By Sydney Murphy
Polk County Judge
The Texas Legislature determines acceptable methods for funding government entities and school districts in the State of Texas. The main method of funding, as all of us know, is property taxes. The amount of funding from other sources such as sales tax is minimal compared to property taxes. We are all interested in reducing property taxes. However, if the State Legislature wants to reduce property taxes, then they must provide counties, cities and schools across this great state with alternative means of funding, or take back the responsibilities of providing services that they have thrust onto the counties, cities and schools over the years.
They have not. It is disingenuous for state legislators to continue to pontificate and politicize the very means of funding that they control. Instead of providing alternatives for other government entities (other than the state and state agencies), they reduced the percentage of revenue that counties could raise from one year to the next—from 8% to 3.5%. What does that mean for rural East Texas? How will that impact us? Why would politicians in Austin know what is best for East Texas?
Traditionally, Polk County Commissioners Court utilized the growth, new development and increase in valuations to fund improvements and maintain services. The county had maintained a $0.6461 tax rate since 2013. That strategy has allowed Polk County to slowly improve infrastructure, employee pay and county services, and also undertake the added responsibilities assigned to counties each legislative session. That strategy has also maintained spending well below the previously established cap of 8%. However, due to the lower revenue cap that was established by the Texas Legislature, the Court had to decrease the property tax rate to $0.6376 for this budget cycle. This legislative decision will have a resounding effect on progress and development in our area and especially for Polk County.
Consider the following:
The entire United States is currently dealing with an 8% inflation rate. Quite obviously, forcing every county in the State of Texas to minimize any increases to a maximum of 3.5% will not even allow us to maintain the pace with regards to employees raises. Previously implemented “cost of living” raises have been consumed by inflation and county employees continue to battle high prices. County employees, across the State of Texas, have historically not been in the highest compensation brackets. Quite often, the county benefits and retirement are their greatest compensation which is a long-term commitment.
We are all ensnared in the supply line crisis, along with COVID and other major obstacles. The county has also been impacted by the current circumstances that the entire United States, and the rest of the world, have been trying to manage. If the legislature is not going to allow us to benefit from growth in our communities and increased valuations, then we can expect to have a major reduction in infrastructure development and maintenance and certainly in services. Growing counties will constantly battle the changing needs that are occurring in their local communities, with inadequate funding.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Polk County saw a 10.4% increase in population over the last 10 years. Most of us would argue that the number is higher. However, that is the documented number that was provided to all of us. Furthermore, we have witnessed an explosion in both residential and business development and construction. With the paradigm shift that has occurred due to COVID restrictions, urban dwellers are moving towards rural communities where they can work from home and enjoy a different lifestyle. Polk County has experienced this increase over the last two years and we can only expect more. We need to be prepared for these changes in population and development, along with the infrastructure requirements that come with them.
The limitations set by the Legislature seriously hamper the county’s ability to respond efficiently and quickly to the rapid increase in population and development—it becomes impossible to stay ahead of the demand curve for more roads, more infrastructure, more services and increased development prior to it becoming a reality. Rural counties are going to forever find themselves strictly in a reactive mode as opposed to a proactive mode.
Our state legislature increases the burden on local government after every legislative session, without fail. The burden for mental health, indigent defense, indigent healthcare and a plethora of other duties and responsibilities continue to be shifted onto Texas counties and the taxpayers. Those “mandates” come with a price tag that the local taxpayers must pay. As the amount of money consumed by legislative mandates increases, Texas counties must face the challenge of continuing to pay for services and infrastructure needs for their residents. By capping revenues across the state, our legislators have seriously hampered the ability to respond to all constituents appropriately. They need to allow local government to provide local services and make local decisions.
Our legislators provide a service to the people of Texas, but they need to allow other entities to work without being sidetracked by Austin. Texans are decision-makers and we can decide what is needed in our communities. We do not need legislation from afar. We thank all of them for their service and appreciate their role in making Texas a great state. However, the whole is only as strong as the 254 pieces with which they are interfering.