Count us among the rest of the county in being pleasantly surprised when Angelina County Commissioners released the proposed 2021 budget on Friday afternoon recommending a tax rate of 43 cents per $100 valuation — the same rate as was approved for 2020.
Just because this budget is proposed, does not mean it has been approved. Commissioners will continue to meet in budget workshops and changes are likely. During last week’s commissioners court meeting, however, County Judge Don Lymbery had called a tax rate increase for the county “inevitable.”
“In order to meet our obligations for the county and pay all the bills, we’re going to have to have some kind of tax rate (increase),” he said. “It could be very, very small, or depending on what this court decides to do, the changes, it could be larger. But there will be a tax rate (increase). Albeit, as small as we can keep it is the goal of this court.”
Commissioners had found a loophole that would allow them to raise the tax rate above the 3.5% limit set by the Texas Legislature in 2019 in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet they were already catching heat for considering it.
While some counties and cities have interpreted the provision to apply to both physical disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey, and financial disasters, such as an economic downturn, that’s not the spirit in which the bill had been written, as State Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville), who co-authored the bill, pointed out in a recent letter to the editor.
Nichols cited Attorney General Ken Paxton’s formal opinion, in which Paxton states that “purely economic, non-physical damage to property caused by the COVID-19 disaster is not eligible for the temporary exemption provided by Section 11.35 of the Tax Code.”
“Nobody could have ever foreseen a global pandemic that has resulted in a statewide disaster proclamation when Senate Bill 2 was passed,” Nichols wrote. “Texans have lost their jobs and are hurting financially because of the global pandemic. This is not the time to raise their property taxes when the current economic crisis has hurt so many families already. This is the time to tighten our belts and limit unnecessary expenditures.”
Local business owner Mark Dunn echoed those sentiments at last week’s meeting.
“Boys, these are tough times,” Dunn said. “You’re proposing a tax increase because of a supposed emergency. The only emergency we have is that people are out of work, people are falling short on their paychecks, they don’t have more money to pay for taxes."
We can’t say for certain whether any of that dissension influenced the commissioners, but what matters is they ultimately did the right thing: They're looking at tightening their own belt rather than the noose taxpayers were already feeling pinched by, in large part due to the economic downturn.
Small cuts are in the works for nearly every department. In the proposed budget, County Judge Don Lymbery’s compensations and benefits decreased by just more than $4,500; county attorney Cary Kirby’s budgeted compensations and benefits also decreased, by $72,155; and no constables received raises, other than that for health insurance. And that’s just the start. While compensation and benefits rose for some, budgets and expenditures were slashed in other areas. Some nonprofits saw additional contributions while others were cut in half or entirely.
In short, the county budgeted.
“That’s what the state of Texas, local businesses and families across Texas are doing,” Nichols wrote in his letter. “I believe local governments must do the same or risk facing the consequences of fighting this battle.”
That’s exactly what our county judge and commissioners did. We might have been surprised by the about-face, but we couldn’t be more pleased to see taxpayers off the hook for a pandemic that has left so many of them in financial distress.