Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

County officials say tax petition is invalid

A petition being circulated to roll back Donley County property taxes is not valid, according to local officials, because the commissioners’ court did not exceed the rollback rate under the law.

The petition, which was reported to have more than 500 signatures Monday, seeks to force the county to hold an election to allow citizens to vote on the tax increase which went into effect in October.

“We think the taxes went up over 30 percent, and we think we ought to have the right to vote on it,” said petition organizer Don Smith.

But the county says the rollback petition is not going to have any bearing on the current tax rate.

 “Under the tax code, a petition is only valid if the rollback rate is lower than the adopted rate,” County Attorney Pro Tem Kaye Messer said. “The bottom line is that the petition is invalid.”

County commissioners adopted a total tax rate last month of 0.476547 per $100 valuation, an increase of 27.78 percent over last year’s total rate. But despite the increase, officials say the rate is still lower than it could have been since the rollback rate was 0.494254.

When shown a copy of an August 22 notice published in The Clarendon Enterprise and excerpts of the state tax code, Smith said that he and his committee would need to review the information but that he thought the petition was still valid.

“I think by what we read and what our attorney advised us, this [the petition] is what we have to do,” Smith said.

Paula Lowrie, Chief Appraiser of the Donley Appraisal District, says the county tax rate is composed of three elements this year: the General Fund rate, the Farm to Market (or Road & Bridge) rate, and the Debt Component rate. The debt rate is where most of this year’s tax increase comes from, and that is where the controversy is.

Increases in the General Fund and Road & Bridge rates can only be raised eight percent without being challenged by a petition. But the Debt Component rate is limited only by the amount of debt service the county has for that year, Lowrie said.

This year, the county adopted a Debt Component rate of 0.9745 per $100 valuation to make its payments on the tax notes funding the county’s share of the courthouse restoration.

“The only remedy for stopping the debt rate would have been to seek an injunction in district court,” Messer said. “That had to have been done between August 22 (when the county first published the proposed debt rate) and October 1 (when the tax bills were mailed). That was the only remedy, and the time has passed.”

Lowrie agrees with the Messer that it is too late to stop the debt rate.

“We’ve already been through the process to set the rate,” she said. “All the notices were published timely and correctly.”

Smith, whose committee was still gathering signatures at press time, says even if the petition is invalid, it still proves a point and could impact the upcoming elections.

“This really shows a lot of people are upset,” he said.

County Judge Jack Hall said he believes politics is the motivation behind the petition drive.

“The people behind the petition are dwelling a lot on the fact that they never got a chance to vote on the courthouse tax notes [in 2000],” Hall said. “But it was all done properly.”

A special debt tax rate has been used before by local entities. The appraisal district says the Hedley school is using it to pay for their current bonds, the Donley County Hospital District had a debt rate for years, the Clarendon school has used it in the past, and even Donley County used a debt component rate to pay for bonds to build a new jail 20 years ago.

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