Tax relief, the county budget and economic development starred in Wharton County Judge Phillip Spenrath’s presentation during the annual State of the City and County Luncheon hosted by the El Campo Chamber of Commerce Friday.
While listeners munched on lunch, Spenrath served updates on the county sandwiched between discussions on tax rates and relief.
First, he addressed this year’s 3.5-cent increase in appraisals, which, according to Spenrath, should have correlated with decreased taxes.
“The county, for 11 years, has not raised taxes,” Spenrath said. “We’ve always dropped when your appraisals went up, except for this year.”
The appraisal increase did not lower taxes, because Wharton County was required to pay for 52 percent of expenses for Judge Ben Hardin’s 23rd district court after the passage of Senate Bill 891.
This amounted to $245,000, according to Spenrath.
Out of a final tax rate of $0.46 per $100 on taxable property, one cent is used to cover indigent attorney fees in Wharton County. This portion provides legal representation to people who cannot afford it, even if the individual committed a crime within the county but does not live in the area.
“You pay over $400,000 in attorneys for people who can’t afford them,” Spenrath said.
Senate Bill 2, aiming to limit property tax growth, and House Bill 3, targeting school district taxes, passed this year. Legislators justified both bills with the intent of providing relief to taxpayers, according to the Texas Tribune.
However, taxpayers whose appraisals rose this year may not see lowered taxes in 2020.
“If you rose above 5 percent, you’re paying higher taxes,” Spenrath said.
As a proposed option to diminish taxes, Spenrath spoke about legislative considerations for giving Chapter 312 tax abatements for solar farm projects, which he said could decrease taxes $0.096 if the local government kept 50 percent of the funds. Spenrath did not state whether he supports the proposed abatements.
“I would commit to giving back at least 50 percent of the new money,” Spenrath said. “Can’t give it all back, because we’ve got roads and things that are messed up, and we’ve got machinery that’s falling apart. We’ve got to spend some money.”
If legislators were to increase sales tax in order to reduce property taxes, sales tax would have to be raised 20 or 25 percent, according to Spenrath.
“That $7 hamburger you buy is now going to cost almost $9,” Spenrath said. “You’ve got to think about that.”
If legislators were to rework the sales tax system, cities and counties could lose access to and control of some of their sales tax funding.
“You’re taking your right to determine where local dollars go,” Spenrath said. “If you send them to Austin, they’re not going to send them back.”
Upcoming solar projects in Louise, Wharton, East Bernard and other school districts are estimated to cost $1.5 billion. While furthering economic development, these projects could lower the county tax rate.
“Any one of those will be the largest taxpayer in Wharton County,” Spenrath said. “That one in Louise will be number one by far.”
The income would come at a price, however. For every 1,000 acres of farmland converted to solar farming, about eight local jobs are lost, according to Spenrath. During the last 10 years, this would equate to 80 lost jobs.
While maintaining the area’s farming roots, Spenrath emphasized the importance of evolving cities’ economies and attracting new businesses to the area.
“I think as elected officials, it’s our job to try to attract other businesses in here so that there’s the future,” Spenrath said. “We have to be diversified.”
In the upcoming year, the rebuilding of the Wharton County Historical Museum will begin, along with construction on I-69 from Kendleton to Wharton.
The section of road leading to El Campo is set to be rebuilt in 2027. An engineer will be hired for the project next year, but there is no funding yet for this portion of the I-69 construction efforts.
“That wasn’t even in the picture for 10 more years,” Spenrath said. “That project could happen in the next five years. It’s that fast.”
Brazoria and Fort Bend counties, supporting a proposal for a rail line from Port Freeport to Kendleton, have sought land in Wharton County for the project and recently turned their sights to land in Matagorda County.
“I’m not telling you I’m for or against it,” Spenrath said. “My message today is they have no power of eminent domain. They cannot take it from you today.”