The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on lives — and livelihoods. In the coming months, when we hopefully have more answers about how to defeat the virus in order to save the former, cities and counties will have a big decision to make that will affect the latter: How much will they increase property taxes this year during a time of economic crisis?
Under a new state law, cities and counties must ask voters for approval before raising property taxes more than 3.5%. Previously, the trigger was 8%. While the city of Austin was getting a pay raise of nearly 8% year over year, taxpayers were left footing the bill at a pace that was out of line with their own earnings. Homeowners were scared to open their property tax bills, and renters dreaded yet another rent increase. The new state law brought much-needed relief to all Texans.
But to address the concerns of cities and counties that might find themselves hard-pressed to fund rebuilding after hurricanes and other natural disasters, lawmakers added a provision that allows taxing entities to revert to the higher trigger of 8% in the case of a disaster.
The clear legislative intent was to assist in recovery from a destructive natural disaster, when there is costly infrastructure and property to rebuild. Yet cities and counties, which have long opposed the tax changes, are eyeing the coronavirus pandemic as a way to circumvent the intent of the law, and to raise taxes at a time when Texans can least afford it.
Pointing to Hurricane Harvey as an example, which devastated coastal Texas in 2017, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt recently said the provision “was designed to allow an area, at their request, to recover from a set of physical damages… I support Gov. [Greg] Abbott’s interpretation that the 3.5% limitation is still in effect.”
Staying within this reasonable increase is not only possible, but imperative.
Already, the impact on residents of this pandemic and the resulting shutdown has been severe. Some of our favorite small businesses have closed due to property tax hikes, and this crisis has imperiled many more. The U.S. Private Sector Job Quality Index estimates that 35.2 million low wage jobs in America are at risk. Any tax hike is going to have the greatest impact on our restaurant and retail workers, who have been hit hard.
If the city and county want to help them, they can let us get back to work as soon as safely possible, and minimize tax increases during an already difficult time.
We are all focused on saving lives right now. COVID-19 has taken too many Texans. But we know that financial stress of a bad economy also costs lives. Don’t make it worse with tax hikes.