Grassroots protest group rises to block port tax

HARLINGEN — A grassroots group opposed to the reinstatement of a port levy on some voters in Cameron and Willacy counties hopes to head off the tax before county commissioners approve it.

Instead of tossing tea bales into Boston Harbor, these tax protesters are taking their stand on the Arroyo Colorado where the Port of Harlingen

facility sits. “Why don’t the people who are going to be charged this tax have a chance to weigh in on the decision that’s being made for them?” asks Anthony “Trey” Parker, a business owner who lives near Lyford. “And what’s so different now that’s been fine for 20 years? “I guess to increase the ability to export more fuel to Mexico, and that’s fine and dandy, but why aren’t the customers the ones paying for that? Why is it the public?” Parker asked. “In any other real-world situation, if your business runs out of money, or if you need more money to do upgrades, you have to find that money within or save for it or charge the customer. You don’t get to go to the public and just ask for another blank check.”

Parker lives within the area of Cameron and Willacy counties which will be assessed 3 cents per $100 valuation on a property for a tax to benefit the Port of Harlingen Authority.

That would, if approved, cost a property owner with a home valued at $100,000 some $30 a year. For the port, it would raise more than $1 million annually to spend on maintenance and operations, but not infrastructure.

The last time the tax was in effect was 1997, and property owners in the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District, the Rio Hondo Independent School District and southern Willacy County paid it.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the time the tax lapsed and the present is social media. Parker is savvy on those platforms, and has organized a Facebook page, Citizens Against Port of Harlingen Tax Increase, and has begun a change. org petition against the reintroduction of the port levy.

Formed last week, Parker’s Facebook page already has 180 likes and followers.

Tax on tax on tax

Albert Bergendahl lives on the west side of Harlingen outside the city limits and found the tax revolt group on Facebook. He says he called around, and determined he does live in the port tax zone area.

“If you’re gonna take my dollars, my hard-earned dollars, I should have some kind of say-so,” Bergendahl said. “And we don’t do that. You can only tax a person so much and then you start looking to leave the city and that’s exactly where I’m at. My wife retired; I’m retired. We’re starting to think maybe this isn’t the place for us anymore.”

John Silar of Harlingen isn’t a member of the Facebook group. But he is the owner of about a halfdozen properties within the port tax zone, and his dollar contribution will be decidedly higher than a single homeowner if the tax is approved.

“If we get some added benefit to the community because of the port tax, that’s great,” Silar said. “But now that it’s reared its tax head, I think a lot of us are going, ‘Well, wait a minute. What are these taxes specifically for?’ “My number one question would be: Didn’t you put money aside for maintenance and repairs and whatever had to be done?” he asked. “Haven’t you had some thought for future expansion and where that money was going to come from, or did you just think that suddenly you’ll say, ‘Oh we want to expand so let’s have a tax’? Which is probably what happened.”

Social media factor

Parker lives in the Los Coyotes area near Lyford and insists he doesn’t have any financial interest in blocking the port tax other than to stop an increase in his own taxes. For him, it’s the principal of a tax that could be imposed on property owners with little or no public input.

“I have nothing to gain from this, I’ll be very transparent about that,” he said. “It’s just that, do the people who are going to be affected even know about this? I have a company and we own land out here in the Los Coyotes area and luckily I’m pretty Facebook-savvy with an online company.

“If I get the traction now and get it to where

they’re not able to take more money from the rest of us, in the end I save money in the long run,” he said.

‘Wear and tear’

Port of Harlingen officials say the tax was allowed to lapse in 1997 as a goodwill gesture to taxpayers since at the time the port did not need the additional funds. But Port Director Walker Smith said recently additional traffic through the port, much of it diesel and gas bound for Mexico, has put a strain on facilities and those needs must be addressed.

What Smith called “wear and tear” is necessitating higher maintenance costs.

The tax, however, must be used only for operations and maintenance, and not for infrastructure needs, according to the law which created the tax in the first place. Parker and several posters on the group’s Facebook page say it will be easy for the port to shuffle money around within its budget, and while the port tax funding wouldn’t go directly to infrastructure, it could easily be shifted to account for funds which are allocated for infrastructure.

“To me it just feels like, yeah, OK, you’re not technically using it for infrastructure but you are freeing up other monies from this tax,” Parker said. “It’s the same money. You just put it into a different account.”

Political backing

On July 31, the Harlingen Economic Development Corp. board approved a resolution in favor of the resumption of the port tax. The Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce also has issued a statement backing the port tax, port officials say. “So the only people that really care and really want this thing, it feels like, are the politicians — more money, more politics, that’s always a good mix,” Parker said sarcastically. “Unfortunately, we the people are footing the bill for it.”

THE ISSUE

The Port of Harlingen Authority has requested a port tax for maintenance and operations which lapsed in 1997 be reinstated.

PROPOSAL’S STATUS

The Cameron County Commissioners Court has the final say on whether to impose a port tax of 3 cents per $100 valuation to be paid by residents living in the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District, the Rio Hondo Independent School District and southern Willacy County. On a home

with a $100,000 valuation, the added tax would amount to $30 a year. In all, the tax would generate more than $1 million annually for port operations but by law it can’t be used for port infrastructure.