We’re all familiar with the financial constraints that the city of Houston is operating under. Harris County is experiencing similar problems.
“As best we can tell appraisals are going to be flat, if not down a little, so that means we’re going to have to make some difficult decisions,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.
Every Harris County department and agency is preparing for budget cuts heading into the 2010-2011 fiscal year, which begins in March.
11 News obtained a copy of the targeted cuts — and the worst-case scenarios are steep.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office may have to trim as much as 16 percent of its budget. The eight Constable precincts may have cut as much as 13 percent of theirs.
The worst-case scenarios — and every option is on the table — range from reassigning personnel, to cutting hours of operation, to rolling back salaries or to laying off county workers.
“Even if we stay flat we’ve all gotten, frankly, really comfortable with everything growing, growing, growing over the years,” said Emmett. “And we can’t do that anymore.”
We don’t know yet how bad the situation is, but we do know this: Back in 2007, at the urging of Judge Emmett, Commissioners Court cut the property tax rate by a penny. This tax cut, which saved a homeowner with a house valued at $161,000 a whopping $12 annually but saved corporations many thousands of dollars, was opposed by County Budget Director Dick Raycraft because of the loss in revenue the County would experience, which he believed we would some day need. How much revenue are we talking? Twenty-five million dollars a year, which I’d guess would cover the cost of however many Sheriffs and Constable deputies we may wind up laying off. On the bright side, it could have been worse. Emmett’s opponent in the 2008 Republican primary, Charles Bacarisse, wanted to cut the rate by five cents. That would have saved our average homeowner $58 a year, while depriving the county of $125 million a year in revenue. Imagine how many layoffs we’d have to make to cover that. Former Tax Assessor Paul Bettencourt was pushing for a cut of about three and a half cents, or about $90 million a year. Does that look affordable now?
Judge Emmett is right, we’ve been comfortable with the idea that our revenues always grow. One of the inevitable consequences of that is the clamoring for tax cuts by irresponsible financial stewards like Bacarisse and Bettencourt, who don’t take seriously the idea that it wouldn’t take much of a decline in rate of that growth – never mind an actual leveling off, or some negative growth – to have a devastating effect on the budget. Maybe they didn’t think it could happen, I don’t know. What I do know is that nobody is going to call for that one cent reduction to be rolled back, because we just don’t do that sort of thing. I can only hope the next time someone calls for an equally irresponsible reduction in the tax rate on the grounds that whatever rate of growth we’re experiencing will be how it is forever, we remember what happened the last time we did that.