HARLINGEN — A Port of Harlingen Authority tax reinstated by Cameron County commissioners in November is not only taking a bite out of taxpayers in the port district, it also has taken them by surprise.
The three-cent per $100 valuation tax rate on property in the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District, the Rio Hondo Independent School District and parts of Willacy County lapsed in 1997.
But this week, property owners in the districts are receiving a notice in addition to their regular county property tax bills, which were sent out last month.
The latest notice and bill is all about this port tax.
Port officials twice floated the idea of resurrecting the tax, in 2014 and again in 2016. Last year, the Cameron County Commissioners’ Court voted Nov. 27 to reinstate the levy.
“It is important to note that in the last nearly 100 years of its existence, the port has sought tax support only twice and when no longer needed, suspended the tax,” port officials said in a statement released yesterday. “Only 40 of the last 90 years has a tax been implemented which indicates that the port has operated more than half of its years without support of the city, the county or the state.”
The port expects to receive about $1.2 million from the tax annually, although there are restrictions on how the tax monies can be used. The funds can only be used for maintenance and operations at the port, and not for infrastructure projects.
“It’s called an M & O tax,” Alan Johnson, chairman of the Port of Harlingen Authority board, said yesterday. “Like rebuilding docks, rebuilding breasting structures (where ships tie up to docks), dredging, rebuilding our roadway system.
“We haven’t been able to do any of those things of significance for the 20 years simply because we haven’t had the excess revenue to do it with,” he added.
The Port of Harlingen, like other ports in Texas and elsewhere, has struggled to find funding to dredge the port area where barges load and unload. Ocean-going barges bring in gas, diesel, sand, cement and fertilizer to Harlingen, and haul out cotton, grain and sugar.
These barges have a draft of about nine feet and the Arroyo Colorado where the port is located must be maintained at an authorized depth of 12 feet. While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has responsibility for dredging the channel for 25 miles of arroyo from the gulf to the port, dredging the port’s turning basin is the responsibility of port officials here.
Over the past years, the corps has devoted fewer resources to dredging operations, which has forced ports like Harlingen to take on more of the cost to ensure minimum depths.
“They’re doing a lot less than they used to,” Johnson said. “We fight for every dollar that we can get from the Corps of Engineers through their funding and it seems each year the corps is trying to let ports take on more and more of their own dredging cycle. So we have to come up with more and more money.
“We’ve been very fortunate in the last year or two, we haven’t had to dig into our pocket,” he added. “But we always keep a rainy day fund in case of natural disasters where we have to go in and dredge by ourselves.”
That fund, Johnson added, is about $2 million. As for the port’s revenues, operating income for the past couple of years has been about $160,000 each year.
Support for the reinstatement of the port tax came from the City of Harlingen, the City of Rio Hondo, the Harlingen Economic Development Corp. and the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce. All issued resolutions or statements in support of the tax in the middle of last year.
“Ports all across the nation are struggling to maintain their cargo base and continue to augment the economy of their communities,” the port statement reads. “Dredging funds have decreased and infrastructure improvements have ceased to exist due to a lack of federal funds. Therefore, the ports that have continued to exist have done so by seeking the help of their communities.
“Of the 18 ports in the Texas Ports Association, 13 have current tax support and one is supported by the city,” the port statement said. “Further, of the five states in the gulf that include a total of 36 public ports, Texas is the only state that does not support infrastructure improvements for its ports.”
The port tax will continue in perpetuity unless a request to rescind it is made by the Port of Harlingen Authority and then approved by the Cameron County Commissioners’ Court.
PORT TAX: What you need to know
For the first time since 1997, the Port of Harlingen is taxing property owners living in the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District, the Rio Hondo Independent School District and southern Willacy County.
The Cameron County Commissioners Court voted Nov. 27 to impose a port tax of 3 cents per $100 valuation.
That means a home with a $100,000 valuation, the added tax amounts to $30 a year. In all, the tax will generate around $1.2 million annually for port maintenance and operations but by law it can’t be used for port infrastructure. The tax will continue each year.
This tax notice from Cameron County Tax Assessor-Collector Tony Yzaguirre Jr. is in addition to the usual county property tax notice. Most area residents received this notice this week.
You are receiving this notice to inform you that at the request of the Port of Harlingen Authority, the Cameron County Commissioners’ Court approved the reinstatement of property taxes pursuant to Section 62.016 of the Voter Code of Texas on November 27, 2018. The tax rate approved is $0.03 per $100 valuation, for the maintenance operation and upkeep.
The Cameron County Tax Office will begin collecting for the Authority on January 7, 2019. You will find the Port of Harlingen Authority taxes in the enclosed consolidated tax bill. Property owners who cannot pay their taxes in full can make a partial payment at any of the Tax Offices or sign a payment agreement contract. For more information on any payment plan or on any tax account please call one of our nine offices. If you have questions regarding the reinstatement of the Port of Harlingen Authority please contact Walker Smith — Port Director for the Port of Harlingen at 956-423-0283. For questions regarding the approval of the reinstatement of taxes by Cameron County Commissioners’ Court contact David Garcia — County Administrator at 956-982-5414,
Office of the Tax Assessor-Collector