EDITORIAL: Overdue tax drop for Hidalgo County

Despite putting money aside to begin construction of a $141 million new county courthouse, Hidalgo County Commissioners this week voted to give county property taxpayers the first cut in taxes since 1999 — which is welcome news and is to be commended.

The tax rate will drop one cent to 58-cents per $100 property valuation — Hidalgo County’s first property tax cut in 18 years. The vote came as commissioners on Tuesday approved a $200.7 million budget for fiscal 2018 — the biggest budget in the county’s history.

“Needless to say I liked it. I think they could have done it years ago. I was really glad they saw that people were saying ‘Wait a minute. There’s so much new money, more money coming in, more people hired. Surely they can give some money back to us?’ So I’m glad they did,” Virginia Townsend, founder of the watchdog group the OWLS (Objective Watchers of the Legal System,) told us.

We are, too, and we also are mindful that although taxes will drop slightly, and the county as a result will forgo an estimated $3.4 million in taxable revenue in fiscal 2018, that taxes overall have risen dramatically in the past years due to higher property tax appraisals. So if one were to do the actual math, the one-cent drop compared to what a taxpayer paid a decade ago, might not really work out to a tax drop at all.

Therefore, we implore upon the court to be mindful to keep county employee salaries and spending in check these upcoming years, especially as the unpopular new courthouse goes up. We note that despite questions from Precinct 3 Commissioner Jose Flores on Tuesday regarding a $13,214 raise for an assistant director for Urban County, the new salary of $78,704 was still approved.

Commissioners were wise not to award the entire $28,943 pay raise to County Executive Officer Valde Guerra, given how sensitive the timing of such a big raise for the top administrator would come as the county’s other 3,000 employees are not getting a cost-of-living increase this year. Instead, after some discussion on Tuesday, the court gave Guerra a $15,000 pay raise to do the exact same job he has been doing, bringing his annual salary to $145,000.

There was talk of giving him the remaining amount next year, if a COLA is given to county employees. We, again, caution going down this rabbit hole as many taxpayers, including the OWLS, remain heatedly opposed to the new courthouse and feel that absent a bond election, taxpayers are still paying for this facility with their hard-earned funds.