“Confidence or no confidence – that is the question”

Published Brownsville Herald September 9, 2007 

This month completes three years of Common Sense Columns in the Brownsville Herald, and it has been an exhilarating time. In the first two years I was amazed that my articles were accessed more than 60,000 times on my internet site; in just the last year the articles were re-read and reprinted more than 100,000 times. There is a regular readership from Germany, the Russian Federation, Sweden, France, Japan and China to name the most frequent visitors, in addition to the United States. 

It is very humbling to consider these statistics. My goal is that the columns put today’s world in a Common Sense perspective with a suggested solution for some of the ills, and then someone thinks about the issue and works toward a better result. It seems to be getting some attention. 

Among the most read articles are ones that examine our local taxes. The news in the last week or so have been full of this or that taxing authority reducing taxes with the exception of the City of Brownsville. 

On September 5, Cameron County was reported to have reduced the tax rate by $0.0011129 from a current rate of $0.034932 to $0.0338191 per $100 of valuation. It doesn’t quite look like a ½ of a penny cut to me. This would mean that a $75,000 house which may not exist anymore, would have been taxed an amount $261.99 and the same house if the appraisal has not been increased, also unlikely would require that the same modest house be taxed at $253.64 or a savings for one year of $8.35. However, if our taxpayer was like me, the value of his property was also appraised at an amount 10% higher than last year or $82,500. So our beleaguered taxpayer will still have to cough up $279.00 or an additional tax of $25.36. So instead of getting a free breakfast on the county the taxpayer of very modest means, will have to give up breakfast for three days. More likely the case would be the seasoned citizens in our area who live on fixed incomes who might just forgo the prescription this month. 

On the same day, the owner’s of the biggest public hand in our pocket, BISD, also reported lowering taxes as well. The current rate of $1.4054 would be lowered to $1.0923 per $100 of appraised value, a reduction of more than 22%. If we apply the same test with our $75,000 house, the homeowner paid $1054.05 in taxes last year and as his house is now appraised for $82,500 he would pay $901.15. That is a real savings of $152.00 that will not only permit our seasoned citizen to get the prescription but to pay a monthly electric bill as well. 

I have to give kudos to the BISD trustees for this one. I just wonder, if it could be that election time is coming around and some of the same suspects want to be reelected. 

The heavy breathing from City Hall is the talk about raising taxes which are already second only to BISD and will increase 10% just because of increased appraisals. Further, there have been additional properties added to the tax rolls which add to the tax coffers mightily, and if there is any justification for increasing the coffers, adding to the taxing authorities responsibilities with new buildings and homes is it. There should never be a reason to increase the tax rate. The appraisal on an existing home should also not be raised until a new value has been established by a resale. It is frequently said in political circles these days that “tax increases will result in a political death”. While that may be true, I think it is more than that. 

I believe that most political leaders no longer have any credibility with “the folks”. As evidence I submit that voters believed Mayor Ahumada and Judge Cascos were more trust worthy than their opponents, and in spite of a substantial difference in campaign spending they were elected. I also suspect that the lack of transparency in board decisions feeds the perception that something may not be right at BISD, which is further aggravated by the attempts to extend the terms and push the elections to a time that is not well attended by voters. 

This lack of confidence which probably precipitated the public suspicion was the Port debacle and the lack of interest in pursuing the interests of the community, not only by Port officials but by the District Attorney as well. This was further aggravated by the abrupt dismissal of Port Director List with little or no reasonable explanation given by the commissioners. When a person of Mr. List’s background is shown the door by folks already tainted by a scandal, the presumption is that Mr. List was about to do something to really improve the port but would have jeopardized one of the sacred cows. A similar thing happened when Mr. Zolkoski and was shown the door which was further made worse by the termination of his predecessor under similar circumstances. The circumstances got even worse for BISD trustees when the Strayhorn Report was addressed by empanelling a committee of very responsible community leaders to make recommendations, only to have the panel dismissed and any results buried. Suspicions weren’t improved any, when trustees of a neighboring school district were arrested for accepting bribes from building contractors. Taken with the fact that a number of new schools were being constructed and the reluctance by the board to accept the recommendation to retain a forensic auditor, on a contingency basis, to examine contractor billing, a dark cloud of doubt continues to build. 

This frustration and lack of confidence erupted at the recent Visions conference when the first speaker questioned a number of issues loudly. I doubt seriously if the credibility issue will fade without a concerted effort to expose the skeletons and correct the problems in an open and straight forward way.  To misjudge the seriousness of the issue will certainly result in a community leadership with very little prior political experience.