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2016-09-29

Commishes to Austin, ‘Lay off counties’

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

In response to the anticipated legislative session in Austin this January, Bandera County Commissioners recently approved a series of resolutions to be sent to the 85th Texas Legislature. Their succinct message to the State of Texas is “lay off the counties.”
Appraisal &
revenue caps
Because any appraisal or revenue caps diminish local control – and essentially “tie the hands” of county officials – commissioners, to a man, opposed appraised caps and revenue caps.
In past sessions, the legislature has considered and rejected proposals for additional revenue caps and additional appraisal caps in counties. In reality, however, 60 percent of the average taxpayer’s property tax burden is due to school taxes while only 14 percent is due to county taxes.
According to commissioners, this inequity effectively limits their ability to provide essential services to and address the needs of their citizens.
Additionally, county government continues to struggle to meet the demands of under-funded and unfunded state mandates, which includes indigent healthcare and defense, as well as federal mandates such as the Help America Vote Act and the Clean Air Act. All the while, demands on county budgets increase. Health care, motor fuel, materials for road construction and other products and services purchased by counties continue to increase annually.
According to commissioners, legislative imposition of artificial appraisal caps or revenue caps will result in shifting taxes from rapidly appreciating properties to those remaining relatively stable in value, as well as to all non-residential properties. These caps would not necessarily result in a reduction of property taxes but rather severely impact county services, commissioners indicated.
“Undermining a property tax system based on fair market value is a questionable public policy and will result in a distorted, inequitable taxation scheme under which identical homes could be taxed at vastly different amounts,” the resolution read. “It would be inequitable for the Texas Legislature to impose additional revenue caps on local governments without imposing similar caps on state government and repealing and prohibiting state unfunded mandates.”
In conclusion, the court expressed its deep appreciation to all legislators who oppose these unsound measures.
Unfunded mandates
It comes as no surprise that unfunded mandates passed to counties from Austin have long stuck in the craw of Judge Richard Evans and the commissioners court. A second resolution approved during a regular meeting on Thursday, Sept. 22, opposes such mandates.
The resolution began by explaining that, as required or authorized by state law, Texas counties are responsible for operating and managing various governmental programs, some of which are fully or partially supported with funds disbursed by the State of Texas through the appropriations process.
However, in many instances, actions by a state agency or executive order – or by the Legislature itself – impose mandatory financial obligations on Texas counties. Counties are then required to implement governmental programs or perform duties that entail a financial commitment and expenditure of taxpayers’ money to fulfill that requirement.
As just one example, the court cited the now mandatory process of e-Filing of court documents, which cost Bandera County $100,000 for the necessary computer software.
During each legislative session, all state funds that support county programs are reviewed through the state appropriations process and by other budgetary review systems. These review processes may result in reducing or stopping entirely state financial support of county government programs, causing “an unforeseeable disruption and reduction of the county budget and operations.”
The end result of the state mandating a new program without funding that program fully is that counties fail to achieve reliable financial planning and the bond ratings necessary to support county related obligations. This is also true if the state reduces or withdraws prior funding and disbursement for county government programs.
To end what appears to be an endless stream of unfunded mandates washing down from Austin, county commissioners propose favoring legislation in the form of an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Texas that would “expressly prohibit the imposition of a mandatory governmental program on Texas counties, whether by an act of the Texas Legislature, state agency or executive order, unless the State of Texas has fully funded and disbursed all necessary funds to enable Texas counties to operate said governmental program.”
Indigent criminal defense
The third approved resolution involves indigent criminal defense. The resolution begins by acknowledging that the United States Constitution guarantees the right to legal counsel and the State of Texas is required to implement this right and provide legal counsel to indigent criminal defendants.
In 2001, the Texas Legislature adopted the Texas Fair Defense Act that requires counties to provide legal procedures and attorney appointments. However, the Legislature failed to provide sufficient funding to offset the costs of the Fair Defense Act and instead shifted the cost to county taxpayers.
According to the court, cost to Bandera County of implementing the Fair Defense Act has increased by 100 percent since its inception. “State funding is totally inadequate, providing approximately 12 percent of the indigent defense costs.”
The resolution also notes: “Indigent criminal defense is a state responsibility that should be adequately funded on a statewide basis, not be a burden overwhelmingly borne by local property taxpayers.” In conclusion, commissioners ask that the Texas Legislature fully fund the costs of indigent criminal defense.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Andy Wilkerson encouraged county residents to assist commissioners to bring their resolutions to fruition by contacting their state representative and senator. “Letters and emails will make a difference,” he said.