HARLINGEN — The first vote is in on one of the hottest issues to rile residents here in years.
Despite residents’ strong opposition, city commissioners last night voted to approve the first reading of an ordinance for a proposed $47.8 million general fund budget along with the city’s first property tax increase in 14 years.
On Sept. 18, commissioners are set to cast their second and final vote on a proposal to increase the city’s property tax rate by about 4 cents, from a little more than 58.8 cents to 63 cents per $100 valuation to generate about $1.3 million a year.
Commissioner Frank Puente cast the lone dissenting vote.
Last night’s meeting didn’t give residents a chance to speak up before the vote.
For about five years, officials have pushed the public comment period to the end of their meetings.
Last night, Commissioner Michael Mezmar, shortly before the end of the meeting, requested the public comment period be held before commissioners entered a closed-door session.
However, by the time Mezmar spoke up, former Commissioner Robert Leftwich and attorney Ron Lozano, who had signed up to speak during the public comment period, had left City Hall.
At City Hall, officials say the tax increase, which would balance the proposed budget, would help fund drainage upgrades.
But last month, residents bitterly spoke out against raising taxes, many claiming commissioners were pushing for the tax hike before new legislation takes effect requiring cities to call elections to decide if they can raise tax revenue higher than 3.5 percent.
Earlier this year, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 2 requiring cities and other taxing entities to hold elections to allow voters to decide if the governments could raise tax revenue by 3.5 percent more than they collected the previous year.
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.
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.
During weeks of debate, Puente has called on commissioners to dip into the city’s $17.5 million cash reserves to help fund the drainage projects.
But officials argue they already plan to dip into cash reserves to help fund those projects.
As part of the proposed budget, officials plan to cut the city’s $17.5 million cash reserve fund, capable of operating the city for about 135 days, to $15.1 million, enough to run operations for about 91 days, Serna has said.
Last month, commissioners agreed to fund $1.6 million of a $2.7 million drainage project while the state finances about $1.2 million.
The project is aimed at curbing flooding in the area along Ninth Street from Jackson Avenue to Pierce Avenue and 13th Street from Tyler Avenue to Pierce Avenue.
Meanwhile, commissioners also earmarked $100,550 to widen a drainage ditch running along 13th Street in an area between Matz and Montezuma roads.
Commissioners also agreed to set aside $342,194 to widen a drainage ditch running between Lincoln Avenue and Dixieland Road.
As part of the city’s proposed budget, Serna is calling for one-time capital improvements including $390,000 for nine police cars, $128,166 to fund fire department equipment including 12 air packs, $87,000 for a bucket truck, $320,000 for an emergency generator for City Hall and $163,800 to fund the public library’s elevator control.