HARLINGEN — After three decades, a tax hike is driving Michael Howland out of business.
At Coun-Tree Woods, he’s been crafting custom-made solid wood furniture for 31 years.
But now, a $1,000-tax increase is pushing to close his shop.
“ We’re getting ready to wind our business up and retire. This is speeding it up,” he said, referring to his building’s newly appraised value.
Along Jackson Street, property owners and merchants are reviewing their newly appraised values to determine how high their property taxes will climb.
Even after many building owners’ protests led the Cameron County Appraisal District to lower some values, the average Jackson Street property owner faces tax increases of about 43 percent, Bill DeBrooke, who owns several buildings, said last week.
“ Even though the values went down a little, that wasn’t very much,” DeBrooke, who led the push to revitalize the downtown area nearly 30 years ago, said. “The hit was enormous.”
DeBrooke has called Jackson Street’s new appraised values the biggest in the business district’s history.
This year, the appraisal district assessed Jackson Street’s five-block area at $8.58 million, compared with $5.97 million last year, he said.
That means the district’s 40 businesses will be paying about $65,279 more in taxes, or 43 percent.
“ Sometimes those hits are pretty big — a couple of hundred dollars a month,” he said. “In some cases the estimated value is more than the building is worth. I think it’s going to be difficult for some people.”
For years, property values along Jackson Street’s five blocks have remained below market, Richard Molina, the county’s chief appraiser, said.
But this year, new rental information and a few sales helped his staff re-appraise the business district.
For weeks, Molina said, he and his staff have met with property owners, in some cases reducing some proposed property values along Jackson Street.
“ There were some adjustments. It just depends,” Molina said, adding property values become certified July 20.
“ If they brought in lease information, rental information, income information, factors such as deterioration — whatever they brought in had an effect,” Molina said.
From Commerce Street to Fourth Street, DeBrooke has met with his tenants to discuss raising their rents.
“ All my tenants — we worked it out. I eat some, they eat some,” he said. “There’s really no choice. You either suck it up or you move aside.”
For Howland, who opened Coun-Tree Woods about 31 years ago, a $1,000-tax hike is pushing to close his wood-working shop.
For years, Howland’s building was appraised at about $120,000.
But this year, the appraisal district raised its value to $189,000.
After protesting the increase, officials lowered that number to $150,500, Howland said in his shop that’s a fixture on Jackson Street.
“ It did us some good to talk with them,” he said. “They probably jacked it up just to drop it down to make us feel better.”
Molina strongly denies such accusations.
“ We’re not offering anything just to do it that’s for sure,” Molina said.
But for Howland, the reduction wasn’t enough.
“ We’re seeing about cleaning up and selling,” he said.
At 72, Howland said he doesn’t feel like revving up his work load to offset the tax increase.
“ There’s only so much I can generate,” he said. “I’d have to tighten the vice a little tighter. I’d have to crank out more work or eat less.”
Like Ken Soles, some property owners are pleased with the appraisal district’s reductions.
“ We worked out a compromise that was satisfiable to both of us,” Soles said.
At the appraisal district, Solis contested proposed property values that had jumped “well over 70 percent.”
“ I took them some pictures of my property inside and out,” he said of documents he brought before the appraisal district. “They came out to see the building and looked at it themselves.”
Still, his taxes will jump by “several hundred dollars more,” he said.
However, Soles hasn’t decided whether he will raise his tenants’ rents.
“ We’re still dealing with that,” he said. “We’re still trying to decide if we’re going to absorb it or not.”
Along Jackson Street, Soles’ tenants include J&B’s Café, Alexandre’s Fine Jewelry and El Centro Finance.
“ My landlord hasn’t said how much,” Beth Fuque, co-owner of J&B’s Café, said. “I’m riding the storm. I’m sure if he has to go up (in rent), I’m going to figure it out.”
At Twinkets and Friends, co-owner Patricia Thomas said she and her twin sister are ready to close their shop if they can’t handle their landlord’s tax increase.
“ We’re running as if it’s going to stay open,” she said.
But they run their shop on a tight profit margin.
Last year, the shop’s four co-owners used a year’s worth of profits to buy an alarm system.
“ We created a bail-out plan to close the store if we get notification our rent’s going to be too high,” Thomas said.
Like many property owners, Lars Keim walked into the appraisal district to fight an uphill battle.
For Keim, whose tenants include Carlito’s Wine House, his proposed property values had soared more than 100 percent.
“ The percentage of increase was a little bit of shock,” he said.
After contesting the numbers at the appraisal district, his values had doubled.
“ It was more than doubled before,” he said. I think I’ve done as well as I can with them.”
After protesting the values, Keim described a give-and-take resolution.
“ In my case, I realize the property was below value,” he said. “I thought they were very reasonable in dealing with me. They had to come to realize their numbers were way over blown.”
Like Soles, Keim said he had yet to work out any agreements with tenants.
“ My tenants are not happy,” he said. “But I’m sure we’re going to survive.”
Jackson Street, from Commerce to Fourth Street
2018 Appraised Value — $5.97 million
2019 Appraised Value — $8.58 million
Tax increase — $65,270, 43 percent