Election to repeal tax back on agenda

GOLIAD – A ruling by the Texas Attorney General may give county residents a second chance to lower their taxes.

Two years ago, county commissioners voted to re-activate a special road and bridge tax that had not been levied for decades.

Voters approved the special tax in the early 1900s for the maintenance of the county’s roads and bridges. Monies obtained by the tax is solely dedicated to road and bridge maintenance; no funds can be transferred to the county’s general fund.

With the construction of the Coleto Creek Power Plant, property taxes were such that the court simply stopped levying the road and bridge tax.

However, it was never repealed; the tax still was on the books – just dormant for almost half a century.

Two years ago, the court – once again facing the prospect of using reserve funds to balance the budget – elected to resurrect the road and bridge tax.

When presenting its 2020 budget, the road and bridge tax was set at nine-cents, which commissioners later increased to 11 cents.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Mickey White has long maintained that levying the tax after so long meant the court was establishing a new tax without voter approval.

But, other commissioners maintained that because the road and bridge tax had never been repealed, it was legal to reinstate it.

Then Republican Chair Kenneth Buelter agreed with White. He began a petition drive which resulted in obtaining more than 400 signatures calling for the repeal of the tax.

County Treasurer Bryan Howard collected 180 signatures from the Lakewood area.

The joint petition drives took two weeks.

Buelter interpreted the state law regarding petitions to call an election required only 200 signatures.

He delivered the petitions to the court in July of 2018.

While County Judge Mike Bennett and White favored the election, other commissioners voted not to accept the petitions.

County Attorney Rob Baiamonte had argued that his interpretation of the law required that 50 percent of the county’s more than 5,000 eligible voters would have to sign the petition.

The vote was 3-2 against the petition. Bennett asked Baiamonte to ask for an attorney general ruling.

In a Jan. 22 opinion, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton ruled that only 200 signatures were required.

“To initiate an election to repeal a county road and bridge tax,” Paxton says, “… county commissioners court must receive a petition calling for the election signed by 200 registered voters…”

In an email response, Buelter felt vindicated.

“The shenanigans at commissioners court finally have come to light. It seems that in their zeal to solve their deficit problem, our commissioners have finally crossed the line and broke the law.”

In the same ruling, however, Paxton says “the commissioners court may grant the petition only if satisfactory proof is presented of great dissatisfaction with the tax and probable success of the election.”

Baiamonte interprets Paxton’s ruling that in order for the court to be satisfied of the “probable success of the election”  it still would require half of the eligible voters in the county to sign the petition. “Two hundred signatures doesn’t convince me of anything,” he says.

“What constitutes satisfactory proof is a question of fact for the commissioners court to determine,” Paxton wrote.

Baiamonte suggests a  number of ways for the court to determine the weight of public opinion, such as conducting town hall meetings. “But, I suggest only one: get 2,500 signatures on the petition. That would be pretty convincing to me.”

Bennett says he plans to place accepting the petitions for a November election on the next court agenda Feb. 10.

However, County Democratic Chairman Charles Clapsaddle says his research indicates that a new petition drive would be necessary to call an election to rescind the tax because when the court voted against accepting Buelter’s original petitions, his petition drive was negated.

“We would have to start over with a new petition drive,” he says.