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Harris County Tax Rates Aren’t Changing, But Residents Could Still Pay More

The overall rate is the same as last year, but that doesn’t mean residents won’t see any difference on their tax bills.

Harris County Commissioners held three hearings to discuss changes to the tax rate, an issue that could impact millions of residents. But with little public input, this meeting took less than four minutes.

The other two didn’t run much longer. As per the rules of a representative democracy, officials gave the public several chances to weigh in. But few people spoke out to challenge their decision, and county commissioners adopted the final 2016 tax rate last week.

When asked about the lack of participation, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says that’s a sign residents are happy with the way things are going. He notes that the county cut taxes in 2008, and it has maintained a AAA bond rating.

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“Most people understand that Harris County, in terms of providing transportation infrastructure improvements  and flood control, we are a rapidly growing county, and we’re handling our finances very well,” Emmett says.

Breaking down the numbers, the rate for the Hospital District remains the same. The Flood Control District and the Port of Houston will lower their rates, and the county will collect more. When you add those numbers up, the overall rate is the same as last year. But that doesn’t mean residents won’t see any difference on their tax bills, and two experts pointed that out to commissioners.

Don Sumners, a former Harris County tax assessor-collector, was one of two people that came to speak at the third and final public hearing. Sumners says over the last five years, the increase in property values has allowed the county to take in more revenue, but the tax rate hasn’t gotten any lower.

“I think that this year’s 10.5 percent increase is just a further abuse of your discretion, and I think that it’s really sort of a disgrace that you have chosen to go against the known will of the taxpayers,” Sumners says.

Sumners says the City of Houston lowered its tax rate for the second year in a row, so why isn’t the county doing the same? Emmett says you can’t really compare the two. Unlike the city, the county doesn’t have multiple sources of revenue.  

“What I have to remind people of all the time, Harris County only gets property tax,” Emmett says. “We don’t get any sales tax. So people go about how good the economy’s going, that doesn’t benefit us. There’s a lag in county government.”

Commissioners also heard from another former tax official. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt didn’t attend the meeting, but he sent a letter to commissioners. A representative from his office, Robert Flanagan, read an excerpt.

“What is really disastrous for hard-working taxpayers is seeing their property tax bills increase yearly by double-digit percentages,” Flanagan says. “I hope you and your colleagues on the court will grant much needed property tax relief to the taxpayers of Harris County.”

Emmett maintains that property values are an issue to take up with the Harris County Appraisal District, not county commissioners, and he says the tax revenue is needed to support rapid growth in unincorporated parts of the county.

But Emmett says there are other ways to cut costs. More than a fourth of the tax rate goes to the Hospital District. Since the state won’t reimburse Medicaid dollars spent on indigent care, that financial burden falls on the taxpayers.

“Take away our responsibility for indigent healthcare,” he says. “If you really want to get property tax relief, do that.”

The judge says if state officials choose to expand Medicaid, the county could be reimbursed, and taxpayers could get some relief.

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Tomeka Weatherspoon

Senior Producer

Tomeka Weatherspoon is an Emmy-award winning producer. She produces segments, the weekly television program Arts InSight, the short film showcase The Territory and a forthcoming digital series on innovation. Originally from the Midwest, Tomeka studied convergence journalism from the world’s first journalism school at the University of Missouri. She has...

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