City, county leaders concerned about unfunded mandates
Dec. 29, 2016 at 11:06 p.m.
Updated Dec. 30, 2016 at midnight
The urban-rural divide looks to be one of the many underlying themes of the 85th session of the Texas Legislature.
Some Victoria County elected officials are worried the session will result in less power, increased costs and potentially lower revenue for Texas' rural counties in 2017.
They are mainly concerned legislation filed by lawmakers from Texas' urban counties in 2017 will continue to hoist so-called unfunded mandates on rural counties while at the same time limiting their ability to raise revenue.
"The rural-urban divide in Texas in many ways mirrors what is going on in national politics," said Victoria County Judge Ben Zeller.
He is particularly concerned about SB 2, a bill filed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, that would cap county and municipal revenue by providing property owners tax relief.
The bill, which has the backing of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, would lower the maximum amount that a property tax rate can increase from 8 percent to 4 percent a year without triggering a rollback election.
If the bill is approved, voters would have to approve any property tax rate increase above 4 percent.
"The huge irony is these very politicians have placed huge unfunded mandates on the counties and now want to limit our ability to pay for these mandates," Zeller said. "This was done for purposes of political posturing."
Zeller said he thought state lawmakers should address unfunded mandates if they are going to limit a county's ability to raise revenue to pay for them.
"The bill wouldn't impact us greatly. We're a larger county, and we've done well in managing costs," he said. "But this would hurt some of the smaller counties heavily dependent on the oil and gas industry."
Zeller said one unfunded mandate that should be funded by the state is Victoria County's obligation to provide impoverished residents with legal representation.
In 2015, the Texas Indigent Defense Commission reported Victoria County spent $819,380 on indigent legal defense costs.
In 2016, Victoria County's cost to provide legal representation to indigent defendants was close to $1 million.
Legislation giving counties even more say on the creation of landfills in unincorporated areas is also slated for the legislative session, Zeller said.
Victoria County passed a landfill ordinance because of its ongoing legal battle with Beneficial Land Management LLC, of San Antonio, over the company's dumping of sewage mixed with waste from car washes and restaurants on 793 acres near Inez.
"Victoria and surrounding counties have experienced several high-profile struggles recently over the issue of waste and sludge disposal," state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, wrote in an email.
County road repair will also be on the minds of Victoria County commissioners when the Texas Legislature goes into session Jan. 10.
Commissioners signed a lobbying contract with former Republican state Rep. Steve Holzheauser to convince lawmakers not to redirect $100 million left in the state's County Energy Transportation Reinvestment Zones fund to pay for other bills, said Zeller.
The money was set aside to repair county roads damaged by trucks hauling oil and gas and equipment during the fracking boom years of the Eagle Ford shale.
Victoria Mayor Paul Polasek seconded Zeller's concerns about local control and unfunded mandates.
"As always, I am concerned with any state actions that create unfunded mandates or usurp local control in any way," Polasek said in an email.
In another email, Victoria County Sheriff's Office spokesman Ward Wyatt said Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor would be working with Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback, who serves as legislative director for the Sheriffs' Association of Texas, about public safety and law enforcement issues of interest to Victoria County.
There are about 170 bills that fall under public safety and law enforcement in the upcoming session, Louderback said.
Mental health issues, unfunded mandates, border security, jail reform issues and funding for technical needs for law enforcement agencies top Louderback's agenda.
"We need to properly fund mental health in rural areas of the state," he said. "Urban counties have more or different resources at their disposal, and we need better access."
Gulf Bend Center, which provides mental health care to residents of seven counties, is woefully underfunded, he said.
Louderback said he planned to ask lawmakers to increase Gulf Bend's funding.
Bettencourt's property tax reduction bill has garnered Louderback's attention as well.
"We're looking at that bill because 30 to 40 percent of county budgets are usually dedicated to public safety and law enforcement," he said. "Taxpayers have to realize the lower revenue could hurt sheriffs' ability to perform basic law enforcement duties, to do our job - that's probably our No. 1 issue."
The Department of Public Safety has set aside $1 billion for border security, but Louderback said he expects President-elect Donald Trump's administration to help Texas with the high price tag.
"It's highly likely the new president will give us more help," Louderback said.
Sheriff's Association of Texas will be working to get additional funds for crime lab technicians and equipment, he said.
The Sandra Bland Act is another bill Louderback said he would be monitoring.
The proposed bill, which has not yet been filed by state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, would primarily address pretext stops.
Law enforcement agencies use pretext stops to pull a motorist over to investigate a separate and unrelated, suspected criminal offense.
Louderback said he expected the bill to have additional jail reforms attached to it that he thinks are good, but he is worried about the costs.
"It's going to have some unfunded mandates," he said. "I think the bill is going to require jails have a mental health professional. Who's going to pay for that?"