Editorials

Property tax rates to fall, but not for schools

THE EDITORIAL BOARD

A hot housing market spurred a 14 percent increase in property appraisals reported by the Tarrant Appraisal District.
A hot housing market spurred a 14 percent increase in property appraisals reported by the Tarrant Appraisal District. Fort Worth Star-Telegram

You could consider July to be the calm before the storm at Fort Worth City Hall and many other seats of local government.

What’s coming in August is not literally a storm — who wouldn’t welcome the rain? It will be a disturbance of a different kind: the annual budget-writing process, which is always highlighted by adoption of the property tax rate for the next year.

It’s a complicated story, but the short version is that property values in Tarrant County have shot up this year. More so than most years, budget writers and the elected officials who supervise them will be under intense pressure to cut tax rates rather than reap a revenue windfall.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price is already pushing for a lower tax rate. That’s a politically popular thing to do, and this year it’s almost certainly the right thing.

Property values usually go up year to year in Tarrant County, but this year the Tarrant Appraisal District reported the increase to be about 14 percent.

In most years, elected city officials can hold the tax rate steady or even decrease it slightly and still get away with bragging about being fiscally conservative.

But this year, if they sit on their hands and that 14 percent jump in property appraisals turns into anything near a 14 percent increase in tax revenue and spending, they can probably expect to play host to ugly mobs of local property owners carrying torches and pitchforks.

It’s not the same for local school board members — who ironically are the people responsible for the largest part of homeowner tax bills.

School boards could reduce tax rates just like city and county officials. But you’d almost have to call them fools if they do.

That’s because of the quirky way Texas funds its public schools — and because school districts ran into some hard luck in May when the state Supreme Court refused to order an overhaul of that state funding system.

Lawmakers are supposed to be studying school funding reforms, but that and any possible increase in state funding will remain an unfulfilled promise for at least another year while the 2017 legislative session plays out.

Meanwhile, the current system makes it very very hard for school districts to raise tax rates, so they’re understandably reluctant to lower them.

Back at Fort Worth City Hall, the City Council is scheduled to take the month of July off. Council members will return to work Aug. 2 and will receive City Manager David Cooke’s first budget briefing Aug. 9. Budget workshops are scheduled through Sept. 1.

Hang on for a bumpy ride.

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