Victoria City Council rethinks charter election vote

Melissa Crowe By Melissa Crowe

June 6, 2012 at 1:06 a.m.
Updated June 7, 2012 at 1:07 a.m.

Victoria City Council's attempt to hand-pick voter-approved charter amendments Tuesday night might not have been legal.

Mayor Will Armstrong, who was in the majority of a 5-2 vote Tuesday to pull Proposition 5 from being ratified in the city charter, said during the council meeting that "very few voters will come forward and tell us they want a higher cap on taxes."

But by Wednesday morning, he changed his tone.

"We don't have the option to pick and choose what the voters have presented to us," he said. "The voters rule. That's the democratic process."

The proposition affects the city's limitation to levy taxes - Article IV of the City Charter - and was listed on the ballot to "eliminate taxation provisions that have been superseded by state law as unnecessary and redundant." It passed by 81 percent, or 2,896 votes to 721 votes, after the council unanimously approved adding it to the ballot Feb. 21.

Finance Director Gilbert Reyna said the proposition is strictly to bring the city charter in compliance with existing tax laws. The increased limitation affects only maintenance and obligation tax - the city's general fund.

"It just allows a larger tax rate range to choose from," Reyna said.

For example, under the 5-percent limit from last year, the council could set the tax rate between 63.50 and 66.01 cents per $100 valuation. The council settled on a tax rate of 64.50, which is below the 5-percent limitation.

Under the 8-percent limitation, the maximum tax rate would have been 67.17 cents.

Regardless of public opinion, several council members voted to omit the amendment, citing the language as murky and vague.

Councilman David Hagan made the motion Tuesday to pull Proposition 5, which he called "a backdoor way" to overturn the tax limit.

"I thought we were voting for getting rid of inconsequential and redundant language," he said. "Originally, I thought it was harmless."

Hagan worries that the proposition could open the council to renegade spending and huge tax increases.

Historically speaking, Reyna said, he doubts the council would increase the tax rate to meet an 8-percent limit. They could potentially increase it up to 8 percent, "but you'd have a revolt," he said.

Because Victoria is a home rule city, it can still enforce a limit lower than the state's, but it cannot exceed 8 percent.

Councilman Paul Polasek served on the charter committee with Councilman Tom Halepaska and former councilwoman Denise Rangel. He said he was surprised and disappointed with the council's vote.

"They're choosing perception over reality," he said. "The current charter has no teeth. It quotes law that no longer exists. What we wanted to do was get that out-of-date language out."

Polasek said he would be a champion of reinstating the 5-percent cap in two years, when the city is eligible for another charter election. He invited Russell Pruitt, a Victoria resident and vocal opponent of the proposition, to be involved.

Until then, "I have no intention of raising taxes to some crazy 8 percent," Polasek said.

Pruitt has urged the council to reject the propositions since the beginning.

He said the charter amendment would overturn a 1981 Texas Supreme Court ruling that limited the tax rate to 5 percent.

According to the case opinion, that ruling related more to the petition process to bring a tax limit to public vote than the limit itself.

Pruitt said the process this time around was not fair and the language of the proposition was not clear.

"You said every voter knew what they were voting for. I beg to differ," he said to the council.

Councilman Joe Truman voted with the majority to omit the proposition.

"I was not aware that we would be raising the limit from 5 percent to 8 percent," he said.

He said he wanted to honor the 1981 Texas Supreme Court ruling.

"I was afraid we were entering an area of unintended consequences," he said.

However, Halepaska, who lead the charter committee, said Tuesday's vote was an attempt to "rewrite an election."

"In striking it entirely, you're going against what the voters are voting for," Halepaska said. "If there were objections, they should have been ready before the vote. It's a little late."

He said the council does not have the power to "veto" election results.

Requests for comment from Texas Municipal League Executive Director Bennett Sandlin were refused because City Attorney Thomas Gwosdz is advising the city about the issue.

Sandlin said via email that the league has a strict policy of not commenting when a city attorney is involved.

Gwosdz could not be reached because he was at a conference in South Padre Island.

Halepaska said the council does not have the power to veto.

"There's a basic principle of democracy, and it's called the vote," he said. "To overturn that decision, that's to usurp power that you don't have. ... They can't presume to know what's better for the voters."



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