HOUSTON - On Wednesday, Houston City Council members went against Mayor Sylvester Turner’s wishes and voted to slightly lower the city's tax rate to stay within the voter-approved property tax revenue cap.
Council voted 15-2, with Mayor Turner and Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Cohen voting no, to lower the city’s property tax rate from $0.586420 to $0.584210 per $100 valuation.
Councilmember Mike Knox, who introduced the substitute proposal, called the vote “a victory for taxpayers." However, Mayor Turner worried the vote could cost the city in the long run.
The debate leading up to the vote included heated arguments over transparency between Mayor Turner and City Controller Chris Brown and Vice Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Davis walking out of the chambers following a tweet by a mayoral staffer criticizing the vote.
“This is where the division lies within the city of Houston,” Davis said.
“The tax creep, we’ve got to stop it,” said Brenda Stardig, councilmember for District A.
“I think this comes across as another middle finger to people, and I don’t think they’re going to appreciate it,” said Greg Travis, councilmember for District G.
Because so many homes got higher appraisals before Harvey, about $7.8 million more of Houstonians’ property tax money would still be headed for city coffers next year, even at that same tax rate.
“It seems like what we’re doing here is trying to use a technicality to get around the revenue cap when people just want to get into their homes,” Travis said.
Alan Bernstein, Mayor Turner’s Communications Director, says keeping the tax rate flat would have cost someone with a $225,000 home about $7 extra in the upcoming year, or roughly $0.60 per month or $0.02 per day.
Councilmembers expressed frustration saying they had not been briefed on the proposal earlier.
“It’s unfortunate that we’ve been put into a position that if we do nothing, the default will automatically exist where we maintain the rate from last year,” said councilmember Mike Laster of District K, referring to a Friday deadline to make changes.
Mayor Turner said he is allowed to increase the revenue cap following a disaster declaration and said the same thing was done after the Memorial Day 2015 and Tax Day 2016 floods. He expressed concern that not only will the cash-strapped city now have less money for public safety and fleet vehicles, but also that it could hurt their chances of getting more money to cover $1.2 billion in Harvey recovery costs.
“The vote that we made today was not in the best interest of the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I am constantly saying to FEMA: ‘We need those reimbursements, we need the advances, and we need them now.’ It just sends the wrong message if you’re lowering your tax rate when you’re in the midst of the recovery.”
Before the vote, the mayor announced the city has bought more than $7 million worth of new fire vehicles and nearly $9 million in police vehicles. He expects those should be delivered by the end of January.
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