Candidates for the top spot in Tarrant County went head to head on issues of property taxes, elections, education and local versus state control in a debate put on by the Fort Worth Report, KERA and SteerFW on Monday at the Texas Wesleyan University campus.
The county judge candidates had two debates by party. Democrat candidates Deborah Peoples and Marvin Sutton debated one on one, and Republican candidates Byron Bradford, Robert Trevor Buker, Tim O’Hare and Betsy Price faced off.
The first issue presented to candidates were property taxes and how candidates would lower tax rates while keeping a balanced budget.
The Tarrant County Commissioners Court has set the county tax rate at 22.9 cents per $100 valuation, and the public hospital district rate at 22.4 cents. Overall, the county levies a tax rate of 45.3 cents. While the 22.9 cent rate is the lowest the commissioners court has levied since 2007, property owners are facing higher tax bills because of appraisals.
Bradford, 50, started with advice for taxpayers, informing everyone property owners can challenge their assessment from the appraisal district and have six weeks to appeal it.
Specifically, he said, property owners can see if they qualify for discounts because they are senior citizens or veterans. As county judge, Bradford said he would look into raising exemptions, which he said would have an immediate effect on lowering taxes.
Buker, 38, said he did not have the most experience when it comes to property taxes but would work with a team to gather more information and make decisions. He does want to look at homestead exemptions.
Homestead exemptions are tax breaks for qualifying homeowners in Texas.
O’Hare, 52, said Tarrant County is far above the nearest Republican county, Collin, in property taxes. Collin County’s tax rate is 19.2 cents per $100 valuation.
If elected, he said, his approach would be to put a job freeze in place, not touch law enforcement, look for ways to cut waste and look for positions no longer needed. Also, when a county employee leaves, he said he would look into dividing those duties among existing staff instead of replacing them.
In her time in government as mayor and tax assessor, Price, 72, said the city cut rates seven times. She also said the county needs to revisit the homestead exemption and work with the hospital board to lower the part of the tax rate it decides.
During the Democratic debate, Peoples, 69, said lowering property taxes starts with attracting more businesses to the county.
“When we get more businesses here, we start to right-size the tax rate,” she said. That will lead to homeowners getting relief, she added.
Sutton, 59, said the county has to figure out a way to revise how tax rates are evaluated to get appraisals lowered. Residents would have to carry less of the tax burden, he said. (Texas uses the market approach for setting appraisal rates, meaning they are supposed to reflect the sale price of similar properties.)
Last year, Tarrant was one of the counties Gov. Greg Abbott ordered an audit for election results on. Candidates were asked how they would improve how elections are run in the county.
Peoples and Sutton were in what she called “violent agreement” on the issue. She said Republicans are trying to frighten people into thinking there are problems with elections in Tarrant County.
“They know there’s no fraud here, but it makes a good sound bite,” Peoples said. “My job as county judge is to ensure that people know they will not be caught up in this fear, uncertainty or doubt.”
Sutton agreed: There is no voter fraud in Tarrant County, he said.
“We need to reassure our county that our elections are safe and secure,” Sutton said. “I understand they are fishing for something, but there’s nothing there.”
During the Republican debate, Buker criticized the governor, saying he didn’t order a hard audit.
“With Abbott, we already know he just puts his finger in the wind and whichever way it blows he goes,” Buker said. He also added there is no faith in election administrators.
For Bradford, the county has to invest in its election system to make sure no one is abusing democracy, he said.
O’Hare said he would appoint an election integrity officer who would serve two purposes. First, the person would serve as an internal auditor and work on a voting panel and, second, the officer would go out and seek voter fraud.
People are nervous about elections, Price said. The department needs to be recharged with its mission and, if there is any mistrust, those concerns need to be vetted.
Education has become a hot topic in politics, with the Legislature directing school districts on issues like banned books and critical race theory. Candidates were asked what kind of impact they could have on schools as county judge.
While almost all candidates discussed some way they would be involved, Bradford said the county judge should focus on infrastructure. Education is important, but the county commissioners court is not the forum for it, he said.
If the county does not focus on infrastructure as the state population grows, Texas will lose businesses because people do not want to sit in traffic for so long, he said.
But Buker sees how the county judge can impact education through funding. He said if districts are abusing American Rescue Plan funds, he would withhold money.
“If I have to starve it out for them to behave, I’ll do it,” he said.
A similar situation happened in Williamson County, where the county commissioners did not distribute CARES Act funding to Leander and Round Rock districts over what they deemed “inappropriate reading material.”
Price said education is an equalizer for children to help get them out of poverty. As a product of public education, she said the county needs strong public education. While in office, the city launched Read Fort Worth and Tarrant County To and Through, both education initiatives.
Price would bring mayors, superintendents and business owners in the county together to see what is needed from students, such as if they need to go to college for four years or two, to satisfy workplace demand, she said.
O’Hare wants to use the position to keep critical race theory out of schools. He said it has no place in public schools and teaches children to hate America and teaches children of color they can’t reach their full potential because the system is against them.
O’Hare founded the Southlake Families PAC, a conservative interest group that has been a large part of the critical race theory fight in schools.
During the Democratic debate, Peoples said critics of critical race theory are using it to divide the country. Critical race theory examines the intersection of race and law in the United States. It is used in some higher-level college courses.
Education is the great equalizer, Peoples said, and discourse around anti-critical race theory and banning books is frightening. Children should be allowed to think critically, she said.
“It’s not going to be as simple as a new reading program. It’s going to be standing up to ensure all students receive an education,” Peoples said. “Most students of color go to public schools, and it’s critical we fund public schools.”
Sutton said it takes a village and it’s important the county works with partners to create a great education system. He said it’s important to just get in schools and educate the population “because as long as we have a diversion or smokescreen, we don’t see what’s important.”
Local vs. state control
When presented with their stance on local versus state control, the two Democratic candidates differed the most on this point.
The county judge has to be an advocate for the community and the No. 1 role of the government is public safety, Sutton said. If the county is failing state standards in an area, such as with its jail, for example, he is for the state taking over to bring it back up to standard, he said.
He compared this with the practice for schools. The Texas Education Agency can take over control of a consistently failing school district to try to bring it back up to standard.
Peoples disagreed. If the county is failing, she said, voters should elect new leadership.
“That’s where the rubber meets the road, is locally, and we have to make sure we’re working on local issues by maintaining local control,” she said. “I think if we’re failing, then we need new leadership. Good leaders don’t kick the can down the road. We stand up and fix it ourselves.”
During the Republican debate, the candidates decried how pandemic restrictions hurt many small businesses.
Many small businesses were still trying to get back on their feet, Bradford said. Buker also said rights were infringed upon in the pandemic.
O’Hare believes in freedom, regardless of whether that’s a local or state decision, he said.
“The pandemic is a perfect example,” he said. “We had county judges, mayors all across the state of Texas shutting businesses down and churches down. I would never shut down a church … I am for efforts to limit control of every level of government all across the board.”
While working with the state is critical for local officials, Price said, local issues should stay local because voters choose who they want to represent them on those issues.
“Local government is the backbone of all government, and it must be,” she said. “Nobody sees their local voters more than local elected officials.”
Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.