Bexar County Commissioners on Friday capped the county’s property tax rate for next year by nearly 1 percent less than the current tax rate. They also considered a $1.7 billion budget for fiscal year 2018-2019, slated for final consideration on Sept. 11.
The proposal is cautious when it comes to new roads, projects, and improvements because of concerns about the State Legislature’s attempts to reduce local governments’ control of such spending, County Manager David Smith said.
“Gov. [Greg] Abbott has proposed several legislative initiatives that would impact how much property tax revenue is available to the County and how the County can use property tax revenue,” Smith wrote in his proposal. “These proposed changes are only a part of the Legislature’s overall plan for the State to dictate how local governments in Texas manage their finances and local affairs. Unfortunately, these revenue caps will be unlikely to actually reduce property tax payers’ tax bills, as most local property taxes go to support school districts, not counties.”
A 1 percent property tax decrease next year would save taxpayers about $4 million in taxes, McCabe said. The County has decreased its tax rate 13 times over the past 24 years – including the last two years. The County also has homestead, senior citizens, and disability exemptions for property taxes.
But this budget, while 3 percent lower than last year’s because of the lack of capital projects, will raise almost $20 million more revenue from property taxes – 4.7 percent more than last year. Nearly $11 million of that additional revenue is expected to be raised from new property added to the tax roll.
The budget also would fund 16 more deputies for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office; cut the number of constables, peace officers who largely carry out civil and criminal court duties, by 15; and eliminate eight clerk positions from Justice of the Peace offices. The latter two cuts are due to a decrease in workload, according to Seth McCabe, director of the County’s Management and Finance Department. Several constables asked commissioners to reconsider the cuts and “save our jobs,” which will be the subject of a future budget work session with commissioners, Smith said.
The proposed budget increases its livable wage from $14.25 to $15 per hour. The County started substantial, incremental increases to hourly wages for its employees in 2015.
As the 10-year, $500 million Bexar County Flood Program concludes, the County will continue to invest $2.5 million in its High-Water Alert Lifesaving Technology, or HALT Program. HALT monitors weather and rising waters on roadways and alerts drivers of dangerous floodwaters.
County commissioners were receptive to community pleas demanding a better system for court-appointed attorneys. Several members of the local Texas Organizing Project and family members of incarcerated people gathered at a press conference before the commissioners’ meeting and then took turns addressing the court to call for a comprehensive, independent study of the performance of attorneys who represent those who cannot afford legal representation. These attorneys are paid $140 per case.
One woman claimed her son took a plea bargain because his attorney just wanted to close the case. Another said the court-appointed attorneys have no incentive to do their due diligence.
Raven Peña, criminal justice organizer for the local chapter of TOP, said such instances – even if rare – should never occur.
Smith recommended the “Budget Office and Judicial Services Department form a staff working group to review each court-appointed attorney case and review costs, as well as the progress and outcome of each defendant’s case.”
That group would report back on whether an increased fee is enhancing the “quality of representation for defendants,” he said.
Peña and other members delivered boxes wrapped like presents to each commissioner. Commissioner Paul Elizondo (Pct. 2) attended the meeting Friday via video feed but also received a box. Inside them were hundreds of petitions calling for the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to carry out the study, Peña said, adding that it could cost between $160,000 to $200,000. This study would be above and beyond the working group that Smith recommended.
“I think that was the best suggestion we heard today,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff who noted it’s good timing, too. The County’s new $32.8 million intake and assessment center is set to open later this year, Wolff said, so it’s time to find out if some processes could be improved. “We want … a better overall study of that – you know the bail bonds [system] is certainly a system that doesn’t work right, I don’t believe.”
The County will host public hearings regarding the tax rate and budget on Sept. 4 and Sept. 7. An optional work session will be hosted on Sept. 6 if needed.