After receiving a 401-signature petition, the Goliad County Commissioners Court voted down a November referendum that would allow voters the chance to repeal a controversial tax.
The referendum would have been placed on November ballots and would allow voters to decide whether to continue a 15-cent road and bridge tax that some commissioners have argued serves as a safety net for the fiscally challenged county.
At its Monday public meeting, the commissioners court split 3-2 in their vote with commissioners Kenneth Edwards, Alonzo Morales and David Bruns voting down the measure. Morales declined to comment for this story.
In support of the referendum were County Commissioner Mickey White and first-term County Judge Mike Bennett, who was also the first to sign the petition in 2018 before his taking of office the following year.
“They made a decision to not let the voters have a say,” said Bennett, adding, “I voted to let them have their say.”
Supporters of the tax argued the petition, which was presented by Goliad County resident and Republican Chairman Kenneth Buelter, contained confusing language and lacked the required votes for commissioners to consider approving a referendum. He said he was still considering whether to seek more signatures.
With the November election months away, the opportunity to give voters the direct option to repeal is rapidly disappearing.
“If you don’t like what your representatives are doing then you have to get out and vote,” Bennett said. “That option is always there.”
Those against giving voters the ballot item also argued the road and bridge tax has caused no increase in taxes to county residents.
First approved by referendum in the early 1900s, commissioners had forgotten about the tax until former county judge Pat Calhoun rediscovered the tax in 2018 while developing the 2019 budget. That decades-old approval from voters allows commissioners to reinstate the tax in future budgets.
In the 2019 budget, commissioners chose to reinstate the road and bridge tax. But they also decided to lower property taxes by about 15 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, resulting in an overall 79.6-cent tax rate for 2019 that was just shy of the previous year’s.
“All we did was redistribute how we make the money,” Edwards said.
With tax revenues steadily declining from the Coleto Creek Power Plant, the county’s main source of income, balancing the budget has proved difficult in recent years, Edwards and Bruns said. They also pointed to a bevy of unfunded mandates from the Texas Legislature, a chronic dearth of local businesses as seriously contributing to the lack of revenue.
Although elected county officials have so far made ends meet, some commissioners wonder how long that can continue.
“I’m not for taxes either, but looking on down the road, this is so vital to us staying alive,” said Edwards. “It wouldn’t catch us from falling but it would give us a little softer landing.”
The upcoming 2020 budget, which is under development, will probably contain even more cuts, Bennett said.
But Bruns and Edwards argued county services are already operating with minimal funding.
“We’ve cut everyone,” Bruns said. “The budget is less and less each year.”
Additional budget cuts, Bruns said, will result in the loss of vital county services. Already, he said, county residents are without a local clinic and hospital and rely on a mere two deputies to patrol about 860 square miles each night.
“People want their services. They want EMS and the sheriff’s office,” he said. “Without tax money, we can’t do any of that.”
Buelter said the budget problems in Goliad County are from mismanagement and not a lack of money.
“Goliad County doesn’t have problems with the amount of revenue,” Buelter said. “Goliad County has problems wit the amount of spending.”
“Kenneth Buelter won’t be happy until there is zero taxes,” he said.
But the Republican party chairman said he was also worried about whether commissioners will keep taxes low when the budget gets even tighter.
While Buelter agreed that the road and bridge tax has not yet increased taxes for residents, he said it was only a matter of time before commissioners levied the tax rate to its constitutionally allowed maximum of 95 cents.
“They eventually will. That’s the whole point here,” he said. “You can’t drop a frog into boiling water, but you can put one in cold water and turn the fire up.”