To the Editor,
Millions of Texas taxpayers have raised their voices and helped bring property taxes to the forefront of discussion in the 86th Session of the Texas Legislature. While revenue caps and changes to the rollback tax rates have dominated the debate these last few months, there has been a significant push to address another highly effective method of lowering property taxes through transparency to taxpayers. Senate Bill 1253 by State Senator Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) gives us citizens the full rights to examine how our tax dollars are raised and spent in special districts across Texas. If taxpayers are going to pick up the tab, they ought to be able to look at every item on the receipt.
As Fort Bend County Commissioner Precinct 3 representing the fastest-growing precinct, in one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, I have a lot of reasons to praise the work of the complex network of special districts that span across the metropolitan Houston region. The rapid growth of Fort Bend County has been made possible through hundreds of property tax collecting districts such as Municipal Utility Districts (MUDs), Levee Improvement Districts (LIDs), and other entities, and through the work of thousands of publicly elected board members who manage those tax-collecting districts.
Transparency for Texas taxpayers has made giant strides in the last decade. Starting at the top of statewide government, Fort Bend County resident and State Comptroller Glenn Hegar has a website that states, “open government is accountable government.” On his official website, he provides online services such as searchable databases and data visualizations that help all Texans to understand state revenue, spending, and budget line items by agency and by subject matter.
Transparency for Texas taxpayers continues down to the city and county levels as well. In Fort Bend County, our citizens can go online and find annual budgets and audited financial statements that include the county’s revenues and expenditures line-by-line. Our taxpayers can find the full agenda for every Commissioners Court meeting, along with backup document backups for items on that agenda. They can watch the commissioners meet live via streaming video online, or view archived video of previous meetings and workshops, and search the database of court agendas with any search term they like.
However, with special districts, there is no real transparency. There is no Texas law that requires special districts to make similar efforts to bring their information online for the public’s benefit. They are not even required to maintain a website that lists the names of the publicly elected directors, or that identifies the time, date, and location of their meetings. Special districts are not even required to hold their meetings within the geographic boundaries of the district.
Senate Bill 1253 is a much-needed source of relief to taxpayers who are hungry for information and insight into their government. It brings budgets, meeting notices, names, and contact information to taxpayers who have every right to view these essentials, and it brings this information to them without the intermediary of legal counsel as gatekeeper. One of the common complaints I hear from citizens is how their special district chooses to hold their meetings dozens of miles away from the district in metropolitan Houston in the conference room of their legal counsel, making attendance virtually impossible for most working citizens.
Within my precinct in north Fort Bend County, it is commonplace to find special districts whose board has levied a property tax three times the rate assessed by the county. I know, because every year when the tax bills arrive in mailboxes, my office starts to receive calls from confused and disheartened citizens who call their county commissioner in despair after many hours of fruitlessly searching online for basic information on their special district. Some folks are able to find their district’s phone number published through the TCEQ Water District Database, but they report that the phone rings straight to the attorney’s office where legal counsel follows a carefully scripted process that protects the board’s contact information.
Government of the people, by the people, and for the people should never be this complex. We should never add more layers to the onion when the technology exists to bring this information quickly, cheaply, and conveniently to taxpayers. As special districts add many thousands in taxes to our overburdened citizens, Senator Kolkhorst believes that it is time to give transparency to the taxpayers who pay those bills. I agree.
I proudly stand with Senator Kolkhorst in support of this legislation, and thank her for her commitment to provide transparency to all Texas taxpayers.
Andy Meyers, Commissioner Pct. 3, Fort Bend County