TEMPLE — Local officials from across the state gathered at the Texas Capitol Tuesday to voice their opposition to a bill that would force local governments to hold elections if they adopt a tax rate that exceeds a certain threshold.
Bell County Judge Jon Burrows and Belton Finance Director Brandon Bozon were two officials from the county to speak out against Senate Bill 2.
“We don’t need an appraisal cap,” Burrows told the Senate Finance Committee. “What we need is an expense cap — that’s what we need.”
The judge said he could identified about 6.85 cents on Bell County’s 45.11 cent tax rate that go directly to fund programs mandated yet unfunded by the state.
Another unfunded program mandated by the state is the county’s indigent defense. Burrows said costs have increased over the years for the program.
“Our indigent defense costs when the program started … in 2001 was $800,000,” he said. “Last year it was $3.6 million. We went up $200,000 just this last year in the budget.”
Also affecting Bell County’s budget is the property tax exemption available to 100 percent disabled veterans or their surviving spouse. The exemption has a disproportionate effect on Bell County.
“We lost $3.4 million in tax revenue,” Burrows said. “Two years ago, Sen. (Troy) Fraser got a little bit of help for us with $1.2 million, but we still lost $2.2 million in revenue.”
For the city of Belton, Bozon named two initiatives that would not have been possible if SB 2 was in effect.
“The first is a multiyear initiative that began in 2014 to improve the safety of our schools, our citizens and our visitors by adding five police officers and a crime scene technician to our police force,” Bozon said, adding that the city has gone on to add a school resource sergeant, two patrol offices and an additional crime scene technician. “We’ve done so with revenues that have come from new growth, appraisal growth and from eliminating expenses elsewhere in our city budget.”
The other project Bozon mentioned is one the city and the Texas Department of Transportation are tackling together — relocating of a water line beneath State Highway 317 and building sidewalks alongside the road.
“This 80 percent locally funded project will reduce the cost of maintaining the roadway for TxDOT as well as serve the significant pedestrian traffic in the area,” Bozon said. “This project would not have been possible if measures, such as Senate Bill 2, were in effect limiting the city of Belton’s ability to fund projects.”
The finance director acknowledged that while residents would have pocketed about $18.15 annually, Belton’s funds would have seen an estimated $120,000 reduction. Without those funds, the city would not have been able to hire two police officers and fund future infrastructure projects.
“Senate Bill 2 does not provide meaningful tax relief, but it will hamper the safety and development of our cities and our state,” Bozon said. “I implore the Senate and this committee to evaluate all property taxation and develop a plan that will provide real comprehensive relief without mandating sweeping reductions to cities and local governments.”
During his final statements to the finance committee, Burrows gave the senators some advice.
“One size does not fit all on this,” he said. “Let those closest to the people deal with the local issue. Local control does not mean Austin control.”