Therefore, the voters must have the last say–it’s their money.

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.

1 Comment

  1. Not to mention the Ranger College debacle – defeated in all 3 affected counties by a 93% or higher margin. Governments are all too famous, whether justified in Stephenville or not, for being horribly inefficient with their revenues. It’s as if it’s not their money and the well never runs dry … but it just did. Again.

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