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City Council Holds Turner to his Word
by Bill King
Monday, October 23, 2017

In a rare display of spinal rigidity, City Council last week slapped down Sylvester Turner's attempt to use an "emergency exception" to exceed the City's property tax cap.

Our City charter limits the amount by which City Council can increase property tax receipts each year to roughly 4.5% percent.*  The charter allows City Council to set a rate in excess of this limit to pay for expenses incurred in a disaster.

Shortly after Hurricane Harvey, Turner said he would ask City Council to approve a tax rate in excess of the charter limit that would raise an additional $120 million.  That proposal was met with widespread opposition and Turner quickly retreated to a proposal that would bring in about an additional $50 million.

At the same time there were many calling on the State to use some of its Rainy Day Fund to assist Houston with the clean-up.  As a result, Governor Abbott showed up in town with a $50 million check and Turner agreed to relent on using the disaster exception to the cap.  It appeared to be a bipartisan fairy tale ending.

But Turner could not let happily-ever-after alone.  When his administration posted the property tax rate for City Council to approve last week, they left the rate at last year's rate.  However, that rate would produce revenues in excess of the Charter limit by about $8 million.

Enter Chris Brown, our City Controller.  Each year the City Controller prepares a worksheet which calculates the rate for compliance with the Charter limit.  This year, the rate needed to be reduced by about a quarter of a cent to comply.  Apparently in a private conversation, Brown told Turner that to keep the rate the same he would have to use the disaster exception which he had promised he would not do in the press conference with Abbott.

Turner chose to ignore Brown and proceeded to ask City Council to approve the rate in excess of the charter limit.  Brown was sufficiently troubled by the fact that Turner was going back on his promise that he sent a memo to Council laying out the calculations.  At that point, several Council Members, with Mike Knox leading the charge, began objecting to the proposed tax rate.

All of this set the stage for the unusual drama that played out last Wednesday morning at City Council.  When the agenda item on the tax rate was called, several council members weighed in with questions and objections.  Eventually, Brown was asked to come to the microphone and answer questions - resulting in a lengthy, tense exchange between Brown and Turner.

Turner tried to argue that he had not promised not to use the disaster exception, but only that he had promised not to raise taxes and since his proposal was to leave the tax rate the same as last year, he was not raising taxes.  Unfortunately for Turner, however, his promise not to use the disaster exception had been caught on tape during his press conference.

 


Councilmember Knox moved to amend Turner's proposal to set the rate at the charter limit without relying on the disaster exception.  Incredibly, the debate in Council dragged on for nearly two hours, during which only Ellen Cohen came to the mayor's defense, with Turner becoming increasingly hostile to and dismissive of Council and Brown.  He kept pressing various legalistic arguments in an attempt to justify the plain fact that he was reneging on the promise he had made.  But Council was having none of it.  Ultimately, Knox moved the question and asked for a roll-call vote.  When it was tallied, Knox's motion carried by a 15-2 vote.

I have been watching Houston City Council for over three decades.  I have never seen a mayor lose a vote by such a decisive margin.**   How Turner thought Council would go along with reneging on a clear, definitive promise to the public not to use the disaster exception is beyond me.

Had it not been for Chris Brown jumping into this fray, Turner's gambit might have succeeded.  One thing I learned in this episode is that the City used the disaster exception the last two years without the public, and apparently most Council members, realizing it.  Until now, I have frankly been disappointed that Brown has not been a more aggressive and independent watchdog over the City's finances.  But he certainly showed some mettle here, as did Knox and the other council members who took Turner to task.

Folks, this is how our City government is supposed to work.  Our City fathers intended for the Controller and the Council to be active and equal participants in city governance, not some lackeys to be bought off with an occasional CIP project.   But for too long those checks and balances have been missing.

The other thing made clear by this episode is that Turner hates the property tax cap and will do anything to abolish it.  The cap is already riddled with holes that allow City property taxes to rise well above the 4.5% limit.  The taxes collected by TIRZ do not count against it.  Taxpayers have already approved an additional $90 million for public safety.  And now we find out that the City has been regularly using the disaster exception.

There are certainly many intelligent, well-intentioned people who oppose the property tax cap.  So, let's have that debate and put the proposition for its repeal before the voters.  But enough of these Enronesque accounting games.  Until the voters say they no longer want the property tax cap, our Mayor and Council should comply with it in good faith, which is what Council forced Turner to do last week.

* The rate is actually determined by a formula that is based on inflation and population growth, but the average is around 4.5%.

** A friend told me that Lee Brown lost a 14-1 vote late in his third term, but I apparently missed that.




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