About 25 years ago, Graham Brizendine was 20 years old and bought his first home in north Fort Worth.
Like all Tarrant County property owners, he receives his tax bill every October. Lately, it seems as if the bill is going up quicker than ever before, Brizendine said. While the bill goes up, he said, city of Fort Worth and Tarrant County services have not seemed to keep pace with the additional tax dollars sent their way.
“It hits our personal budget, and, at the end of the day, when more dollars have to go to things like the Tarrant County portion of our property taxes, it’s less money to infuse back into the local economy,” Brizendine said.
Property tax bills will be fresh on voters’ minds this fall, when they head to the polls to choose their next Tarrant County government. The choice voters make could have a transformative impact on how the county approaches its tax rate and the services that it supports.
The Tarrant County Commissioners Court sets the property tax rate. Who voters elect as their next county judge could set how the tax rate is impacted for the next four years. Republican Tim O’Hare and Democrat Deborah Peoples are vying to replace Republican Glen Whitley as the next county judge. Their property tax pitches come down to this: Peoples emphasizes collaboration with city and schools officials, while O’Hare pitches cutting the county budget to ensure residents’ tax bill goes down.
The commissioners court is responsible for setting about 17% of residents’ tax rate. The rest is paid to other taxing entities like cities, school districts and special taxing districts like water — with school districts making up the bulk of the tax rate.
The commissioners court is responsible for setting about 17% of residents’ tax rate. The rest is paid to other taxing entities like cities, school districts and special taxing districts like…
Peoples wants to keep the tax rate low, she said. However, she does not plan to prioritize cutting the rate. Instead, she wants to create a strong economy and a physically and mentally healthy Tarrant County. Doing that would ease residents’ property tax burden, she said, by bringing in a more commercial tax base to the county.
“Jobs lift people out of poverty, and education lifts people out of poverty,” Peoples said. “So we have to continue to create a vibrant business economy where we bring people in and create well-paying jobs.
Peoples emphasizes collaborating with municipalities to fund projects that address challenging population growth issues, like transit and road infrastructure. As the county population expands, the services available to residents have to keep up, Peoples said. Cities within Tarrant County have typically been slow to invest in transit infrastructure for buses and trains, previous reporting from the Fort Worth Report shows.
“We have to be able to get people to jobs,” Peoples said. “When we put all the 41 cities together and come up with a plan, then you start looking at things regionally and it gets easier.”
The commissioners court also approves the tax rate for JPS Health Network, the county’s publicly funded hospital district. Peoples committed to maintaining funding for JPS, citing the fact that it’s a level one trauma center and a teaching hospital. She also supports the 2018 voter-approved $800 million JPS bond and is committed to seeing the bond construction through as quickly as possible.
Peoples supports expanding the hospital district’s residency program to serve more doctors coming out of TCU’s medical school — which will expand into Fort Worth’s medical district in 2024. By investing more money into the program short-term, keeping doctors in the city will have long-term benefits for the county’s tax base, Peoples said.
Reducing county staff could have disastrous consequences for the services the county provides, Peoples said. For example, the county should focus on spending money on retention of employees so that the county doesn’t have to invest emergency funds to divert prisoners from Tarrant County Jails, she said.
“Lack of staffing at the county jail just cost us $18 million,” Peoples said. “You cannot just go in and cut without looking at the source of the problem. You have to get to the source of the problem and peel the onion back.”
O’Hare’s property tax plan would put a stop to the runaway spending he says Peoples would perpetuate in office, he said. O’Hare estimates it would take a 20% cut to the tax rate for the county to collect less money in fiscal year 2024 compared with fiscal year 2023, which will begin in October.
“What frequently happens is somebody will cut a tax rate by half a cent or a quarter of a cent, and then they’ll tell people they cut your taxes,” O’Hare said. “Yet when you actually look at your tax bill, it’s significantly higher.”
O’Hare would cut the county’s workforce to save money in the county budget. Instead of immediately filling positions when vacancies occur, the county should leave some positions unfilled, he said.
O’Hare, 53, is an attorney and real estate investor. He previously served as mayor of Farmers Branch and chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party. Read more about the candidate here.
“Often when the government loses a position, it’s a mad rush to go post that position and get someone new in place,” O’Hare said. “It’s rarely a mad dash to ask what can we reorganize, and can we divvy up the duties and can we bring in new innovations or new technologies to create more efficiencies where we don’t have to fill every single position.”
Under his leadership, the county also would be more discerning in awarding raises; he also committed to never voting for a raise for himself.
“The balance is running an efficient organization and not just not rewarding laziness and not rewarding people just because they have a government job — they have to produce,” O’Hare said.
Tarrant County lost 1,625 employees to terminations, resignations and retirements from March 2020 to mid-June 2022, mirroring national trends. To keep employees, the county’s 2023 budget increased their base salaries by 4% and set aside 3% in merit pay raises and funded new positions to reduce the amount of time employees have to work overtime. This cost the county $108 million in additional spending.
Salaries make up 48% of the $904 million county budget.
O’Hare has criticized the administration of JPS and its $800 million bond program passed in 2018. If he is elected, the county will reconsider its appointments to the JPS board, O’Hare said. The county is responsible for appointing all 11 members of the board.
O’Hare also committed to not cutting any funding for the sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office. Those two categories make up 30% of the budget.
Under O’Hare’s proposal, the property tax rate for 2023 would be 17.92 cents per $100 of valuation. The 20% cut would push the rate below the no-new-revenue rate of 20.93 cents per $100 of valuation, which is the rate that would bring in the same amount of property tax revenue as the previous budget.
O’Hare’s rate would bring in $445 million in property tax revenue. That would likely mean cutting $67.7 million in expenditures.
The state of Tarrant County’s taxes
Such a drastic cut would make maintaining the Sheriff’s Department and district attorney’s office near impossible, departing Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said.
“There is no way, unless we just cut everything else and don’t provide any other services, in my mind that we could do that,” Whitley said. “I think that’s totally unrealistic, but it sure sounds good on the campaign trail.”
Whitley, a Republican, has not endorsed either candidate in the county judge race.
“A lot of voters want to make sure that when they turn on the tap of water comes out,” Craymer said. “As far as the politics of property tax, I don’t know if there’s anything universal beyond that people just don’t like paying them.”
Even if O’Hare cuts 20% from the county tax rate, the change likely wouldn’t have a large impact on residents’ final tax bill, Whitley said. The bill residents receive in the mail is an amalgamation of local tax rates, state legislation, and policy choices set by state and local leaders that give certain residents and businesses exemptions.
For most people, though, reality hits when they open up their property tax bill, and the number on the bill keeps going up — precipitously in some cases.
During Whitley’s 26 years in county government, Tarrant County commissioners have shaved 15% off of the tax rate, he said. Whitley also touted Tarrant County’s rate as lower than many other large counties.
“At the same time, we’ve doubled, almost doubled in population,” Whitley said. “So every year (people will say,) ‘Golly, you’re raising more revenue.’ Well, we’ve got a whole lot more people. Those people don’t come without an increase in crime or an increase in driving over the roads.”
How does Tarrant County’s 2021 tax rate stack up against other large counties?
Dallas: 22.7 cents
Tarrant: 22.9 cents
Bexar: 29.9 cents
Travis: 35.7 cents
Harris: 37.6 cents
El Paso: 47 cents
As property values increase, taxpayers pay more in their yearly tax bill unless the tax rates are lowered by the same amount.
As appraisals increase, county leaders also point to the Texas Legislature for making decisions that in turn increase the tax rate. For example, the state refused to take in juvenile offenders destined for the state juvenile prison.
Fort Worth resident Mark Greene, who works as a home inspector, has seen his tax bill increase in recent years. He values the services from JPS and My Health My Resources, a nonprofit mental health organization that receives the bulk of its funding from Tarrant County.
“My sense is that it is relatively productively spent,” Greene said. “I think they can and should be doing more, which would suggest to me that more taxes may need to be paid by at least some people.”
Precipitously rising tax rates should be attributed to the Legislature, Greene said, because the state requires the county to put the laws it passes into effect but doesn’t necessarily provide the funding to do that.
“It’s pretty ridiculous,” Greene said.
As budget season wraps up, local officials invoke the responsibility of state legislators in reigning in tax rates. Fort Worth’s Mayor Mattie Parker said the city will be able to substantially lower residents’ tax bills only when the state manages education better.
Tarrant County commissioners considered suing the state for not paying its fair share for prisoners awaiting transfer.
Come November, it’s unclear what will be most on the minds of voters. Craymer predicts that candidates running for state Legislature will campaign hard on reforms to property taxes.
“it’s also a campaign season that intersects with the most massive revenue surplus state government has ever had,” Craymer said. “So I do expect the next Legislature … It’s going to dominate the discussion at the Legislature and I think property tax rates are going to continue to come down as the Legislature puts more money into school finance.”
Brizendine, who works in finance, has since moved on from his first North Fort Worth home. A lifetime Tarrant County resident, except for a brief stint in Dallas County, he is mostly looking for transparency from elected officials when making changes to the tax rate.
There should be “an effort to really truly be 100% transparent about the whole picture,” Brizendine said. “It doesn’t matter to me if the tax rate drops by a couple of cents. If the taxable value goes up by 40%. I’m still paying more.”
You can read more stories about the upcoming election by heading to the Fort Worth Report’s election central.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. 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.