The Cameron County Commissioners Court on Tuesday voted to raise the county’s property tax by $0.02 per $100 of property valuation for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.
The increase raises the property tax from $0.416893 to $0.436893 for every $100 of valuation in order to raise nearly $7.25 million more in tax revenue, from $76.3 million to $83.6 million, excluding tax revenue from new property added to the tax roll this year.
That’s a 4.8 percent increase in county tax revenue. Factoring in new property added to the tax roll this year, the amount of tax generated under the new rate will be more than $85 million.
County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr., who voted for the increase, said he did so reluctantly but that it was necessary to pay for long overdue raises for county employees, to bring them up to a living wage; expenses related to flood control infrastructure, which has been long neglected, unfunded mandates from the state and other factors.
“I think in view of the fact that the majority, if not all, of the additional tax revenue from the $0.02 (is) going toward our employees for pay equity, law enforcement and addressing the infrastructure, plus the actual growth this county’s experienced, I think we can explain to the voters, to the constituents of Cameron County, what they’re getting for their $0.02 tax increase,” he said.
Joining Trevino in voting for the increase were Precinct 2 Commissioner Joey Lopez and Precinct 4 Commissioner Gus Ruiz. Voting against it were Precinct 1 Commissioner Sofia Benavides and Precinct 3 Commissioner David Garza.
Garza said he could have supported a $0.01 increase but balked at the $0.02 increase.
“I do know that the average property owner, homeowner, in this county has seen annually an increase in the appraised (property) values by 6.5 percent,” he said. “And they can continue to see that for the next two years, because the state budget was balanced on increases in appraised values of not only Cameron County but every county in the state of Texas.”
Ruiz said the county’s tax rate has risen about $0.07 in 17 years, and that he supported the $0.02 increase because of the major drainage issues the county has to address and in order to provide better services to residents.
Trevino said an additional reason to pass the increase now is that a new state law reducing the “effective rollback rate” from the current 8 percent to 3.5 percent goes into effect Jan. 1. After Jan. 1, local governments will have to seek voter approval for tax increases above 3.5 percent, with some exceptions.
Local governments have opposed the measure, though state leaders have championed it as necessary to tamp down Texans’ rising property taxes.
Robert Leftwich, a former Harlingen city commissioner present at the Tuesday meeting, said after the vote that commissioners should have waited until after Jan. 1 and given voters a say.
“What’s wrong with voter approval?” he said.
The “unfunded mandates” Trevino referred to, and which kick in Oct. 1, involve mental health services, indigent care, judicial costs, jail division overtime and juvenile probation, he said.
“All of these basically are things that we have to do as part of our responsibility as a local county,” he said. “If the Legislature approves it, we have to do it. We’ve got to find that money somehow or another. That’s why local governments are so upset over the last decade or two, where they pass this legislation but they don’t provide the funding.”
Trevino said that even with the increase the county still has among the lowest tax rates of any large taxing entity in the Rio Grande Valley.
“We hope that the citizens understand the issues that we’re dealing with and the growth that we need to address,” he said.