After a contentious debate Tuesday morning, Bexar County commissioners voted to reduce the property tax rate by about one-tenth of a cent per $100 valuation.

As they did Friday when a reduced property tax rate was proposed, Commissioners Trish DeBerry (Pct. 3) and Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff voted Tuesday to make the 2022 tax rate $0.299999 per $100 valuation, a decrease from the previous property tax rate of $0.301097 per $100 valuation. 

Commissioners Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1) and Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) fought the reduction, reiterating that the estimated savings for an average homeowner in Bexar County would be $4 a year while the general fund would lose $1.7 million. Rodriguez added while the property appraisal process remains the same, homeowners will not even see a reduced tax bill because values will undoubtedly increase again next year.

“This is a little bit of a shell game,” he said. “I’ve been there in the Legislature where they point all the fingers at local governments and they say, ‘You guys want lower taxes? Go to your local city council, they need to lower the tax rate.’ We’ve done that. And people are still paying high property taxes. It’s a little bit unnerving for me because I’ve been in the room where there’s been nothing done on out-of-control appraisals that have gone up.

“Just for purposes of being transparent with our constituents, we can pound on our chests or put on mailers that we lowered the tax, but the reality is we didn’t.”

Citizens who signed up to speak against reducing the tax rate argued that doing so would limit the amount of funding that could be directed toward funding a new specialty court for domestic violence and Child Protective Services cases, a proposal made by some Bexar County district judges. In the 2022 proposed budget, county staff set aside $400,000 to pay for an associate judge and staff for the court, as well as three more attorneys in the district attorney’s office to focus solely on that court. But the full request for the new specialty court amounted to another $1.8 million.

Rodriguez managed to get his colleagues to unanimously approve setting aside an additional $1.8 million in contingency funds to meet the specialty children’s court request, though DeBerry objected to the connection between that funding request and the property tax reduction. 

“I think it was a little bit unfair to pit the taxpayers of Bexar County against women and children when I really feel there was room in the budget to fund the domestic violence issues that we have in the courts as well as offer a decrease for the taxpayers,” she said.

County staff will now have to identify a source of funding for that $1.8 million and come back to commissioners with a recommendation, County Manager David Smith said. That money could potentially come from federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars, as the purpose of the court is to address the backlog of domestic violence cases that built up when the pandemic halted in-person court proceedings.

Wolff, who largely stayed out of the property tax debate, said he voted to reduce the tax rate because commissioners have incrementally done so since 1994, when the property tax rate was $0.38885 per $100 valuation.

“We’ve had a solid record of that,” he said. “It’s always hard to balance the need for services and your tax rate and be fair on both things. Over the years, we’ve reduced that tax rate and tried to be fair to both sides.”

Clay-Flores declined to vote on the tax rate at all, castigating her fellow commissioners who voted for the reduction. As an elected official and a Democrat, she said, she believes in keeping money in the county’s general fund in order to ensure funding for services such as addressing domestic violence and the children’s court. The tax rate, she said, only saves the average homeowner “four measly dollars.”

“Four dollars does nothing for my community,” she said. “I abstain from this because I refuse to be part of a political game. I refuse to vote on something that I wholeheartedly disagree with. I abstain from this vote.”

Commissioners did unanimously approve the 2022 budget, still roughly $2.8 billion after amendments approved Friday added more than $8 million to the total. That includes keeping 12 law enforcement deputy positions in the sheriff’s office that staff earlier recommended cutting, plus the addition of 28 new deputy constable positions and four civilian security monitors, one for each precinct.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.