Lubbock commissioners refuse to attend meeting, to prevent tax rate vote

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Two Lubbock County commissioners are refusing to attend meetings in order to prevent the commission from passing a property tax rate they say will pay for adding $1.8 million to the budget and cost the owner of an average property an additional $12.25 a year. 

The other commissioners suggested keeping the current rate of slightly more than 34.8 cents per $100 property valuation. Commissioners Jason Corley and Chad Seay led a fight to reduce the rate to just under 34 cents per $100 property valuation. 

Corley told The Texas Monitor on Tuesday that he and Seay intend to boycott the Sept. 23 meeting — the last before the end of the county’s fiscal year — to deprive the commissioner’s court of the legal minimum of members necessary for a vote on the tax rate. According to state law, the county would then be required to operate with what is called the effective tax rate — the rate Corley and Seay want.

Corley said that while he and Seay were assured that the other commissioners were on board with the lower rate, they couldn’t be sure that the other three members wouldn’t vote for the current rate at the Sept. 23 commissioner’s meeting. The current rate would increase tax bills for owners whose property values have increased.

On Monday, the county judge and the other two commissioners approved the county budget by a three-vote majority allowable under state law. A vote to set the tax rate, however, requires at least four commission members to be present, according to the Texas local government code. 

Corley and Seay paid for and produced a video explaining that after working for what they thought was an agreement to stick to the effective rate, a commission majority left the door open to the new, and higher, tax rate.

“Taxes only go up when good conservatives do nothing,” Seay says at the end of the video, which was first posted on the Facebook page of a group called the Lubbock Taxpayers Coalition.

Lubbock County Judge Curtis Parrish on Tuesday called the move an “unnecessary political stunt” because all five members of commissioner’s court agreed in principle to pass the effective tax rate that Corley and Seay want. Parrish told The Texas Monitor on Tuesday he is prepared to vote for it.

“Their job is to show up and vote,” Parrish said. “Rather than do their duty, what they thought was more important was to make a political statement that was completely unnecessary. It still doesn’t make any sense to me.”

It makes sense, Corley said, in light of the Texas Legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 2 in May, requiring that local governments schedule a vote by the public for any tax rate that increases citizens’ tax bills by 3.5 percent or more. Corley said he and Seay flew to Austin to testify on behalf of the property tax reform bill.

Since its passage, Austin, Travis County and local governments all over Texas have proposed raising property taxes to their maximum allowed by state law this year in response to the new law that will give voters a direct say in any such increases next year. No such proposal has been made in Lubbock County, but Corley and Seay want to insure that the adopted tax rate goes down instead of staying the same.

Corley and Seay are in their first terms on the commission, backed by fiscally conservative individuals and groups, Corley said.

In order to emphasize their fiscal conservatism, the pair took action to make sure each will receive $57,000 per year in county pay — the rate in 2014 — rather than the current level of $81,000 a year.

Both took part in the summer budget workshops and in early August the commission agreed to what Corley said he thought was an annual budget of about $111 million that reflected the effective tax rate, one that would not raise the county’s portion of property tax bills. By the next workshop at the end of the month, $1.8 million had been added to the proposed budget, Corley said.

The county’s website continued to carry the higher rate proposal after a budget workshop late last month, without mentioning that commissioners had agreed in principle to the lower, effective rate.

Bill McCay, in his 15th year as a county commissioner, said he thinks that, as newcomers, Corley and Seay don’t understand the budget process. During the workshops, County Auditor Jacqueline Latham produced a budget that provided for raises for county employees, four sheriff’s department squad cars, new court bailiffs, technology and road improvements. 

“I think it’s going to have an impact on next fiscal year’s budget, but I’m comfortable with the effective tax rate. We’re going to make it work,” McCay said. “So let’s worry about the politics later and take a vote. These guys were elected to do the job.”

Unless four members of the commission are present, Lubbock County will by default operate with the effective tax rate, Parrish said. State law allows for the county to attempt to declare the absent commissioners to be in contempt and fine them $25 for each meeting they miss. Parrish said he will not consider trying to punish Corley and Seay.

McCay said he had an opportunity Tuesday to discuss the situation with Seay and thought Seay understood that all the commission members supported the effective tax rate.

Messages left with Seay and Commissioner Gilbert Flores for comment were not returned before this story was posted.

Parrish said he intends to post notice of the Sept. 23 meeting with language that stresses that what is being considered is passage of the effective tax rate.

Despite the assurances of Parrish and McCay, Corley said there is nothing to prevent them from joining with Flores to pass the higher, current property tax rate if he and Seay show up.

“I’m a major pain in the ass, but that’s what I got elected for,” Corley said. “It’s nothing personal.”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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