After seven different failed attempts spread over two meetings in one week, The Woodlands Township Board of Directors begrudgingly approved the 2020 property tax rate, lowering the rate from 2019 by 0.33 cents.
The 2020 property was set at 22.4 cents per $100 valuation of property, which is also the Montgomery County effective tax rate for 2020. The approved rate is 0.33 cents lower than the 2019 rate - which was 22.73 cents - and also was much lower than the 23 cents proposed by township directors after four days budget meetings in August.
The decision to lower the tax rate was approved with a 7-0 vote, but the previous seven proposals from both a meeting on Sept. 11 and Wednesday’s meeting had all failed due to the lack of sufficient ‘yes’ votes.
In order to raise the tax rate to the proposed 23 cents, five ‘yes’ votes were needed under state law. To lower the rate or maintain the same rate as in 2019, four ‘yes’ votes were needed.
Similar to the Sept. 11 meeting, where three proposed rates were rejected, on Wednesday, the first four proposed rate motions failed with township directors John McMullan, Ann Snyder and Carol Stromatt voting no and preventing a tax increase. Township board Chairman Gordy Bunch and directors Bruce Rieser, Brian Boniface and John Anthony Brown had voted ‘yes’ for the 23 cent proposal as well as a 22.73 cent proposal, but both attempts repeatedly failed.
The decision to approve the rate on Wednesday allowed the township to meet the Montgomery County Tax Assessor-Collector’s office deadline to include the township property taxes in mailings of bills to residents. If the township had not set the rate Wednesday, the county would be forced to send a separate bill to residents in The Woodlands due to printing and mailing deadlines. The extra mailing would be billed to The Woodlands if no rate was set, costing an additional $19,000 in cost the township would be required to pay the county.
Debate turned to criticism between directors
As it became evident a compromise was not going to be reached between the two parties, the impassioned debate of the reasons for the proposed 23 cent rate morphed into acrimonious comments and attacks between various directors.
Rieser was especially vocal in his criticism of the three directors who voted ‘no,’ saying he was extremely disappointed the seven-member board was incapable of coming to a compromise as responsible elected officials are expected to by residents.
“We are sitting here arguing about $14 a year (per house) increase. This is a long-term mistake for this community,” Rieser said angrily. “We are being held hostage by three people on the board. This community is going to lose or there is a risk the community will lose. I am ashamed to be a part of it.”
Snyder defended her stance on lowering the tax rate to Rieser and Bunch, stating the public wants lower taxes. Snyder had in the four days of budget planning meetings unofficially agreed to the 23 cents property tax rate, however during the first public hearing on both the township 2020 budget and the tax rate on Aug. 28, she backtracked and told board members present and the public she had made a mistake.
“I have no personal agenda. People have asked for a reduction of taxes,” Snyder said during Wednesday’s meeting.
Bunch, who was not present for the Sept. 11 meeting when three attempts to pass a tax rate failed, advocated heavily for the 23 cents rate during Wednesday’s meeting. The township board chairman said there were too many uncertainties in the future for the township to not set the higher rate and secure revenue for the next five year. Bunch cited newly discovered structural damage to Fire Station No. 5, which may need significant repairs or to be completely torn down and rebuild, as well as a drop in sales tax revenue during 2019, higher costs to the township for trash services and streetscape maintenance as well as the possible departure of Anadarko staff since the company may be relocated after being bought out by oil industry giant Oxy.
“We do know that we have things staring us down in the next 12 months that could create budget challenges. I think we should plan for what is staring us in the face,” Bunch said. “The headwinds we are looking at today are more dire (than in past years) and we did not have these unexpected expenditures (in past years.) Anything but the proposed rate (23 cents) puts the community at risk.”
Snyder and Stromatt both told Bunch that they support The Woodlands Fire Department, and are favorable to possible repairs to Station No. 5 as well as the creation of a new second company of firefighters in the next few years which would require ongoing revenue for 15 new firefighters and all their equipment. The township is also purchasing a new fire truck at a cost of nearly $1.5 million.
“Having a fire department that can effectively put out fires and maintain the ISO 1 rating is paramount for me,” Stromatt said, noting that if the budget is in need of revisions she was in favor of reducing expenditures in several areas.
Snyder said she did not appreciate Bunch’s claims about her motives.
“I take exception with that,” she responded. “I’ve always been fiscally responsible and we are balanced for 2020 (at the 22.4 cents tax rate).”
After the first four attempts to set the rate failed, both Bunch and Rieser said it was unfortunate that the seven board members could not come to a compromise. Because state law would mandate the tax rate be set at the county effective rate if a community did not set it by Sept. 30, both Bunch and Rieser relented and agreed to the 22.4 cents proposed by Snyder, McMullan and Stromatt.
“Politics is supposed to be about compromise. We have one group of directors at the effective rate and another group of directors at 23 cents. I think the adults in the room should compromise,” Bunch said, alluding to opting for the 2019 rate of 22.73 cents per $100 valuation.
That proposal failed by a 4-3, as it needed five ‘yes’ votes. Afterward, the board voted 7-0 to set the rate at 22.4 cents.
The decision was accepted by Rieser, but he issued a warning to the board.
“If we have to go to the effective rate, so be it,” Rieser said. “But there will be consequences.”