Harris County officials and staff express serious concerns that key programs and services will be cut due to inability to pass proposed budget
After it was strongly hinted that Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle and Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey, would probably skip this past Tuesday’s important Harris County Commissioners Court meeting to approve the proposed budget and property tax rate, the two Republican Commissioners did just that.
In a move reminiscent of what happened in 2019, when Commissioner Cagle and then-Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack refused to show up to Commissioner’s Court to vote on the proposed budget and tax increase at the time, the three Democrats who make up the majority on the court are being forced to adopt the No-New-Revenue property tax rate.
The No-New-Revenue property tax rate, or the effective tax rate, is the tax rate that only allows a taxing entity to generate the same amount of property tax revenue as they did the previous year.
According to Texas state law, there must be at least four out of the five members of Commissioner’s Court present to establish the necessary quorum needed to vote on and set the proposed property tax rate.
At their September 6th meeting, Harris County Commissioners voted 3-2 on a proposed $2.2 billion budget with a 1% tax decrease ($0.57508 per $100 of assessed value) from the previous year’s property tax rate ($0.58135 per $100 of assessed value).
Because of this move by Republican Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle to skip the Commissioners Court meeting, the Democratic majority were unable to vote to adopt the proposed property tax rate, and there is also major concern that by adopting the No-New-Revenue property tax rate, it will force Harris County to significantly slash the budget and eliminate key county programs.
Last month, Harris County budget director Daniel Ramos informed Commissioner’s Court that the county could face a $100 million-plus deficit if it adopted the No-New-Revenue property tax rate, which would only allow the county to generate the same amount of property tax revenue as the previous year.
Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis issued a scathing rebuke of the action taken by his Republican colleagues.
He shared his disappointment with the Forward Times immediately after the no-show from his Republican colleagues, stating that having to be forced to vote on a budget at a lower property tax rate was disturbing. He expressed his concerns about the anticipated disparate impact on the county due to potentially having to make some significant and tough budget cuts.
“Three of us showed up to Commissioners Court to do the job we were elected to do while my other two colleagues walked off the job today and betrayed the people of Harris County,” Commissioner Ellis stated through a statement. “The no-show Commissioners put politics ahead of the people to recklessly gamble with the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in Harris County for their own political payout.”
Commissioner Ellis also pointed out that for decades, Harris County has underfunded essential services like flood control, public safety, health care, environmental protection, and infrastructure maintenance, especially in underserved neighborhoods that have been ignored and neglected.
“By forcing the county to revert back to a budget that doesn’t meet our current needs and challenges, we can’t do what’s needed now to fully serve and protect Harris County families or plan for the future,” Commissioner Ellis continued via statement. “This political stunt forces draconian cuts to essential services for public safety, elections, health care, flood protection, pollution control, and other services that Harris County communities deserve and rely on to stay safe and healthy.”
This situation is somewhat déjà vu for Commissioner Cagle, regarding his role on Harris County Commissioner’s Court, in that he did the same exact thing by skipping the proposed budget and property tax rate vote in 2019.
In response to his decision to skip the Commissioner’s Court meeting, Commissioner Cagle’s office released a statement saying:
“Cagle joined Commissioner Tom S. Ramsey in declining to attend today’s meeting of Commissioners Court, depriving the court of its quorum and requiring the county to adopt a lower overall property tax rate. As a result, county residents will save millions of dollars on future property tax bills.”
Prior to the Commissioner’s Court meeting, Commissioner Ramsey’s office issued the following statement, speaking to one of his alleged concerns about the proposed budget, stating:
“At the last Commissioners Court meeting, I asked to fund 200 additional patrol officers for the Sheriff and Constable’s offices, which would only take up 20% of the County’s new revenue. We have to prioritize our spending. We must find a way to fund those who protect us. All I ask is for 200 patrol officers, which is $20M of the $100M we’ll be receiving in increased revenue.”
By forcing Harris County to adopt a No-New-Revenue property tax rate, it will be interesting to see what programs may have to be cut, especially with Harris County leadership stating that they will have more people to serve each year with limited resources and an insufficient budget.
As part of his statement, Commissioner Ellis also pointed out some of the other potential impacts and budget cuts that would be significant if they are forced to continue with the adopted No-New-Revenue property tax rate, which range from public health, flood control, pollution control, community services, and elections administration. Some of the potential cuts in services and programs of significance that were a part of Commissioner Ellis’ statement include:
Public Safety Impacts
- Harris County will not be able to make the proposed $100+ million in investments to provide already approved raises for law enforcement, hire more investigators for violent crimes, and other critical safety investments:
- The Sheriff’s Office will have $44 million less for fighting crime and maintaining the jail
- The Constables’ budgets will go down by $8 million
- The District Attorney will lose $5.4 million in proposed increases
- The preferred budget that Commissioners Court was blocked from adopting would have continued its historic investments in justice and safety, with $1.4 billion—64% of the County General Fund spending— going toward Justice and Safety.
Flood Control Impacts
- Harris County will cut its maintenance and operations budget by $23 million and stop important projects.
- Prior to Harvey, deferring maintenance on flood control infrastructure was standard operating procedure and contributed to our region’s overall vulnerability to flooding. Forcing the county to once again defer routine maintenance will jeopardize the progress made since Harvey, increase vulnerability, and stall vital projects.
- Flood Control will have less ability to respond to urgent situations—like severe unforeseen erosion or slope failures. These emergencies jeopardize other public infrastructures such as outfalls, pipelines, or even bridges.
Public Health Impacts
- Public Health will be forced to make cuts that will result in:
- Reducing immunizations, wellness exams, and disease screenings
- Serving fewer mothers and babies through WIC and home-visiting programs
- Reducing mobile health village programs in neighborhoods with limited healthcare access
- Less surveillance and testing of mosquito-borne diseases
- Jeopardizing the Holistic Assistance Response Team (HART) and Violence Prevention Program pilots.
- Since it launched in March, HART has already freed up law enforcement from responding to more than 500 calls—the equivalent of more than 16 full-time deputies.
- The Violence Prevention Program has intervened in at least three cases where a shooting was likely to occur, were it not for the outreach specialists.
Pollution Control Impacts
- Pollution Control will have vital services cut that protect residents from dangerous chemicals. Pollution Control will be short of much-needed resources to:
- Conduct air quality monitoring in our region, which has some of the most polluted air in the country and high rates of childhood asthma.
- Prevent the expansion of concrete batch plants and properly inspect existing concrete batch plants. The Concrete Batch Plant Program started in 2020, this program has inspected 371 facilities resulting in 294 violation notices. Of these, 89% came into compliance and 11% were subject to more aggressive enforcement. This program provided the groundwork for the information that set in motion the County litigation against TCEQ.
- Assist communities experiencing environmental emergencies and injustices.Pollution Control is assisting communities in the Fifth Ward that have been exposed to creosote contamination from past industrial waste. Cancer clusters have been detected in those neighborhoods; for example, children in Fifth Ward are getting childhood leukemia at 5 times the rate of children in other neighborhoods.
Voting and Elections
- The Elections Administrator will not be able to provide the same level of service in the May elections as proposed for November
- Processing ballots will take longer, which means the County may not be able to report results within 24 hours, as required by the Secretary of State
- Funding cuts to elections mean thousands of Harris County voters could be disenfranchised
Esmaeil Porsa, President and CEO at Harris Health System told Commissioners Court on Tuesday, that under the No-New-Revenue tax rate, Harris Health may have to cut services for more than 10,000 patients.
Harris Health System is the largest provider of indigent health care in Harris County, and includes community health centers, same-day clinics, three multi-specialty clinic locations, a dental center and dialysis center, mobile health units, and two full-service hospitals that many members of the African American community utilize—Ben Taub Hospital and Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) Hospital.
Over the past three years, the Hospital District tax rate has been cut twice, which has resulted in an annual net revenue reduction of nearly $50 million for Harris Health.
According to Porsa, the No-New-Revenue tax rate will force an even deeper operating loss to Harris Health, especially with the organization already facing a $45 million deficit.
Porsa also indicated that by not voting to approve the proposed tax rate, it would lead to the following potential impact to Harris County residents:
- 1,500 people will not get inpatient behavioral healthcare
- Almost 4,500 people will not get dialysis and colonoscopies and other screenings
- 2,700 people will not receive home health care and wound cleaning, and 646 patients will not get rehab, long-term care, or Hospice
- Over 700 people will not be able to access inpatient care
According to Judge Hidalgo, she is considering calling special meetings every day to hold the budget vote until September 20th and hopes the two absent Commissioners will attend to establish the necessary quorum required to pass the proposed budget and set the proposed tax rate.
According to Commissioner Ellis, the Commissioner’s Court will have until October 28th to adopt the proposed budget and set the proposed tax rate, with hopes from the three Democratic Commissioners that their two Republican Commissioners—or at least one of them—will show up to adopt the proposed budget and set the proposed property tax rate.