The statement seemed unambiguous to City Controller Chris Brown, as he listened to Mayor Sylvester Turner thank Governor Greg Abbott for the $50 million check that ended Turner's bid to raise taxes last month.
The mayor told Abbott, "Because of what you have given today, let me say there will be no need for me to [raise the property tax rate], and there will be no need for a public hearing on Monday." People applauded. "There is no reason to activate the emergency provision of the revenue cap that we are operating under. We will continue to operate under the revenue cap without having to exercise the emergency provision."
To Brown, it sounded like Turner was, well, committing to operating under the revenue cap — and so he was surprised when the Turner administration proposed keeping the current property tax rate for next year and thus exceeding the revenue cap by about $7.8 million.
Here's the catch: Turner was not asking to raise the property tax rate itself for next year. He just objected to lowering it. Even though, as Brown warned in a memo issued to Turner October 16, if the city did not lower the property tax rate by a couple tenths of a cent — adjusting for inflation and population changes — the city would exceed the revenue cap and violate state law.
On Wednesday, City Council appeared to agree with Brown, voting to lower the property tax rate from 58.64 cents per $100 of assessed property value to 58.42 cents to stay within the cap. Mayor Turner and Mayor Pro-Tem Ellen Cohen were the only council members to vote no.
Brown told the Houston Press Wednesday the problem was the Turner administration seemed to be doing one thing but saying another.
"If the city is going to invoke this emergency provision of Proposition 1, they get to add [disaster expenses] to the [property tax rate] calculation in order to increase the revenue cap — which they did," said Brown, who is independently elected by voters. "But again, they’re publicly saying they’re not doing that. The problem is Turner told the governor he’s not doing that. He told the public he’s not doing that. It created a lot of transparency issues, and I think a lot of confusion. Ultimately council, I think, did the right thing."
Basically, the dispute comes down to a matter of semantics and interpretation of a single paragraph within Proposition 1 — that "emergency provision."
Turner is allowed under the law to exceed the revenue cap as long as he invokes that provision. After the vote, Mayor Turner said that everyone, namely the city controller, was misinterpreting his earlier statements made to the governor and elsewhere about whether he would use it or not.
He said he didn't plan to invoke the emergency provision to raise the tax rate. But that he did plan to invoke it to, basically, not lower the tax rate. "There was never any word that I was going to lower the tax rate," he said. "I never said that one single time."
He said Brown was the one who was being inconsistent, since Turner took the same steps this time as he did last year to exceed the revenue cap after the Tax Day floods to cover disaster expenses, and which former mayor Annise Parker also did following the Memorial Day floods of 2015. Brown made no objections either time.
The difference back then, apparently, was that neither mayor managed to confuse a lot people — particularly Brown, who considers himself the "watchdog of taxpayer dollars" — about his or her intentions to use the emergency provision to rake in more revenue for those disaster expenses.
State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), who was an avid opponent of Turner's bid to increase the property tax rate for Harvey expenses the first time, accused the mayor of going back on his promise made during the press conference with Abbott not to exceed the revenue cap.
"I was at the joint press conference with Governor Abbott and Mayor Turner, as well as other City Council Members, and we all heard the Mayor make this promise in person after he received a $50 million check from the State of Texas," Bettencourt said. "I want to thank the 15 members of Houston City Council that knew this was bad public policy. I must say that this puts the question of the credibility of the Mayor, on property tax issues, in the forefront of the public’s mind."
Turner responded with a lengthy take-down of Bettencourt. He called Bettencourt a hypocrite for not doing enough to help move other property-tax proposals forward in the Legislature — such as a bill requiring property reappraisals after disasters, to relieve homeowners — while criticizing Turner for seeking to simply keep the property tax rate flat.
"It’s strikingly two-faced to accuse a municipality dealing with an unprecedented natural disaster of keeping a tax rate steady when his own budget dictates local tax increases," Turner said. "At the same time, he remains surprisingly silent about the State’s $10 billion Rainy Day Fund. This dog doesn’t hunt."
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In any case, the tax debate, at least for this year, appears to be over once and for all — but after council, Turner was still bristling about the $7.8 million less in property tax revenue that the city will have to cover Harvey expenses.
The city's finance department projected nearly $1.2 billion in Harvey-related costs to the city, which includes $821 million in "estimated future damages" — Brown had said in his memo to the mayor that his office could not immediately validate how the city finance department arrived at that number.
Mayor's spokesman Alan Bernstein objected to Brown's doubts about the expenses and said that there's nothing in the law requiring the controller to "evaluate" the city's disaster expenses. Turner said Wednesday that the $7.8 million could have been used for more high-water rescue vehicles for the fire department or more vehicles for solid waste and debris pickup, as a couple examples.
"Bear in mind, we are still putting forth requests to FEMA, to the feds, to the state, for additional appropriations to assist people here in Houston on the recovery from Hurricane Harvey," Turner said after council. "I am constantly saying to FEMA, we need those reimbursements and we need them now. It just sends the wrong message if you're lowering your tax rate in the midst of the recovery."