Although the meeting was contentious, in the end the Harris County Department of Education Board of Trustees voted along party lines 5-2 to not raise the tax rate above the Effective Tax Rate. In technical terms, that means that the board did not raise taxes this year. In non-technical terms, the rate went up by roughly a half percent but due to a decrease in property values, the total revenues should be the same, not including new properties added to the tax rolls. In real dollars, the budget will increase by about 3% or $500,000 because of growth in Harris County. In terms of how it affects any single property, if your home was appraised at the same value for the past two years of $100,000, your net tax bill will increase by four cents per year. More property was appraised at less value in 2012 than in 2011, thus the slight increase in the Effective Tax Rate.
Gotta love figuring out tax rates and total taxes, right? But the bottom line is that this is why the voters of Harris County elect Republicans – to keep taxes low and force agencies to be efficient.
Okay, that was the executive summary version. Now to the meeting itself. First off, for the first time this year, according to people that go to these meetings regularly, all seven board members were present. Which is how it should be for a vote to increase taxes.
The meeting opened with prayer and pledges. Then it was time for citizen comments. No one came forward to support the tax rate increase. Four people, including myself, spoke against the rate increase.
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Activist Colleen Vera speaks against the tax rate increase.
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SD6 Candidate R.W. Bray speaks against the tax rate increase.
I was disappointed that only one candidate for office in Harris County and no elected officials came to testify about the proposed increase. R.W. Bray, candidate for Texas Senate District 6, was passionate about keeping to conservative principles and protecting the voters in SD6. Keep your eye on Mr. Bray, one of a number of young minority conservatives in the Harris County Republican Party.
After hearing from citizens, the board heard from four Harris County Department of Education groups: Special Schools, Alternative Certification, Adult Education, and Choice Partners. These “annual updates” weren’t – they were promotional presentations designed to tell the board how great the HCDE is. But they were informational – I wish the videos were online so that you could review them. The videos for the schools reinforced my desire to visit them and helped me to understand more about what they do and why. Perhaps Supt. John Sawyer will consider putting them online – if so, I’ll let you know.
The last guy to present, Les Hooper, tried to put lipstick on the pig that is Choice Partners. Yeah, I get that was snarky and not polite but I was the one sitting in a building named after President Ronald Reagan listening to a guy touting the benefits of…well, central planning? Socialism? Whatever you want to call it, having a government agency in a for-profit business is the antithesis of capitalism and free markets. I’m guessing that President Reagan squirms in heaven each time Mr. Hooper steps up to the microphone.
It was simply amazing listening to Mr. Hooper, Supt. Sawyer, Trustee Roy Morales, and Trustee Debra Kerner repeatedly boast about the profitability of Choice Partners and how those profits reduce the burden on the taxpayers to fund HCDE programs. Incredible. And later in the meeting, Supt. Sawyer had the nerve to say they weren’t really profits, they were just getting in more revenue than they spent. Fortunately Board President Angie Chesnut stepped in and reminded him that yes, they were profits.
Some of the things that Mr. Hooper said were interesting and some were unbelievable. Turns out that this year they are handling about $59 million in contracts, producing gross revenue of $1.9 million with expenses of $1.2 million, leaving them a $700,000 profit. Or “contribution to relieve the burden on the taxpayers” in Supt. Sawyer’s terms. How many small businesses have margins that high? Something fishy is going on here. I wonder what would happen if an outside accounting firm looked at the books of Choice Partners?
Mr. Hooper brought up an issue that needs to be looked at very closely by the attorney general’s office, especially in light of a statement that Supt. Sawyer brought up later in the meeting. First, Mr. Hooper noted that their current contracts were down from a high of $90+ million because they “depend upon relationships” to garner contracts and they had had some turnover in employees/consultants. But he assured us that the relationships were being rebuilt and this year was looking up. Later, in a discussion about a former board member Don Elder, now the Mayor of Katy, as a consultant, Supt. Sawyer told the board that he was worth every penny of his fees because of the doors he opened.
Wow. And here I thought that Choice Partners contracted with government agencies because they were the low bidder on contracts or could prove they had they were the best value. Little did I know that they were schmoozing clients and getting work based on relationships. Yeah, I’m guessing that the attorney general’s office might have some fun with Choice Partners. If I were a board member, I’d move quickly to dismember them before I got caught up in that mess. The Harris County Department of Education should be about education, not backroom deals and relationships.
Here is the list of board members that voted not to increase taxes:
- Angie Chesnut – Board President, Position 2, Precinct 4
- Louis D. Evans, III – Board Vice-President, Position 4, Precinct 3 (outgoing)
- Roy Morales, Position 6, Precinct 1 (outgoing)
- Marvin W. Morris, Position 1, Precinct 2
- Mike Wolfe, Position 3, At Large (up for election)
Note that three of the seven positions are on the ballot this year – these positions are currently held by Republicans. That is why it is critical that you either vote Straight Ticket Republican or make certain that you vote all the way down the ballot for these three candidates:
- Mike Wolfe, Position 3, At Large (incumbent)
- Kay Smith, Position 4, Precinct 3
- JuLuette Bartlett-Pack, Position 6, Precinct 1
If Republicans don’t vote all the way down the ballot, the balance of the board will shift to Democrats and I guarantee you that your taxes will increase and not by a small amount.