Over the years, there's been a boom in the number of special taxing districts created to pay for crime control, emergency services, libraries and other projects.And it's costing Texans a bundle.Texas is often called a low-tax state, but critics say such taxing districts don't make it feel that way.While the majority of the districts in Tarrant County levy a half-cent sales tax, and most others a quarter-cent, taxpayers are being nickeled and dimed to the tune of $64.3 million so far this year, according to state figures.Some entities say collections may have been even higher. Tarrant cities have added about two dozen districts from 1995 to 2007, a new report and Star-Telegram analysis of data from Texas Comptroller Susan Combs shows.For the first time, Combs has gathered a lot of taxing information into one place -- including a tool that allows people to type in their address on the comptroller website to see how many taxing entities are squeezing them.For instance, residents in Hurst's 76054 ZIP code can see they're paying sales tax to the city and state -- and also the Hurst Crime Control District, which brought in about $3.3 million last year.As Combs puts it, the tool allows the public to see "who's in their wallets."Combs has long been concerned about the districts. In a Star-Telegram interview in March she complained that it was hard just finding out the number of taxing districts."We've been struggling to find this stuff out," she said in an interview Wednesday. "If we can't find stuff out, its pretty doggone hard."Tarrant's tax leader in special districts is the Fort Worth Crime Control District, which the comptroller reports pulled in $31.9 million million in 2011, or about 47 percent of the county's special district sales tax levies. However, city officials said an audit shows the district actually collected $47 million in 2011.Investments pay offfor crime controlThe district says on its website how the money has paid off. Since its creation in 1995, Fort Worth's crime rate has declined 32 percent. The rate includes offenses such as murder, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault and property crimes such as burglary of residences and vehicles, theft and auto theft.Voters have renewed the Fort Worth district in 2000, 2005 and 2009.However, from 1995-2010, cities with 500,000 to under 1 million people show Fort Worth violent crimes decreased by 24 percent while others, such as El Paso fell 73 percent, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics. The comptroller does not list a crime control district in El Paso.However, property crimes in Fort Worth decreased 57 percent in that time frame. Overall, property and violent crime had a net drop of 3,758 cases.During approximately the same time, use of the districts has surged across Texas.From fiscal year 1993 to 2011, the number of districts imposing a sales tax increased from nine to 193. As of this year, there are 203 districts, according to the comptroller's website."I want people to be engaged in what is their business," Combs said. "John Q. Public is being taxed. Now we're giving [the public] the tools to find out."Combs has shifted since March from considering a moratorium on the districts to suggesting legislators look at whether Texas really needs them.Critics argue that cities could simply increase taxes to, for example, fight crime, instead of creating a special district to raise taxes for that purpose.Tough to followIt's tough for taxpayers to keep up because all of the various sales taxes can be bundled into one number on your Old Navy receipt, Combs said. The end result, she notes, is that cities are "raising taxes anyway."Talmadge Heflin, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Center for Fiscal Policy in Austin and a former chair of the Texas House Appropriations Committee, said the state needs to think more frugally and weigh whether the benefits of special districts outweigh the costs."At a time when we're trying to control our spending and trying to control our taxes and fees, we see this other layer of taxation just put on top of people who are already in many cases overtaxed, even though they say we're a low tax state," he said."People paying taxes don't see it that way."Darren Barbee, 817-390-7126Twitter: @DarrenBarbee
Digging into the data
To look up taxing entities for your residence, visit the comptroller's website at https://ourcpa.cpa.state.tx.us/atj/addresslookup.jsp
Tarrant tax breakdown
Among the five most populous Texas counties, Tarrant County ranks third in population and property tax levies and fourth in tax per capita, trailing Harris, Dallas and Travis counties. In sales tax, Tarrant ranks third in collections with $537 million behind Dallas, $890 million, and Harris, $1.2 billion.
Source: Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts