City holds tax rate steady; Appraisal creep to boost revenues

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CM Helena Brown tries to give taxpayers relief; Parker and Council want the revenue

Last week, Mayor Annise Parker and her Council voted to hold the property tax rate steady, which will result in a fairly significant increase in revenues thanks to property tax appraisals that are rising once again.

Before the current crew of spending addicts voted to keep the revenues flowing, District A Councilmember Helena Brown warned in a press release of a large discrepancy between the City of Houston’s estimates and HCAD’s:

According to certified estimates provided by the Harris County Appraisal District (HCAD), Houston property owners are scheduled to pay up to10.58% ($102 Million) more in 2013 ad valorem taxes than in 2012, and the administration has presented numbers which are not remotely close to these numbers indicated by HCAD.

District A Councilmember Helena Brown (photo courtesy of City of Houston website)
District A Councilmember Helena Brown (photo courtesy of City of Houston website)

City Council and the public should have been made aware of this projected 10.58% increase in 2013 property tax values. Without this knowledge, Council would have unwittingly voted this Wednesday to burden the taxpayers with another massive tax increase of $102 Million. This would be in addition to the drainage fee of $130 Million, which was the equivalent of a 13% increase in the property tax.

The administration’s first indication of a projected increase in 2013 property taxes “greater than five percent” occurred on September 4, 2013 with their request for the scheduling of three hearings as required by Section 44-27 of the Code of Ordinances (Request for Council Action Agenda Item#4 on 09/04/13). The request for the hearings schedule was approved by City Council that day. Also that day, it appears that the Finance Department prepared and issued the Notice of 2013 Property Tax Rates in the City of Houston (www.houstontx.gov/2013propertytaxrate.pdf) in which a 6.42 percent revenue increase was calculated. However, the HCAD certified estimate indicates a 10.58% increase, which is an astounding 4.16 percentage points (or 65%) higher than the City’s estimate.

Councilmember Brown’s effort to call attention to the discrepancy between the City’s numbers and HCAD’s proved futile, as Councilmember Brown was unable to win passage of any reduction in the tax rate. Ultimately, she was the lone dissenter in the vote to keep the current tax rate.

Mayor Parker, of course, has many spending priorities that must be supported, and some contend (as Mayor Parker once contended) that the city has been running a structural deficit for years, even as the city has been balking at fully funding its municipal pensions. Somebody has to pay, and appraisal creep can be really convenient for politicians addicted to spending.

What ever happened to Dan Patrick’s CLOUT organization?

As the city’s budget non-debate was underway last week, I wondered about CLOUT, the organization that Dan Patrick/Edd Hendee/KSEV put together just over a decade ago to fight so-called property-tax appraisal creep and stand up for taxpayers. Back in the day, this group held rallies, engaged in policy advocacy, donated to political candidates, filed lawsuits, and generally behaved like any active PAC. Oh, and CLOUT raised plenty of cash, much of it from small donors, who were constantly pointed to the CLOUT website to donate by KSEV hosts.

Old logo from CLOUT (Citizens Lowering Our Unfair Taxes) PAC
Old logo from CLOUT (Citizens Lowering Our Unfair Taxes) PAC

The group seemed to fade away during the late 2000s, possibly because even Houston’s housing market slowed (and so did appraisal creep), possibly because Dan Patrick’s interests/needs changed. Their website no longer exists, and wasn’t active for some time before disappearing.

No doubt “inspired” by opposition research from one (or more) of Patrick’s political opponents, the AP last week ran an interesting analysis of CLOUT’s handling of all that money raised from so many small donors. Here is the key takeaway:

State Sen. Dan Patrick spent more than $46,000 in donations to a political action committee he co-founded on his Houston radio station and a marketing firm controlled by his former employees — payments that weren’t illegal but that critics contend violated the spirit of Texas’ ethics laws.

An Associated Press analysis of filings with the Texas Ethics Commission shows that Patrick, a conservative talk radio host trying to unseat Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in next year’s Republican primary, also received a $5,000 campaign donation from the group, Citizens to Lower Our Unfair Taxes, or CLOUT. The PAC also paid nearly $1,900 in redesign fees to a website that hosts Patrick’s personal blog.

That’s more than $52,500, all told, to Patrick’s campaign or related business interests — or almost 20 percent of the total of $272,000-plus CLOUT raised between being founded in June 2003 and its last reported political contribution in July 2010.

The finance reports also reveal significant expenditures directed towards Gary Polland for legal work, and surprisingly high expenditures for design and hosting of a simple website.

While funneling so much money towards Patrick’s own business and political interests was not illegal, it also wasn’t something that Patrick or Hendee were emphasizing to all the KSEV listeners who sent small donations to the PAC.

Sen. Patrick tells the AP that none of this is that big a deal:

Patrick said the amount spent was small given that CLOUT paid for so many months of web advertising. He also said that while the group bought some of its on-air mentions, he spent much longer periods of time on his radio show promoting it for free.

That’s a pretty lame justification for keeping such a large cut of the proceeds generated from so many small donors, who probably expected more of their contributions to be directed towards securing property tax relief — say, from Houston City Council last week.

Kevin Whited
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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX