HARLINGEN — Angry residents spoke out last night against city commissioners’ plan for a 4-cent property tax rate hike, calling on them to earmark tax dollars for the people.
In the first of two public hearings, more than a dozen residents opposed plans to raise the tax rate from about 58 cents per $100 valuation to 63 cents to help balance a proposed $46.5 million general fund budget.
“We elect our commissioners to do what is in the best interest of the people,” Jessica Garcia told commissioners as residents packed City Hall.
Garcia said many homeowners are trying to recover from June 24’s widespread flooding.
“Your people are telling you we don’t want this,” Garcia said of the proposed tax hike. “We’re recovering.”
Garcia then turned to Mayor Chris Boswell’s campaign which described the city as “financially sound.”
“Now you’re asking for a tax increase,” Garcia told Boswell.
Patricia Thomas told commissioners many residents struggle to make ends meet.
“There are old people living on fixed incomes, people on minimum wage, people struggling,” she said. “The taxes can’t keep coming. You’ve got to work within your budget.”
Susana Thomas, her twin sister, argued commissioners spent $16.7 million to build the city’s new convention center while the city’s Economic Development Corporation pumped millions into Bass Pro Shops.
“While we’re funding your dreams, our dreams are saying bye, bye,” she said. “I’d like the city to consider our dreams and your dreams.”
Like Charles Bickley, many residents questioned commissioners’ honesty.
“You can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig,” Bickley told commissioners as the crowd roared in applause.
Bickley appeared to refer to officials’ claims that commissioners hadn’t raised the city’s tax rate for 14 years while its total assessed property value climbed from $2.86 billion in 2009 to about $3.8 billion this year.
“When you talk to people, try to tell them the truth and don’t be disingenuous,” Bickley told commissioners.
Residents’ tone often turned angry.
“Taxation is theft,” Frank Lozano said. “What you’re trying to do is steal from us. We need that money to raise our children and house our children properly.”
The tax hike would be “immoral,” J.D. Garcia told commissioners, citing the state legislators’ recent passage of Senate Bill 2, which will require cities and other taxing entities to hold elections to allow voters to decide if the governments should raise tax revenue by 3.5 percent more than they collected the previous year.
“We, the people, could decide on a tax hike but the law doesn’t kick in until next year,” Garcia told commissioners before turning to the crowd. “They’re trying to beat the clock.”
Now, the state allows these taxing entities to collect as much as 8 percent more in annual tax revenue before requiring them to hold elections.
At City Hall, City Manager Dan Serna projects Senate Bill 2 will lead the city to lose about $4.3 million during a five-year period after the law kicks in during fiscal year 2020-2021.
Like many residents, Elias Torres criticized the EDC’s funding of Bass Pro Shops nearly 10 years ago.
“I don’t want to provide welfare to multimillion-dollar corporations,” he said. “I want it for my street.”
Former Commissioner Robert Leftwich claimed the city has failed to properly notify the public of the proposed tax increase.
Leftwich, who argued officials should have put their plans to build the convention center and buy the $1.3 million Ballenger building to a vote, said commissioners should use money from the EDC’s $492,500 sale of its building and savings from the refinancing of Bass Pro Shops bonds to fund drainage projects.
Like many residents, Leftwich criticized commissioners’ decision to build the convention center.
“We know the convention center will be a deficit to the budget,” he said.
Ruben Garcia called on commissioners to spend tax dollars on streets and basic public services.
“My problem is accountability in the collection of taxes — that it’s used properly,” he said.