The Johnson County Commissioners Court’s mission, County Judge Roger Harmon said on Tuesday, has always involved assertive efforts toward keeping the county’s tax rate as low as possible and, whenever possible, providing true tax relief to residents.
County residents in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, will likely find their property tax rate decreased by about a nickel, or about 10 percent.
Commissioners, during a Monday record vote, unanimously approved the decrease on a provisional basis. Commissioners will officially vote on the budget and tax rate on Sept. 23.
Should the proposed rate stand, and commissioners said they have no reason to believe it won’t, the rate will decrease from 47.2 cents per $100 of valuation to 42.5 cents per $100.
Commissioners revisited and discussed the figures and proposal during a marathon Monday meeting settling on an even larger decrease than was proposed the week before. Commissioners last week proposed 43.3 cents per $100.
“Several factors played into our ability to be in a position to lower the tax rate,” Harmon said. “The main factor is taxable values where we saw a $1.1 billion increase. Some of that comes from reappraisals, which the commissioners court has nothing to do with. But much of it simply comes from the substantial growth we’re seeing. We had some $480 million in new growth and construction.
“That’s really encouraging. If that growth continues, and I think it probably will, we should be able to meet county needs to meet that growth.”
The proposed budget also calls for a 3 percent COLA increase for county employees, pays off the $2.3 million owed on Guinn Justice Center renovation bonds, provides several new employees and new equipment purchases.
“This is the first time since I’ve been on the court that we’ve had that combination of good, healthy fund balance and good revenues,” Commissioner Kenny Howell said. “In turn, that’s enabled us to be able to propose this lower tax rate and still provide for the needs of the county and the citizens. Even with that, we’ve still been extremely conservative with the budget and funded only what’s absolutely necessary to provide those needed services.”
Commissioner Jerry Stringer said he’s elated by the state of the county and the proposed tax cut. Stringer, during last week’s budget workshops, stressed the needs to address current county employees before entertaining new hire requests.
Stringer also addressed those who take to social media to voice their opinions and the effective rate, which the tax rate required to raise the same amount of revenue as the year before.
“Any social media charges that we’re not looking out for taxpayers or trying to line our pockets are disproved by this budget that cuts the rate by about a nickel and is below the effective rate, which decreases the amount of revenue we would’ve brought in had we set it at or above the effective rate. We’re able to do that because of county growth and the fact that our fee revenue is up. That’s helping offset the tax rate and it means people are using their county services more.”
Although conditions change year to year, Harmon said the court’s hope is to be able to continue cutting the tax rate in successive years.
“The county’s economy and growth looks strong right now,” Harmon said. “It doesn’t look like that’s going to slow down in the near future. So yes, if we can, and barring any major economic downturn nationally that’s what we hope to be in a position to do again next year and the years after that. Of course, it’s way too early to talk about anything like that concretely. For now though, I don’t know of any other entity proposing a nickel cut.”
Howell said he hopes others do.
“It’s like I said last week in court, let’s hope these other taxing entities in the county will be conservative during their budget processes, try to lower their tax rates and get some relief to the citizens of Johnson County. We’ve issued that challenge. Because a nickel won’t solve the tax problem, but it’s a step in the right direction and will help ease the pain. Then, if some of these other entities lower their rates, it could add up to a nice tax break for the citizens. We understand. We pay taxes too.”
Conservative budgeting will be key to meet challenges ahead, Harmon said.
New annexation laws approved by voters in November decreases the ability of cities to annex new areas.
“All these subdivisions being built in the unincorporated parts of the county, eventually we’re going to have to take on responsibility for those roads,” Harmon said. “And that’s going to be up to the sheriff to cover those areas.”
Harmon once again chided Texas legislators for enacting a growth cap of 3.5 percent, something many county and city officials say will likely hamper the ability of counties and cities to grow and provide needed services in the years to come. The cap — which represents growth percentage, not a tax increase — does not take effect until next year.
“The county’s never really been the big issue tax wise,” Harmon said. “The county rate is lower than the city and school rates. The main issue is school taxes and that’s because the Legislature is not properly funding schools. Let’s put the blame where it lies. Their No. 1 priority this past session was to address school funding, and they did some good things. But there’s still a lot that needs to be done and they still need to find an alternative way to fund schools. Otherwise, with the cost of taxes, appraisals, insurance and borrowing money, they’re going to force more people out of their homes and decrease the number of people who are able to buy homes.”