Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley slammed property tax reform before the Texas Senate Property Tax Committee Wednesday. It was the second time he and the Committee’s Chairman, State Sen. Paul Betterncourt (R-Houston) had met to discuss the matter, after the two cross examined one another recently at the Texas Public Policy Foundation Policy Summit.
Just as he had at the TPPF event, Whitley acknowledged that cities, counties, and schools have raised taxes significantly over the past decade. But Whitley strangely dismissed percentages as an inaccurate measure of what taxpayers are experiencing. He suggested a better measure would be the total amount of dollars taxpayers are actually paying as opposed to percentages.
“From 2007 to 2017, on a city tax levy across the state, it’s gone up $97 [per person]. So, basically, that’s less than $2 a week. County about $93. That’s less than $2,” Whitley said.
However, by using per capita data, Whitley distorts the real pressure mounting on the backs of taxpayers. If Judge Whitley is convinced dollar amounts are the better figure to use to understand the burden, he should use per household data. Property tax bills are paid by the head of a household, not necessarily both spouses, and certainly not children. To use per capita numbers is to understate the problem.
Whitley did acknowledge that the school portion of property taxes have gone up $346 for taxpayers, which he blamed on the state government of Texas not spending “an equal share of total funding.” This is a half-truth, in that the state’s portion of the education burden can decrease as local property tax revenues go up. But state lawmakers do not dictate local school tax levies.
Whitley said he doesn’t think these increases are of any real concern because the income of taxpayers has risen by over $10,000 during that same time period.
Bettencourt pointed out that Tarrant County’s total tax levies from 2013 to 2017 increased $83 million, to $423 million. Whitley said that new economic growth contributed to those numbers, as opposed to pure increases in payments from existing property taxpayers. But when Bettencourt followed up with questions on what the size of that growth was, Whitley didn’t know.
Bettencourt did, saying Tarrant has had a 24 percent economic growth over the past 12 years.
Also, House Bill 2 and Senate Bill 2 would not cut a local taxing entity’s budget. It would simply require local voter approval for a tax hike of 2.5 percent or more. The reform would still allow local officials to raise tax burdens 2.49 percent without voter approval, on top of collecting additional property and other tax revenue from new growth.
Bettencourt reminded Whitley of this new growth exclusion. “Why do you object to that?” he asked.
“What you all are trying to do, basically, is to paint every city, every county, and every ISD (Independent School District) with the same paintbrush,” Whitley replied.
Bettencourt, referencing a slide on property tax rates in Dallas, challenged Whitley on what he finds wrong with the fact that when property values rise, if the corresponding property tax rates don’t decrease, higher tax bills result. “I’m not going to comment on Dallas County,” Whitley replied.
Bettencourt went further, asking what is wrong with reducing the rollback rate to the rate of inflation, pointing out that the rollback rate was originally intended to mirror the rate of inflation, and inflation has been far below the current rollback rate of 8 percent for 38 years. Whitley tried to move the conversation back to what he called a “lack of education funding” from the state, which Bettencourt quickly dismissed.
“The state is addressing Robin Hood square on,” he said, referring to his work on the Texas School Finance Commission, which unanimously passed a series of recommendations for school finance reform for the legislature to consider.
Repeatedly Bettencourt challenged Whitley on why he objected to reducing the rollback rate to the rate of inflation, and repeatedly Whitley deflected.
“Because, as I see it, you’re weakening the property tax system,” Whitley said.
“By providing property tax relief, I’m weakening the property tax system?” Bettencourt responded. “How?”
Bettencourt again refocused on the principle goal of stopping the growth of property taxes across the board, because of how it’s affecting taxpayers.
“What I’m hoping is that a lower rollback rate will get people to recognize that they should live within the means of the taxpayers’ ability to pay,” Bettencourt concluded.
Whitley is also the vice-chair of TechShare on serves on the board of the Texas Conference of Urban Counties. As a result, he is deeply involved with the taxpayer-funded money pit projects called TechShare.Court and TechShare.Jail. These risky software ventures have already cost Tarrant County taxpayers more than $36 million, according to a recent audit, with millions in taxpayer dollars at risk over the next two years. Several of the products have experienced costly delays and failures, and pit the county in direct competition with the private, for-profit marketplace.
Tarrant County Judge: Glen Whitley