It’s the time of year when local elected officials across Texas are determining if our tax bills will increase, decrease, or stay the same for the next year—and it’s also the time to be extra wary of misleading statements about the topic.
Many of us are starting to see media commentaries and social media posts pop up in which our local school board trustees, county commissioners, city council members, and other representatives are patting themselves on the back for their part in “reducing tax rates.”
While this might sound promising at first glance, there are two reasons those of us who desire meaningful tax relief shouldn’t be celebrating just yet.
First, it’s important to remember that the tax rate is meaningless without context. The tax rate and your actual tax bill are two very different things. In fact, it is entirely possible—and actually very common—for local officials to reduce your property tax rate while still increasing your property tax bill. Simply reducing the rate while still raising our taxes isn’t anything to brag about.
With how your property taxes are calculated, if officials set a tax rate that isn’t the “effective” tax rate or lower, it doesn’t offset your property value increases, meaning at the end of the day they still raised taxes on the average residence. (If you want to know more about how the property tax system works, read this commentary by Plano City Council Member Shelby Williams.)
The bottom line is this: When your school board trustee or local representative brags about lowering the tax rate alone, they’re either trying to pull a fast one, or they simply don’t understand how the property tax process works.
Second, taking a look at how rapidly property taxes have increased over recent years along with what’s really driving them up (local officials’ unsustainable spending), it’s easy to see why citizens don’t have any reason to celebrate and, more importantly, why we don’t have the luxury of becoming complacent.
Let’s use Dripping Springs Independent School District in Hays County as an example.
Fortunately—and only due to the leadership of our elected officials at the Texas Capitol—a new state law is providing many taxpayers with some tax relief this year. An average residence in DSISD should see a reduction in school property taxes of $276 this fiscal year.
However, that same average residence saw taxes increase by $311 last year, so we will only see a tax rollback of less than one year. Even worse, an average residence in DSISD has seen their taxes increase by 37 percent in the past six years, meaning they’re now paying nearly $1,500 more annually than in 2013.
And unless our school board chooses to pursue a new and better path of fiscal responsibility, taxpayers in our district will begin to see property taxes rise yet again next year.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
With record-high property appraisal values and new construction, DSISD and other high-growth districts like ours can afford to give existing residents tax relief while also having additional financial resources for students and teachers in the classroom.
But doing so would require our school board trustees to do the work of actually responsibly handling citizens’ money—something they haven’t done for years.
For this fiscal year, DSISD’s total spending is scheduled to rise by nearly 10 percent, despite existing residents/property owners receiving (limited) tax relief. Of the new spending this year, debt spending is set to increase at 2.7 times the rate of Maintenance and Operations spending (the annual costs of actually operating schools and educating children).
Also troubling is that new debt service spending ($2.7 million) exceeds all new spending on instruction ($2.5 million)—the total costs of the classrooms.
And while the school board has loaded up so much debt, our DSISD teachers’ pay continues to fall behind other area school districts—even though DSISD has been raking in new property tax cash at a rate that’s over two and a half times the rate of student enrollment growth over the past seven years!
As with many other school districts around our state, the financial course of Dripping Springs ISD is irresponsible and unsustainable.
Now it’s more important than ever that concerned taxpayers contact local officials and attend school board meetings to insist on responsible stewardship of our tax dollars.
This is a commentary submitted and published with the author’s permission. If you wish to submit a commentary to Texas Scorecard, please submit your article to [email protected].