Let’s Talk About Taxes

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I think it was Benjamin Franklin who first said that nothing is certain, “except death and taxes.” Nobody likes to pay taxes, but civic-minded people know they are necessary. In Texas, we have a system where the burden for paying taxes falls largely on property owners, especially homeowners. If you own a home in Williamson County, you know: You’ve seen rising property values for years, and in 2021 the median residential home value shot up nearly 20% to $323,450 (according to the Williamson Central Appraisal District).

Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about our property tax system.

It doesn’t help when those who know better won’t tell you the truth.

In his campaign for Williamson County Judge in 2018, Bill Gravell ran on a promise to lower your taxes. In both of his first two years in office, he voted to raise revenue for the county, which meant more tax dollars coming out of your pocket. As the budget and tax rate decisions for 2021 appear on the horizon, it is likely that he will break his promise for a third year in a row. Update (8/31/2021): For the third year in a row, Gravell has voted to raise your taxes. Read more here.

I want to bring some clarity to the property tax conversation. First, I’ll make a brief, general statement about what real property tax relief for Williamson County homeowners will require, followed by some basic concepts that need to be understood. Then, I will address the recent action by the Williamson County Commissioners. Finally, this will bring us full circle to the initial statement:

Real property tax relief for Williamson County requires action at the State level.

Now some basic concepts:

1) The appraised value of your home is determined by the Williamson Central Appraisal District. This is NOT a part of Williamson County government. It is a separate entity, a political subdivision of the State of Texas. 

2) The Commissioners Court sets the tax rate only for the County portion of your taxes. Depending on where you live in the county, this is roughly 20% of your entire property tax bill.

3) Other taxing districts, such as your city or school district, set their own tax rates. Depending on where you live, the school district portion represents more than half of your property tax bill.

4) With the dramatic rise in property values, even if the tax rate for these various taxing districts stays the same year over year, or is even lowered slightly, you will still pay more in property taxes.

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On May 25th of this year, the Williamson County Commissioners Court expanded the homestead exemptions for homeowners who are 65 and older and for disabled homeowners. For all other homeowners, they introduced a new exemption of 1.5% of the homestead assessed value. 

What does this mean to most homeowners in this tax year? Let’s use the median residential home value of $323,450 as an example. 1.5% of that is $4,852. Now if you multiply this difference by the relevant tax rate of .418719 per $100 (the new exemption does not apply to the .04 Road tax rate), you get the real dollar amount of the tax relief provided by this exemption to the median home value. The answer is $20. That’s $20 less than you would have paid when you pay your tax at the end of the year. You will most likely still pay more than you paid last year. 

That is not real tax relief. 

And when Bill Gravell tries to campaign on “putting money back into your pocket” or “slashing your taxes,” we will remember. When he made his campaign promise in 2018, he either did not understand what he was promising or he was lying. Either way, that is not the kind of leadership and transparency the tax-payers of Williamson County deserve. 

You deserve to hear the truth, and the truth is: Real property tax relief for Williamson County requires action at the state level. For years, Texas has been under-funding education, and the burden has shifted to local school districts to make up the difference. That’s where most of your property tax goes. Additionally, the loopholes that allow large commercial and industrial property owners to unfairly game the property appraisal system need to be closed. In Texas, big businesses get big tax cuts and incentives, leaving the burden on homeowners to grow unchecked.

I once heard a friend of mine complain about her taxes and gave this as a reason to vote for Republicans. This was a person who lived in a city, a county, and a state under complete control by Republican leadership, and it was at a time when our national tax policy had been set by a Republican president and Congress. Myths can be difficult to shake off even when the truth is staring you right in the eyes.

Regardless of which political party is in power, taxes will be as certain as death. But it’s long past time to discard the myth that the Democratic party is the “tax and spend” party. The real question is about fairness in our tax system and healthy debate about our spending priorities.

* * *

More hypocrisy about taxes and spending

Back on May 25th, when the Williamson County Commissioners approved the new property tax exemptions, it was estimated that the loss of revenue to the county would be around $5.6 million. The agenda item immediately following this was about rising construction costs that were jeopardizing the construction of a new addition for the Children’s Advocacy Center, a facility which serves abused children in our county. The new estimate for the construction was about $1.8 million higher (see video). 

So just minutes after celebrating the loss of $5.6 million in revenue (in thousands of tiny increments of $20 for most homeowners), the Commissioners bemoaned higher building costs (which are not likely to come back down) and wondered aloud where they were supposed to come up with the money to expand a necessary facility for abused children in our county.

Fortunately, a resolution to this quandary was discovered just three weeks later. On June 15th, with millions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan coming into the county, it was determined that some of this federal money could be used to cover the shortfall for this construction project (and other costs that were determined to be exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic). In fact, Bill Gravell–who eagerly celebrated his own perfunctory role in applying for Covid relief funds from the previous President’s initiative, while he has frequently criticized the Covid relief funds initiated by the current President–asked whether even MORE of this ARPA money could be used to cover the original construction costs of this project (see video).

Update: On August 10, 2021, Commissioners approved an additional $16.8 million in ARPA funds to be used for “mental health needs, juvenile services, dual diagnosis inpatient treatment and breast cancer prevention & treatment for under insured and uninsured.”

Beware of politicians who preach against taxes and spending while grabbing for as much as they can get.

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