After the grassroots’ outrage over proposed pay hikes, the Republican-majority Tarrant County Commissioners Court voted against raising their own pay and approved a much smaller property tax hike than last year, though they still plan to increase spending. Democrat Commissioner Devan Allen was absent for these votes.
Last week, The Texan reported the proposed budget for Tarrant County included a 3 percent pay hike for the commissioners. This comes at a time when Texans have seen their jobs evaporate or their pay decrease as a result of government-mandated shutdowns in response to the Chinese coronavirus.
That same week, Democrat-controlled Dallas County Commissioners Court—with a motion put forward by Democrat Commissioner John Wiley Price—rejected a similar proposed pay increase for themselves, after a citizen uprising.
Tarrant citizens were outraged, especially considering Democrats led by Price—who has in the past championed fights against coronavirus mandates this year—were beating Republicans to the punch.
Fran Rhodes, president of grassroots activist group True Texas Project, implored commissioners to “do the right thing” and vote down the increase.
Tuesday morning, before citizens could speak to the court, the commissioners announced they would vote down the increase.
“A decision that this court can make is to share the pain with our constituents,” Democrat Commissioner Roy Brooks said. “Consequently, I am in favor [of] not giving any elected official pay raises this fiscal year.”
“A year ago, I also opposed the budget and the raises,” Republican Commissioner Gary Fickes added. “That would be my position again this time.”
Both Fickes and Brooks face re-election this November.
Brooks went on to describe county employees as “our most precious asset” and said they will still get a 3-6 percent pay increase.
Citizens who were present praised the move.
“Man, you won my heart,” Charleston White told Brooks. White said he had planned to vote for Brooks’ Republican challenger, Roy Lozano, before the vote today. “Three percent to 6 percent to our officers … I think they’ve earned it.”
“I was anti-police until … I saw the human side of that badge,” he added.
Other citizens did the same while pointing out how they are struggling financially in 2020.
“We are in a pandemic right now. A lot of people have no income at all,” said Republican precinct chair Jessie Taylor, pushing for employee pay raises to be limited to 3 percent.
“There are plenty of people in our community who have no income,” said Miriam Lambert. “At some point, the taxpayers’ pockets are going to be empty.”
“I’m still concerned about the 3-6 percent raise,” she added.
After County Judge Glen Whitley suggested keeping employee pay raises at 3 percent, County Clerk Mary Louise Nicholson asked commissioners if they have the ability to issue an order limiting those increases, instead of merely suggesting a limit. “We certainly could,” Brooks replied. Commissioners declined to do so.
The pay hike for elected officials was removed by a vote of 4-0.
“They decided (before any testimony) to not vote in favor of pay raises for themselves and other electeds,” Rhodes told Texas Scorecard. “But if that’s the way they felt about it, why put it in the budget in the first place? Why not kill that idea when the budget proposal was being debated?”
The proposed budget included a $21 million increase in spending, even though it’s based on a property tax rate beneath the no-new-revenue rate—formerly called the “effective” rate—which collects the same total amount of property tax revenue from the same properties taxed last year, both residential and commercial. According to data from the Tarrant Appraisal District, this rate would result in a 1.8 percent hike in the average homeowner’s county property tax bill, from $512 to $521. This is much smaller than the 9.13 percent tax hike commissioners passed last year.
Both were approved by a vote of 4-0, with Allen not present.
“I’m very happy to hear that you are rejecting those pay increases for yourselves, for your top staff, and for the elected officials,” Rhodes told commissioners. However, she was quick to remind commissioners not to pat themselves on the back too much, as taxpayers are hurting from government mandates in response to the coronavirus.
Commissioner Brooks had earlier expressed his feelings about the importance of commissioners. “As for the commissioners, we build roads,” he told citizens. “We don’t just sit up here and pontificate about political policy.”
“But we’re paid well for doing our jobs, and I’m willing to forgo an increase this year,” he added.
“Keep in mind the fact that you have jobs. You’ve had jobs throughout the pandemic. Yet taxpayers still have to pay taxes, whether they have a job or not,” Rhodes responded during her comments.
This victory is important, but citizens will have to remain vigilant. Sources familiar with Tarrant County Commissioners Court say that Whitley—who is paid more than Gov. Greg Abbott—wants to be paid as much as district judges.
“I reminded them that their budget and tax rate that they were about to adopt provides no relief to Tarrant County taxpayers, who don’t get to ask for a pay raise—if they happen to still have a job,” Rhodes told Texas Scorecard. “The commissioners and all the county employees still have jobs; many taxpayers do not.”
Citizens can contact Fickes and Brooks and ask what their goals are, how they plan to vote next year, and when commissioners will again have the option of hiking spending, salaries, and taxes.
“Stay in touch with your elected representatives, even the ones you don’t like!” Rhodes advises fellow citizens. “Recognize them when they do the right thing, and thank them. But also call them out when they do the wrong thing or only marginally do the right thing, like today.”
Citizens are also encouraged to inquire when county budget hearings will be scheduled next year and to participate in those hearings.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Roy Brooks: 817-370-4500; firstname.lastname@example.org
Precinct 2 Commissioner Devan Allen: 817-248-6099; email@example.com
Precinct 3 Commissioner Gary Fickes: 817-248-6295 ; firstname.lastname@example.org