The Golden Hammer Staff Reports
Conroe, August 21 – The Montgomery County Commissioners Court will meet today at 9:30 a.m. to hold a public hearing and vote on the Fiscal Year 2021 Budget. A vote on the Fiscal Year 2021 tax rate, however, will not occur until another special Commissioners Court meeting on August 28, 2020.
County Judge Chief of Staff Jason Millsaps told The Golden Hammer, “On the advice of the Tax Assessor-Collector, we’re waiting to receive certified values of appraisals from the Montgomery Central Appraisal District before we vote to adopt the tax rate.”
Since the Commissioners Court is planning, at this point in time, to raise taxes on Montgomery County citizens, they must hold a public hearing on the proposed Budget. The hearing will occur during tomorrow’s special meeting. A vote on the property tax rate must occur, under Texas law, within seven (7) days of the vote on the budget, so the August 28 tax rate vote will be the last day on which the Commissioners Court may so vote.
If the Commissioners Court fails to adopt a tax rate, then Texas law mandates that Montgomery County’s government must adopt the “effective tax rate,” the rate at which citizens will not suffer any tax increase, despite property tax appraisal increases. Since the vote on the tax rate will require a quorum of four of the Commissioners Court members, County Judge Mark Keough and Precinct 3 County Commissioner James Noack could force adoption of the “effective tax rate” by refusing to attend the August 28 special meeting, a tactic which two counties – Lubbock and Harris – enjoyed last year.
Two different components of the Commissioners Court meeting will determine whether Montgomery County citizens suffer a tax increase at the hands of the liberal majority of the Court, which consists of Precinct 2 County Commissioner Charlie Riley, the clear leader in the County government, Precinct 4 Commissioner James Metts, and lame duck Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Meador.
The meeting on August 21 will feature:
- A public hearing for citizens to speak to the Commissioners Court about the proposed Fiscal Year 2021 Budget. In previous years, there have been no time limits for citizens to speak. County Judge Mark Keough has become increasingly secretive and restrictive on citizen information and involvement, so it’s likely that Keough will seek to limit citizen comments to the hearing as much as he possibly can.
- A meeting on the Fiscal Year 2021 Budget. That meeting will require a quorum of three of the five members of the Commissioners Court. Two of the three members would have to approve the Budget.
The August 28 meeting to set the tax rate for Fiscal Year 2021. Section 81.006 of the Texas Tax Code requires that four of the five members of the Commissioners Court attend that meeting with three of the four voting for a tax rate above the “effective tax rate,” 43.19 cents per $100 valuation, the tax rate at which the Commissioners Court would not raise taxes on County taxpayers. Riley, Metts, and Meador want a 44.12 cents per $100 valuation tax rate, which would increase taxes. If both Keough and Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack leave the Commissioners Court for that part of the meeting, there will be no quorum and, by law, the Commissioners Court would have to adopt the 43.19 cents tax rate, meaning there will be no new taxes.
The prospect of a tax increase occurred when Keough sided with the three liberals in favor of $4 million of new funds to spend on a Forensics Center, the total cost of which the Commissioners Court members have no idea, because there are no plans, estimates, or even proposals for the new capital project.
Precinct 3 Montgomery County Commissioner James Noack provided specific ways to save tax dollars and avoid a tax hike for Fiscal Year 2021 to his colleagues on the Commissioners Court on Tuesday, August 11, 2020, during a regular meeting. Nevertheless, Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley, who has become the liberal leader on the Commissioners Court and arguably a genuine center of power in Montgomery County, made it clear he didn’t want to discuss the issue.
Clearly, Riley was unprepared both during the July “budget workshop” and during the August 11 Commissioners Court to discuss specific department needs and priorities or to find any methods to avoid a huge tax hike on Montgomery County individuals, families, and businesses.
After a disastrous 3 to 2 vote on July 31, 2020, at the end of a “budget workshop” by the Montgomery County Commissioners Court to raise taxes substantially on beleaguered Montgomery County taxpayers, Noack, who was one of the two in the minority, attempted to convince his colleagues to change their minds and not raise taxes on Montgomery County citizens reeling from the disastrous economic fallout arising from the government panic in response to the Chinese Coronavirus scare.
Riley, Metts, and Meador all voted for the $4 million tax hike when they set the coming year’s tax rate at 44.12 cents per $100 valuation. As County Judge Mark Keough has noted, with aggressive increases in property tax appraisals, that tax rate constitutes a “substantial tax increase that people can’t afford.”
During the 4-day budget workshop, the Commissioners Court failed to find any spending reductions at all. Even certain county departments, such as the Convention Center, which are essentially not operating at present, received no reductions in spending.
To the contrary, the Commissioners Court, under the leadership of Riley, found substantial new spending initiatives. A small surplus from the current year’s budget will go to purchase vehicles for law enforcement departments. Riley, however, insisted on spending $4 million on a new Forensics Center, which has no budget, no designs, no cost estimates, and no projected date for the commencement of construction. Sadly, Keough went along with that proposal but then realized he had made a serious error in doing so.
Noack began his remarks on August 11 by explaining that “I hate that we haven’t been in total agreement on the tax rate…I’ve never received as many calls at my office about the tax rate. The difference may be small for an individual or a family, but an extra $1,000 expense or more for a small business could cause them to have to close their doors.”
Noack specifically provided the following proposals to save $3.6 million for County government spending, which would not impact the provision of services one iota:
- Reducing the Animal Shelter budget by $300,000 off of its total $3 million budget, since the Animal Shelter only has a current population of 86 animals while in previous time periods it has averaged approximately 750 to 800 animals.
- Managing $200,000 in reductions of CARES Act interest payments.
- Accepting a proposal from Montgomery County Tax Assessor-Collector Tammy McRae to reduce her budget for construction of a new Tax Office Building by $1.1 million during the coming Fiscal Year and defer those expenditures to future years when the economy would better support capital improvements.
- Saving $250,000 in budgeted fuel amounts.
- Taking $1.2 million in personnel vacancy savings likely to occur.
- Reducing the capital improvement fund by $1 million to defer those improvements to later years.
Those reductions would allow the Commissioners Court to avoid the tax hike altogether, even with the Riley-Keough $4 million expenditure on an unknown Forensics Center.
The lameduck Meador moved to adopt the tax increase on July 31, and Riley quickly seconded that motion. The Commissioners Court voted three (Riley, Metts, Meador) to two (Noack, Keough) in favor of the tax increase.
Citizens will have the opportunity to speak at a public hearing, mandated under state law, on Friday, August 21, 2020, at 9:30 a.m., at the Montgomery County Commissioners Courtroom, on the fourth floor of the Sadler Administration Building, 501 North Thompson Street, Conroe, Texas 77301.