Harker Heights officials and District 54 state Rep. Scott Cosper were hopeful that the recent special session of the Texas Legislature might have offered a second opportunity to restore some of the more than $1.24 million in fiscal year 2017/2018 property tax revenue reduction felt by the City of Harker Heights due to the disproportionate impact of the disabled veterans property tax exemption.
Cosper said, “When the governor put out a tax reform call on the special session agenda, my staff interpreted that this fit the call to provide property tax relief. The bill would have included the city of Harker Heights in relief payments from the state already received by a number of Central Texas governments.”
Cosper said, “We went to work immediately by filing our bill along with attending committee meetings and testifying. We also invited representatives from impacted communities like Harker Heights and asked them to come to Austin, register with a letter of support or testify.”
Director of Parks and Recreation Jerry Bark testified before a committee on behalf of the city of Harker of Heights.
Cosper said his team was successful with this bill on the House side in both the regular and called sessions. “It died in the Senate during both sessions and never came up for consideration,” he said.
A source in Cosper’s office confirmed that only 17 bills passed the House during the special session, and Cosper’s was one of them. He was the only freshman legislator to have a bill passed during a special session.
Harker Heights City Manager David Mitchell told the Herald that the impact of additional loss of revenue for the city has increased over the past five fiscal years.
The reductions began in the 2013/2014 fiscal year at $430,840 and have been increasing by about 30 percent each year, he said.
“What is troubling is the growth that we are seeing in the reductions, with this coming fiscal year hitting $1,242,703,” Mitchell said. “With the addition of the fiscal year 2017/2018 loss in ad valorem taxes, the total lost revenue will stand at $3,912,324,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell emphasized that, the city fully supports the intent of the bill granting ad valorem tax relief to disabled veterans. It’s just that the bill is being balanced on the backs of just a few cities that have a disproportionate number of disabled veterans compared to other cities across the State.
Cosper said, “This growth is an unmaintainable level of lost money for the Harker Heights’ general fund and what most people don’t realize is that it pays salaries for first responders, road crews, and the mission critical aspects of city operations and services. When we brought this back into the special session, we recognized it as a top priority and a must-pass legislation.”
Harker Heights Mayor Spencer Smith said, “I believe that when the Legislature first looked at this they were not aware of unintended consequences even though their intentions were wonderful. This lack of revenue will affect those services that are enjoyed by those who are 100 percent disabled veterans in Harker Heights.
“I believe it’s not one of those us against them kind of thing, it’s just what it is. We appreciate that Representative Cosper put a lot of energy into getting a bill passed twice in the House.
“Hugh Shine in District 55 is also interested in this issue. We were able to at least talk with Senator Buckingham and explained why the loss of this revenue was not a good thing for the City of Harker Heights,” Smith said.
During the city’s budget preparation and a council retreat, council members and staff did not count on this money going forward and kept on a conservative track that has allowed them to keep the tax rate at the same level as last year.
Mitchell said, “What is really tough is how do we figure providing the levels of service that our residents have come to expect when our revenues are diminished. It is disconcerting that safety has taken a hit because of this situation.
“Our emergency call volumes, especially EMS, continue to rise,” he said.. “We need additional funds for personnel and equipment in the police department, fire department and EMS operations to handle those calls.”
According to Mitchell, “The problem for Harker Heights going forward is there is not going to be a fix for this until there is another legislative session. We’re looking through a three-year window of time and what we see is the amount of foregone revenue topping $4 million over that time.”
Cosper said, “It is our intention to continue going forward whether that be in a future regular or special session. We already have language in a file that’s drafted and ready to be resubmitted. We will continue to fight and work hard to raise awareness until we get this reimbursement written into law.”