County tax rate draws attention in Austin



Scurry County Judge Dan Hicks is pushing back against what he calls incorrect information concerning the county’s new budget and tax rate, but in addition to local opposition to a recently adopted tax rate, state government staffers in Austin have taken notice of Hicks’ statements.
Several county citizens are currently trying to gather enough signatures of certified voters to force a rollback election, which, if successful, would drop the county’s 2020 tax rate from 44.98 cents per $100 valuation to 34.97 cents per $100 valuation.
Opponents of the 2020 tax rate said that county officials have been fiscally irresponsible and are using “scare tactics” to coerce people into accepting the new rate.
Opponents have been active on social media, and Hicks decided to follow suit, posting a letter on the county’s website and Facebook page in what he said is an attempt to clear up misconceptions about the matter.
“I’m just trying to get correct information out any way I can,” Hicks said Wednesday, “whether it’s by our website, Facebook or in the newspaper.”
He invited voters to fact-check his claims.
“We want people to be informed,” he said. “We want people to check with the tax office and see what their taxes will be before believing what people are saying, even me.”
Staff members of the Texas House Ways and Means Committee did just that and challenged several of his statements.
Hicks wrote twice in his letter that increased county revenue in 2020 will come entirely from a 54 percent increase in mineral valuations in the county, and that Scurry County residents would not face higher tax bills because additional ad valorem revenue would come from taxpayers outside the county.
“The additional money generated for 2020 will come from mineral valuations,” Hicks emphasized in all caps in his letter. “Your taxes are not going up.”
“Generally, home values stayed pretty much the same all across the county,” Hicks said Wednesday.
While mineral values did increase by 54 percent, real and personal property values also increased, by more than 8 percent, according to information from the Scurry County Appraisal District.
“Therefore, the new property tax revenue will come from both mineral and real/personal property owners,” the committee staffer wrote. “Judge Hicks also assumes that none of the mineral property owners in Scurry County are also residents of Scurry County, which is likely incorrect.”
On Friday, Hicks offered a clarification to his letter.
“Since we began discussing Scurry County’s tax rate in Commissioners’ Court meetings this July, I have continually stated that the tax rate is staying the same as last year and I’ve continually stated the only way someone’s Scurry County taxes would go up is if their property valuation went up,” Hicks said. “In my letter I stated ‘your Scurry County taxes are not going up at the .4498.’ I stand by this statement but should have added, ‘as I’ve said all along, if your property valuation is up, you will pay more to Scurry County.’”
Hicks also took issue with opponents’ claim that he and other officials were using scare tactics.
“The term ‘scare tactics’ has been used. We’re not trying to scare anyone,” his letter stated. “If we are rolled back to the lower-than-effective rate, we will have to make some very hard decisions on where to cut the nearly $2.5 million from this budget.”
Earlier this year, Hicks claimed that going with the rollback might require officials to cut “entire departments” from the budget, but he struck a somewhat softer tone Wednesday afternoon.
“If we go with the rollback rate, we have no idea what we will have to do,” he said. “I am looking at some options right now. I would rather not cut any departments, but it is possible that a department or two will have to be severely cut if we have to go with the rollback rate. But I’m not going to say we’re cutting any department without looking at all of our options.”
Other county officials have continued to post lists of departments that would be cut if the rollback election succeeded. County Clerk Melody Appleton posted, “The county will close many of the services we provide like library and senior center, youth center etc.”
Some rollback petition organizers have claimed that the rollback rate will raise a similar amount to the 2019 rate, an assertion Hicks disputed.
“Typically, the rollback rate is higher than the effective rate, but the $2.5 million we’re projecting to receive from sales tax revenue has pushed the rollback rate down from 42.99 cents (per $100 valuation) to 34.97 cents (per $100 valuation),” he said.
The $2.5 million in sales tax revenue is an $800,000 increase over the 2019 budget.
The county’s sales tax revenue is designated to reduce property taxes.
“Scurry County voters adopted a half cent sales tax for property tax relief. Therefore, when Scurry County calculates its rollback rate it must reduce the rate by the amount of sales tax revenue the county received. This mechanism ensures Scurry County voters receive property tax relief in exchange for authorizing the additional half cent sales tax. It also can result in a rollback rate that is lower than the effective rate depending on the amount of maintenance and operations expenses and sales tax revenue,” the committee staff member wrote.
Hick’s letter also stated that the average homeowner would only see savings of $84 if the rollback rate is adopted, but the largest taxpayer would receive savings of $663,338. 
The staff member said who was paying taxes shouldn’t be a factor when deciding whether to increase taxes. 
“How much each taxpayer would save is irrelevant to discussing whether Scurry County is raising taxes. Scurry County is raising taxes by adopting a rate that exceeds the rollback rate,” the staffer wrote.
On Friday Hicks said adopting the rollback rate would create, “an over $827,000 deficit compared to last year’s tax levy.”
Hicks posted the clarification to his original letter on the county’s website and social media page on Friday.
County commissioners voted to exceed the rollback rate to fund the 2020 budget because of what they said were necessary expenses including $1 million to pad the county’s depleted reserves, about $273,000 in pay raises to county employees, not counting a 2.8 percent budgeted cost-of-living adjustment, and roughly $800,000 in county department requests.