As it turns out, Mayor Sylvester Turner likely won't be needing to raise property taxes by 9 percent in order to rake in Hurricane Harvey relief funds for Houston's long road to recovery after all — but don't expect the tax hike to go away.
At City Council Wednesday, Turner said the city had discovered it would be reimbursed by FEMA at higher rates than previously thought, saving the city millions of dollars Turner had planned to recoup through the 9 percent property tax hike he proposed earlier this month. Now, however, Turner is expecting to need just half that. Last week, the White House approved an increased reimbursement rate from 75 percent to 90 percent, covering reimbursements for expenses like repairs to roads, bridges and public buildings.
Under the proposal Turner had unveiled last week, he had wanted to increase property taxes from 58.64 cents per $100 of assessed value to 63.87 cents per $100, resulting in an uptick of $118 next year in property taxes for the average Houston homeowner. Now, spokesman Alan Bernstein said the good news from the feds means Turner will slash his tax increase proposal by about 60 percent, which will instead result in the average homeowner owing Houston about $50 extra in property taxes next year. "That's about $4 per month, or one vanilla latte," Bernstein said.
Turner is seeking the property-tax increase for only one year, and he is allowed to exceed the revenue cap — which limits how much the city can collect in property taxes — because Houston was under a federal disaster declaration.
Various members on City Council, including Mike Knox, Jack Christie, Michael Kubosh and Greg Travis, have pushed back against Turner's proposal, unwilling to consider a property tax hike until all other avenues have been explored.
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"If we were able to get emergency disaster relief from the state, then we might not be able to do any sort of tax increase at all," Turner said during a post-council press briefing, citing one such avenue.
But, alas, Governor Greg Abbott already said that wasn't happening. That's right: After the rainiest consecutive days in Texas and U.S. history, the state decided not to tap into the fund specifically saved for rainy days. It is not on the table until 2019, when the Texas Legislature reconvenes.
Currently, the costs of recovery are still largely unknown for Houston, given it's still not known how much insurance will cover, for example, or what types of damage will be approved for FEMA reimbursement. The only clear numbers are the costs for debris removal: Turner said it will cost approximately $259 million — and given that FEMA is picking up 90 percent of that tab, it leaves Houston with a $26 million bill. (See the Houston Chronicle's coverage of a bizarre shouting match council members got into with Turner over the debris removal issue: Apparently because Turner would not answer Councilman Larry Green's questions about when exactly more trucks would come through his district in southwest Houston, Green delayed a vote until next week on a proposal to increase the competitive bid rate paid to debris removal contractors, incentivizing more trucks to get on the road.)
Last week, Council voted to hold three public hearings at City Hall where residents can express their opinions on the property-tax hike. They are scheduled for September 25 at 6 p.m.; October 2 at 6 p.m; and October 11 at 9 a.m.