By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
County records showed last week that board chairman Bruce Austin and member Michael P. Williams owed thousands of dollars in taxes to the community college, Harris County, the city of Houston, school districts and other taxing jurisdictions.
Williams, minister of Joy Tabernacle Church, owed $28,595 in taxes on his North MacGregor Way home. The debt dates to 1997, the year Williams bought the house now appraised at $369,100.
"To my knowledge, my taxes are in order," Williams told the Houston Press. "Thank you for bringing that to my attention; I'm certainly going to check that."
The day after the Press questioned him, Williams paid $10,716 in delinquent taxes and planned to pay an additional $4,000 by the end of the week, said Paul Bettencourt, Harris County tax assessor-collector. Williams also signed an agreement to pay $643 a month on his debt, Bettencourt said.
"These major payments that have been made in the last day or so by Mr. Williams were certainly welcome but the timing is obviously coincidental with [the Press's] investigation," he said.
Bettencourt said it is unlikely that Williams would not have known about his outstanding taxes. The tax assessor-collector's office, HISD and the private law firm that contracts to handle tax delinquencies would have sent multiple notices, Bettencourt said. In addition, Williams himself first entered an agreement in December 1999 to pay off his debt.
Williams denied that he received multiple notices. He said he has had some financial difficulties but has fought to pay the money he owes.
Records indicate that his Joy Tabernacle at 4922 Griggs Road owes more than $55,000 in taxes. Williams said that the record is wrong because, as a church, the property should be tax-exempt. The church applied for an exemption in 1997, but was denied because of a lack of substantial documentation, Bettencourt said.
"I would make a strong suggestion to them that they amend their application as soon as possible," Bettencourt said.
Austin owes $2,993 for vacant land at 7922 Sexton Street that belonged to his late mother. The debt dates back to 1985. Austin said the bill stems from his confusion about which school district is the correct taxing jurisdiction, HISD or North Forest ISD. He said he has tried to clarify the tax situation through his attorney.
"I think I have been on a forthright road," he said.
But Bettencourt said the property has been designated for the North Forest district since 1984, so "there's no conceivable excuse that the property could be coded somewhere else." He added that more than $1,000 of the debt is owed to Houston Community College, Harris County and other jurisdictions.
"Either he's going to pay it or effectively we're going to seize it," Bettencourt said.
Austin later said the tax bills had been sent to the wrong address. On Friday, he said he'd paid the debt.
On September 18 HCCS trustees proposed to raise the 6.98-cent tax rate to 8.48 cents per $100 valuation. Williams was away on business and did not attend the meeting but said he opposes the tax increase. Austin, however, approved the proposal. He told the Houston Chronicle that the increase is necessary to pay for new facilities and to offer quality education.
Bettencourt has been a vocal critic of the proposal, arguing that rising property values would generate adequate revenues without a tax-rate increase. He said a tax increase would be even more objectionable given the checkered tax histories of some trustees.
"It begs grave consideration that the trustees would be voting on the largest tax increase in HCCS's history and have delinquent accounts themselves," he said.
A public hearing on the proposed tax increase is scheduled for Thursday, September 28. A final board vote is set one week later, on October 5.