HARLINGEN — Before a group of feisty residents, city commissioners last night voted 4-1 to approve the first tax hike in 14 years.
In a special meeting, commissioners voted to pass the second and final reading of an ordinance increasing the property tax rate from about 58 cents to 63 cents per $100 valuation.
As expected, Commissioner Frank Puente cast the lone dissenting vote.
Commissioners also voted to approve a $47.8 million general fund budget balanced through $1.3 million which the tax hike is projected to generate.
As part of the 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, City Manager Dan Serna has said.
During weeks of debate, officials said they plan to use new revenue to help fund drainage projects.
Residents took the podium after House Bill 2840 took effect Sept. 1, requiring officials to give the public a chance to speak up before commissioners vote on agenda items.
Some questioned the validity of the vote, claiming officials didn’t give residents a chance to speak up during a Sept. 4 meeting in which commissioners voted to approve the first reading of the ordinance calling for the tax hike.
From the podium, resident Kathy Sheldon claimed Mayor Chris Boswell failed to give residents a chance to speak up during the Sept. 4 meeting.
Boswell has argued he gave residents a chance to speak up during that meeting, which former Commissioner Robert Leftwich is challenging in court.
“I don’t recall that you said, ‘This is a citizen issue. You can come up,’” Sheldon, who recalled the Sept. 4 meeting, told Boswell.
Ron Lozano, an attorney who helped Leftwich file his petition for a temporary restraining order which state District Judge Janet Leal dismissed in order to allow commissioners to cast their votes yesterday, argued officials failed to give residents a chance to speak before agenda items during the Sept. 4 meeting.
“We realize the emperor has no clothes,” Lozano told Boswell.
At times, residents appeared angry.
“You’re basically calling us liars,” resident J.V. Garcia told Boswell. “I ask you to look in the mirror.”
Garcia argued 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.
“Like I’ve said before, you’re trying to beat the clock,” Garcia said.
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.
At City Hall, 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.
Enrique Ruiz told commissioners residents weren’t expressing anger.
“Don’t confuse the passion with anger,” Ruiz said. “We all have a budget. You should do the same — have your own budget and stick to it.”
Leftwich accused commissioners of “irresponsible spending” on projects such as the new $16.7 million Harlingen Convention Center.
Meanwhile, he said, commissioners are considering spending as much as $8 million to turn Lon C. Hill Park into a so-called destination park.
“I would say that’s irresponsible when you take that money and use it for drainage,” Leftwich said.
Resident Minerva Simpson suggested officials sell part of the Tony Butler Golf Course rather than raise taxes.
“I truly hope you’re reconsidering the assets the city has,” she said. “I hope you’re considering selling some of them to bring in the revenue you need.”
Resident Juan Ortega told commissioners the tax hike comes after Cameron County commissioners passed a 2-cent tax increase earlier yesterday.
Meanwhile, the Port of Harlingen recently passed a tax increase, he said.
“They’re getting four whammies,” Ortega said, also referring to the June 24 storm whose floodwaters entered many homes.
Property owner Roseanna Aguilera called on commissioners to feel residents’ tax burden.
“I need to be outraged and everyone in this room needs to be outraged and you need to be outraged because you represent the community,” she said.
Like his wife, Chuy Aguilera asked commissioners to “listen to the people.”
“If you need to raise taxes, tell them why,” he said. “Don’t make excuses.”
Amid the comments, Boswell told residents officials had given them a chance to speak up in previous meetings set to discuss the tax hike.
“A lot of false and misleading statements have been made regarding the tax rate,” Boswell told the small audience.
In recent weeks, he said, he received few phone calls from residents opposing the tax increase.
“The reason some citizens support it is because they understand we want to invest more in infrastructure,” he said. “We’re going to be doing more drainage projects this fiscal year and next fiscal year. If we want to do it in the future, this is the kind of additional revenue we need. I understand the opposition to tax increases. I’ve opposed them for 14 years.”
Boswell said the city’s tax rate remains lower than those in half of Cameron County’s cities and most of Hidalgo County cities.