Harris County

Harris County Republican commissioners continue boycott of court meetings over tax rates

Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey had sought a special, discussion-only meeting to hammer out a compromise on taxes and the budget. They got it, but refused to attend, claiming Commissioner Adrian Garcia was negotiating in bad faith.

Republican County Commissioners Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle skipped Tuesday's Commissioners Court meeting, preventing Democrats from reaching the supermajority needed to vote on their proposed property tax rate.
Screenshot, Commissioners Court Livestream

Harris County may have missed its last chance to adopt new tax rates for Fiscal Year 2023. The county could soon be stuck with the same revenue rate as last fiscal year, despite rising costs.

The two Republican county commissioners, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, have been boycotting court meetings for more than a month, arguing that the court's Democratic majority was attempting to steamroll them by passing a budget and tax rates without their input or consent. Under state law, county governments require a super quorum of four members present in order to vote on tax or budget issues, effectively giving any two members a veto if they choose not to show up.

Cagle offered a counterproposal on the tax rates earlier this this month and requested Judge Lina Hidalgo schedule a special meeting of Commissioners Court to debate the various proposals, but at which no vote would be taken.

Last Friday, Hidalgo announced such a meeting would take place Monday. Initially, both Cagle and Ramsey signaled they would attend, suggesting an end to the impasse was in sight.

But hours before the special meeting was set to take place, Cagle and Ramsey reversed themselves and announced they would not attend. Both accused Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who had issued a counterproposal of his own on tax rates, of saying that his proposal was his final offer.

"As I said last week, I will not negotiate with a knife to my throat," said Commissioner Cagle in an emailed statement. "There can be no good-faith negotiations with someone who announces publicly that he has made his final offer."

Commissioner Ramsey said that he rejected Garcia's offer and withdrew his own proposal to break the logjam. "We are to a point that I really don't trust my colleagues in this process," Ramsey said. "It's all very confusing. This is chaotic. I've only worked for 50 cities and 20 counties in the state of Texas, and I've never seen a more chaotic tax and budget process than what I've experienced here. Just poor, poor leadership."

Garcia, speaking at the special meeting, denied he had issued any ultimatum in making his counterproposal. "I issued an invitation for (Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle) to come to the table and negotiate," Garcia said. "My colleagues had asked for a discussion-only meeting. This is it."

County commissioners still have until October 28 to reach a compromise on the tax rates. But County Administrator David Berry said, for all practical purposes, Monday was the last day the court could take action to avoid having the tax rates default to the level of the previous fiscal year, commonly referred to as the "no new revenue rate."

"It's going to be really hard to have another commissioners court meeting for the commissioners court members to negotiate in person," Berry said, "and that's because we have a seven-day notice requirement to post tax rates for a vote, and then it's three days to schedule a meeting."

Another special meeting is scheduled for Tuesday with taxes on the agenda, but it is unlikely Cagle or Ramsey will attend that meeting either.

Berry said the consequences for failing to agree on a tax rate would be severe. Compared to the Fiscal Year 2023 budget originally proposed by the Budget Office, the county would be forced to cut $90 million in spending from county services – chiefly public safety and infrastructure. The Harris County Flood Control District would be forced to cut spending by $23 million, while the Hospital District would have to slash spending by $136 million.

The Republican commissioners, however, see the matter differently. Both Cagle and Ramsey portrayed their efforts to block the new tax rates as effectively saving Harris County taxpayers from more than $250 million in unnecessary spending.

"I think we have the same budget as we had last year plus $70 million, which gets us, I think, in a good spot," Ramsey said. "I'm perfectly fine and comfortable with the same budget as we had last year."

Judge Hidalgo, who is running for reelection, accused Ramsey and Cagle of playing politics with critical county services – including law enforcement, the funding of which was the main sticking point for the Republican commissioners in the originally proposed budget.

"They want to create a campaign ad," Hidalgo said. "They want to run an ad saying Harris County has been defunded, and in order for them to be able to do that, they have to make it defunded, so that they can then turn around and blame it on me. They're taking the people of this county and the voters of this county for fools."