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2007-09-06

‘Taxpayers misled,’ charges LH’s Harris

By Judith Pannebaker

What should have been a “rubber stamp” special session of Bandera County Commissioners Court - approving placement of a proposed 2007 combined tax rate on the Sept. 27 agenda - unexpectedly turned into a soul searching session of sorts.

The Bandera County property tax rate of 70.71 cents per $100 valuation includes a debt rate of 6.77 cents - up from zero last year. The debt service tax resulted from voters’ approval of bonds for constructing and equipping a new jail and justice center on Highway 173. The increased 6.7 cents covers the debt on the $9.5 million in bonds issued recently to build the facility. Taxpayers should expect an additional increase next year when the remainder of the $11.4 million is issued.

The basis of the brouhaha - at least to Precinct 2 Commissioner Bobby Harris - was that last November voters were led to believe the project would entail only a 2.7 cent tax increase.

County Judge Richard Evans attributed the tax increase to state funds being cut for both adult and juvenile probation, as well as to an incorrect initial assessment from the Central Appraisal District. “Things happened after the proposed budget was filed,” he said. The ad valorem tax was increased from a previously proposed 67.74 cents to the current 70.71 rate. However, Harris was having none of it, taking specific exception to the debt service rate.

“What is the tax rate on the jail and justice center bond?” he asked.

After being told the debt service rate was 6.77 cents, Harris blasted his fellow commissioners, saying, “Last year, members of this court went around and told taxpayers the impact was going to be 2.7 cents. Now, its 4 cents higher. How did that happen?”

County Auditor Christina Moeller replied, “Actually, the first year, we told taxpayers it was going to be 10 cents.” Evans and Precinct 4 Commissioner Doug King concurred with her assessment.

King added, “In our model, we said the tax would be 10 cents the first year and we’re below that.”

However, according to information disseminated by the court in November 2006, taxpayers were told the project’s initial tax rate impact would result in a higher total tax rate of approximately 2.7 cents, Harris said.

“This was very misleading to the taxpayers. I know we need a jail and justice center, but I think the taxpayers were entitled to be told the truth,” he said. “According to the debt service rate, the 2.7 cents wasn’t going to get it done. We can’t pay the bond off with 2.7 cents.”

Evans indicated that completion of the jail and justice center would preclude having to pay other counties to house Bandera’s prisoners. “Hopefully, we’ll also have a few beds to rent to other agencies in other counties,” he said.

In addition, Bandera County Sheriff Weldon Tucker concurred with Evans’ belief that recent legislative changes with respect to sentencing guidelines could decrease the jail population by as much as 10 to 15 percent in coming years.

King said, “When we’re ready to move in (the new jail and justice center), we won’t be sending prisoners to other counties. I think saving a half million dollars will make this (tax rate) go down quite a bit.”

Harris said, “I’m not buying into that. The sheriff in Medina County said we wouldn’t be able to rent beds after the third year. Right now our jail’s at half capacity. By this time next year, it’ll be at 75 percent capacity. Everyone’s running around saying we’ll save money and make money by renting out our beds. Those beds are going to be non-existent. I’m just putting the cold hard facts on the table.”

According to Harris, the costs to pay the bond off and operate the new jail would be closer to 15 cents.

“Right now, you’re paying over a million dollars a year to operate what we got. It’s gonna cost you $1.5 million to operate this facility and that’s without paying anybody else to house our prisoners. I think the taxpayers are entitled to be told the truth. That’s what I’m saying here today,” Harris said.

“(The commissioners) went to seven different meetings and told the taxpayers, ‘If you vote for this it’s only gonna cost you 2.7cents.’ Now, the first budget out of the chute, we’re up to 6.7 cents. I think it’s very deceiving to taxpayers.”

“I don’t think the taxpayers were deceived at all, Bobby,” King said, adding, “What do you suggest we do?”

“It’s real hard to catch the horses after the gate’s been opened and now the gate’s open,” Harris rejoined. “The bond issue passed on misleading statements to the public.”

His colleague’s took exception to his charge that voters had been deceived.

Moeller said, “(The taxpayers) voted for the bond. That’s our document. We’re a team.”

“The taxpayers in my precinct voted for a 2.7 cent tax,” Harris responded. “They’re upset about this. I was elected and sent here to protect my taxpayers. That’s why I’m making these statements today.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Bruce Eliker said, “I think we were probably very honest and very conservative on the estimate we gave the taxpayers. We gave them the best information we could.”

Eliker also indicated he felt voters were probably aware the actual tax might exceed the approximations referred to during last fall’s campaign.

“Do I like it? No, but it’s the reality of taking care of business like we’re mandated to do,” Eliker continued.

“We’re just trying to manage this thing as responsibly as possible.” Evans said.

King’s motion to place the proposed 2007 combined tax rate of 70.71 cents on the Thursday, Sept. 27, agenda for adoption was approved.

Public hearings on the proposed 70.71 cent tax rate are scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 13, at 10 am and Monday, Sept. 17, at 7 pm. The proposed tax rate will be adopted at 10 am at a regular commissioners court meeting, Thursday, Sept. 27.