Taxpayers in Chambers County were shocked to find a notice of intent for $57.8 million in Certificates of Obligation intended to build a 240-bed jail and a law enforcement center in the city of Anahuac.

Certificates of Obligation are a financial tool that local governments have at their disposal. However, this form of debt is intended to be reserved for emergencies – such as reconstruction after disaster or a court decision requiring immediate payment.

However, because CO’s allow governments to issue debt without voter approval, elected officials will often opt to issue CO’s for pet projects rather than ask voters to approve the additional debt.

Unlike other petition efforts, COs only require five percent of registered voters to call an election to approve or disprove the debt. As a result, Chambers County taxpayers began gathering signatures to give voters a say.

Speaking on the debt proposal County Judge Jimmy Sylvia said that the court needs the new jail given the fact that the current facility is aging, at capacity, and needs repairs.

“Keep in mind this is a jail – not a non-essential sports complex or entertainment venue,” said Sylvia.

However, locals aren’t buying it. One resident, Mayes Middleton, pointed out that the county budgeted $162,000 for housing at other facilities because of their lack of space.

“Based on that county supplied figure it would take 357 years to pay off the new jail center based on county savings,” said Middleton.

Even without the additional debt from the CO’s, which will have to be paid by taxpayers, Chambers County residents already pay some of the highest property taxes in the region.

Taxes in the county are substantially higher than neighboring Jefferson and Harris counties. Between 2010 and 2017, the county increased taxes by a staggering 11.25 percent.

According to the Texas Comptroller’s “debt-at-a-glance” tool, Chambers County had the second highest outstanding tax-supported debt per capita out of counties of similar size.

Jim Gilley, a financial advisor with US Capital, estimated that this issuance would increase taxes by up to 5.8 cents, or a $33 tax increase on every home of $100,000.

After outrage by taxpayers, Judge Sylvia and Commissioner Larry George announced that they would rescind their agenda item to approve the COs. Instead, according to the judge, they will place an item on the February 14th agenda to hold a bond election. However, taxpayers remain skeptical and will continue to petition until confirmation that the court has actually voted to place the item on the ballot.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.