Those at the uppermost levels of Tarrant County government will tell you: Right now, history is being made.
Politicians’ promises to cut taxes have usually been about semantics. While candidates for local offices may run on promises to cut taxes, rising home values often leave homeowners paying more on their tax bills despite the rate cuts.
Newly elected county judge Tim O’Hare found himself in that position when he ran for office last fall.
O’Hare, a Republican, campaigned on a big — and, to some, unbelievable — promise to cut the county’s property tax rate by 20%.
The question often came back to how it would happen.
Some worried about what would be cut from the county’s budget to fulfill the campaign promise. Laws that prohibit cutting law enforcement budgets rendered the county’s public safety budget untouchable.
In September, O’Hare told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram he would try to accomplish his goal by reducing county staff through attrition, eliminating wasteful spending and abuse, establishing zero-based budgeting, cutting county contract costs by 1% to 2% and enlisting nonprofits and private sectors to fulfill county needs.
O’Hare and county leaders accomplished the goal during this year’s budget cycle, though in a different way than O’Hare planned.
County commissioners unanimously approved 10% homestead exemptions and property tax rate cuts for the county and the and the JPS hosptial district. The proposed changes will result in lower property tax bills despite rising home appraisals.
The budget and tax cut resulted in no loss of services for county residents, said Helen Giese, who leads the county’s budget and risk management department.
Tarrant County will operate with about $8.1 million less than it did last year under its proposed $896.6 million budget. Cuts were made possible due to retirements, the elimination of employee retention payments and cuts in construction and software development. Each department was asked to hold its budget.
Considering the ease at which county officials, including three new commissioners on a five-member court, provided tax relief for residents it provokes a question: If cutting taxes was this easy, how come it took so long to make it happen?
In response to emailed questions from the Star-Telegram, O’Hare wrote that county staff understood the vision for tax cuts. He didn’t speak to what may have happened in years past.
“You’d have to ask the people in charge before,” the county judge wrote. “We said we’d get tax relief done while campaigning, and we delivered.”
County leaders and those in the top levels of administration said the cuts came with hardly any push back from the county’s departments.
They instead credit Tarrant County’s teamwork and collaboration. Another credited O’Hare’s will to make it happen.
How often do campaign promises become reality?
Richard Auxier, senior policy associate with Tax Policy Center in Washington, said context matters.
Politicians will promise to cut tax rates and can come in and do it, but outlying factors like the acceleration of property values can reverse the effect and make a homeowner’s tax bill higher.
But to make it work, Auxier said politicians can’t do it on their own — it takes partners.
That’s what county officials say made the effort successful.
The property tax rate of 19.45 cents for every $100 of a home’s appraised value is 13.2% less than last year’s rate. Add in the 10% homestead exemption adopted June and it results in even more savings for homeowners on the Tarrant County portion of their bill.
An owner of a $350,000 home who has a homestead exemption would pay $612.68 in property taxes under the proposed rate that will be finalized sometime in September when commissioners officially pass the budget.
Residents will also see relief if voters in November approve a property tax package proposed by Texas lawmakers.
Proposals include a 10.7 cent reduction in school property tax rates, a $100,000 homestead exemption for school taxes and a 20% cap on the appraisal increase of non-homestead residential and commercial properties valued at or below $5 million.
Commissioner Gary Fickes thinks the success at the county level comes back to O’Hare.
“I think you’ve got to give a whole lot of credit to the judge,” Fickes said.
The bells and whistles
The commissioners, Giese and county administrator G.K. Maenius say the county was able to make the cuts work due to careful planning, careful eyes and, most of all, teamwork.
“When they crunched the numbers and came back with the numbers they came back with, it was a no-brainer that we can do this,” Fickes said, adding that he never thought the county would be able to make it happen.
Maenius said retirements and budget scrutiny helped, as well as the cooperation of department heads and elected officials. Extra revenue from the county’s bank interest rates on money helped too. The county projects $28.9 million in interest income in 2023 compared to $4.9 million in 2022.
“The mindset was created and everybody bought into it as we went into the development of the budget, which was somewhere in late March, early May,” Maenius said. “Everybody knew where we were going, what we were trying to accomplish, and we hit all of our marks on it.”
Giese said the support and mindfulness of each county department and their ability to communicate was pivotal.
Cuts happened across the budget and not in large sums from any one department.
The county at one point had federal pandemic funds set aside to help residents with rent and utility costs. With those federal funds gone, county leaders thought that maybe requests would go up.
But Giese said the demand turned back to what it looked like in the pre-pandemic days, and costs could be reduced there without impact. The proposed rental assistance cut comes in at $200,000, according to budget documents.
Another cut is in building maintenance, where the county will spend $372,000 less in 2024. Tarrant County will also have $20 million less carry-over cash.
Longtime commissioner Roy Charles Brooks said they made it work by having a thorough understanding of the numbers.
“We were able to decide and demonstrate that we could be both socially liberal and fiscally conservative at the same time, which has always been my North Star,” he said.
Alisa Simmons, who was elected last November to represent Southeast Tarrant, said she was committed to reviewing the budget thoroughly, especially to make sure no services were cut.
Manny Ramirez, the newly elected representative for Northwest Tarrant, thinks the success came down to setting priorities.
“We don’t get distracted by every pet project that is possible and that we see,” Ramirez said. “We stay laser-focused on doing the most fiscally responsible thing.”
He also gave a nod to Tarrant County’s economic conditions.
“When we found that that the the county performed really well both in our conservative spending throughout the year, just making sure we were only spending on the necessities, but also in making sure that the revenues that were coming in, any overages that we had, we identified that we could use those to reduce taxes,” Ramirez said.
Why now and not back then?
This past election cycle saw 65 years of leadership out the door in Tarrant County government.
Former county judge Glen Whitley sat on the bench for 16 years and was a commissioner for 10 years before that. Former commissioner J.D. Johnson broke a county record for service when he left office after 35 years representing Northwest Tarrant. Devan Allen, who represented Southeast Tarrant, served one four-year term.
With all that experience, how come cuts didn’t happen sooner?
Simmons said that when you start to sit down and have conversations, you find alignment. For the court, that was lowering property taxes.
“That’s a big thing to align on,” she said.
Ramirez said groups the county has worked with are shocked at how county government is operating due to how quickly decisions are being made.
“We’ve come in with renewed energy and a renewed focus on operating a fiscally conservative government and I think it’s paying absolute dividends,” Ramirez said.
The cuts leave Ramirez optimistic about the future.
Maenius, who has led the county’s budgeting process for 35 years now, thinks it came down to figuring out the county’s efficiency thanks in turn to the pandemic. He believes, though, that groundwork was laid by past leadership.
“I think we learned how to become much more efficient and I think we’re going to become even more efficient in how we do our jobs,” Maenius said.
Fickes said there’s always been some fear with cutting taxes. If you cut the taxes, it’s difficult to put that money back, he said.
Brooks called Tarrant County’s situation this year “the perfect budgetary storm.”
“Our revenues raised to the point where it made sense to cut the tax rate,” he said.
Giese put it simply: Every court has a different mission.