Tax Freeze: Poster Child for Unfairness
Commissioner Tommy Adkisson
March 11, 2004
"There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man's lawful prey. It's unwise to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money---that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot---it can't be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run. And if you do that, you will have enough to pay for the something better." John Ruskin, 1860.
In this election year, the question of a tax freeze presents itself to cities, counties and junior college districts. This arises from one of the 22 proposed Texas Constitutional Amendments presented on September 13, 2003. It permits but does not mandate a tax freeze. Five percent of registered voters can petition and subject to a County referendum, can mandate the freeze.
When I voted for it, it sounded like a good option. I cannot truly say that when I voted for it that I really thought through the ramifications of its implementation. The amendment itself, gives us freedom and flexibility needed at the local level, but does not mandate anything. Now that I have looked over this, I can share with you just some of the information that compels me to oppose implementing this measure.
A Little Cheaper Government
Keeping in mind the Ruskin quote above, a "little cheaper" government can be any of the following: more poorly kept roads or roads not kept at all, more inmates out on the streets instead of in jail when they need to be, less sheriff protection, less inspection of septic tanks, higher turnover in our employee staff so that few really know what to do, buildings that are falling down or are downright dangerous, less ability to comply with the laws that help keep our County safe in many ways. The list is literally endless.
A Little Thriftier Government
The list is endless when it comes to measures we at the County have utilized to fight rising taxes. First, we have cut or retained the existing rate of property taxation for each of the last eight years! It is the STATE ENTITY curiously bearing Bexar in its name and known as the Bexar Appraisal District that has raised values pursuant to state law, administrative requirements and lately we have found, in part due to mismanagement or poor management. If the legislature wants to fix something, this would be a good place to start. Additionally we have provided exemptions of $50,000.00 to "over 65" and $5,000.00 for disabled. We are conserving energy as never before. I intend to propose that we implement a Bexar County hiring freeze.
In its infinite wisdom, the Texas legislative leadership along with our Governor just handed Bexar County a number of unfunded mandates from toll roads to over $30 million in money historically sent but now cut from our University Health System and Center for Health Care Services. Now the Legislature is giving us a tool to accomplish the coup de gras, a butcher knife, not a scalpel to take out our own appendix. Go figure!
At the outset it must be recognized that we are dealing with the property tax, the primary funding mechanism which provides 70% of county government revenue. Unlike the City, we have no sales tax or CPS pass through revenue to pay for half of our budget like these measures do for the City. The other primary mechanism Counties have is court costs and fines. Bexar County obtains around 70% of its revenue from property taxes. So we are literally dealing with the revenue jugular vein of our government at the county level.
The Shift & Till Death Do Us Part!
This primitive tool for freezing taxes is a blunt instrument at best, for a number of reasons. One, it clobbers the under 65 and businesses for it will in due time, be the rates of these two categories of taxpayers that will sooner than later, be hiked! Two, it is permanent when invoked with no possibility of any revocation...hence another reason for the reference to it as a blunt instrument. We must be willing to live with the consequences of our decision: forever!
Of the 9.82% of the registered voters that voted in this very special election of last September, 87% of the 9.82% that did vote, voted for this Constitutional Amendment. That number is 4.97% or about five percent of the population of Bexar County or roughly 8.23% of the 846,110 registered voters of Bexar County.
Since the Legislature has stated its intent to meet March 29 on the question of school finances and school finance deals essentially with property taxes, it would seem prudent to defer permanent action until such time as we get a clearer picture of what it intends to do with them.
I would never submit that the property tax as a revenue generator is equitable. But is it equitable to freeze taxes for those of this County whose homes are for example in the Dominion? This is what the freeze will do!
The charts preliminarily assembled for our guidance on this issue by the Bexar Appraisal District demonstrate that the multimillion dollar loss that accrues from our implementation of this idea is rather immediate and quite profound as early as 2005.
I have found that short-term popularity rarely begets good long-term public policy. I prefer to take the long view. I believe that is what I am elected to do. If I could decree a jail population freeze, a salary freeze, insurance premiums freeze or a county growth freeze along with a property tax freeze, I might consider this measure favorably. But I cannot. For these reasons and more, I oppose this measure in its present form.
Around 203 years ago, our nation's third president, Thomas Jefferson delivered his first inaugural address, the first ever to take place in our nation's new capitol on the Potomac. Among other things President Jefferson stated something I believe to be pertinent to the issue at hand, "I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment. When right, I shall often be thought wrong by those whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground. I ask your indulgence for my own errors, which will never be intentional, and your support against the errors of others, who may condemn what they would not if seen in all its parts."