Who gets to decide the rules for short-term rentals, annexation, paid sick leave, property taxes, e-scooters, and other parts of our daily lives? Should it be up to city governments or the state?
These questions were at the center of a discussion between local and state officials during the Rivard Report’s first annual San Antonio CityFest on Saturday.
“Are local officials … in the driver seat or is state government the controlling legal authority?” Texas Tribune CEO and moderator Evan Smith asked the panel, which included San Antonio City Manger Sheryl Sculley, Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax, State Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-San Antonio), and State Sen. Pete Flores (R-San Antonio).
Home rule allows cities to establish their own charters, similar to constitutions, but the Texas Legislature has attempted to – and successfully on some issues – pre-empt local laws. The state is the sovereign authority and states created the federal and local governments, Smith said. “On some level the conversation ends right there.”
But home rule means cities can come up with solutions that fit their unique needs, Sculley said.
The state has stepped in on a number of issues, including ride-hailing platform rules, and the Legislature will likely take on short-term rental rules and limits to property tax growth when the next session starts in 2019. Proponents of statewide regulations say it’s an attempt to stabilize what has become a patchwork of different policies. But objectors argue that what works in some communities may not be best for others.
“In that respect, one size does not necessarily fit all,” Sculley said.
Another main home rule fight with potential to hit city budgets hard is a state measure that would require a public vote if annual property tax revenue growth exceeds a certain amount. That cap is at 8 percent today and voters have to petition for an election, but Republican lawmakers have proposed making the election automatic and reducing the cap to 6, 4, or even 2.5 percent.
Before the state steps into that cap, Minjarez said, it needs to start properly funding education and health care – the real reason property taxes are going up.
“We’re not paying our fair share,” she said, so cities have to foot the bill.
But another key piece of the conversation, Flores said, is how property values are assessed.
“It’s not just about the [tax] caps, it’s the entire system,” Flores said, explaining that each county has its own methodology for assessing value. “It’s just a guess.”
Flores, the first Hispanic Republican to serve in the Texas Senate, said he would work on legislation that would formalize that process.
The form of municipal government in San Antonio and Dallas also got the panelists talking.
In a council-manager form of government, which both use, the city manager is in charge of the day-to-day but is not an elected official, Smith said. “Who gets to vote you out of office?”
It was an especially pointed question given that 59 percent of San Antonio voters approved term and compensation limits for future city managers. While Sculley is not impacted by the measure, the firefighters union-backed Proposition B was directed at her.
“City Council does,” Sculley said. “The city manger is hired as the chief executive to implement the policies of the mayor and City Council.”
There are more opportunities for a city manager to get fired than a Council member, said Broadnax, who has worked as assistant city manager for Sculley.
If City Council doesn’t think the city manager is doing their job, they can take a vote anytime, while Council members have two years between elections, he said, “[There’s] a different level of accountability.”
Broadnax has disagreed with Dallas Council members at times, he said, but the authority lies with the majority. “Whatever the council’s will is, staff will go and figure out how to implement it.”