October 19, 2016

Should The Woodlands become a city? Political leaders clash over question

Houston Chronicle / The Woodlands Villager

By Bridget Balch October 18, 2016 Updated: October 18, 2016 3:21 pm

“STOP THE 70% PROPERTY TAX RATE INCREASE!” says a flier from The Woodlands Concerned Taxpayers, a group established by former township board chairman Bruce Tough

The group’s mission, Tough says, is to educate and inform residents that incorporating as a city could send property tax bills through the roof. But tea party-endorsed candidates on the sooner-rather-than-later side of the incorporation question say Tough’s efforts are scare tactics aimed at tilting the balance of the board.

Tough was unseated a year ago by tea party-backed challenger Laura Fillault after two Montgomery County tea party groups targeted him for defeat following a bitter fight over a road proposal. Four of the board’s seven seats are up for election this fall, and tea party-backed members now control three seats.

The dispute, which has resulted in heated back-and-forth via social media, printed literature and robocalls, represents the most recent clash between establishment leaders like Tough and the tea party vying for political control of Montgomery County’s largest and most affluent community,

“It’s propaganda about imminent high taxes and all kinds of misinformation about imminent incorporation that doesn’t exist,” said Gordy Bunch, a businessman and Woodlands board member seeking reelection.

Tough – a lawyer who’d served on the Woodlands board since its inception – stands by his claims.

“I’m very, very concerned that, if there’s a rush to incorporate, we’re going to pay more for the same services that we are getting now,” Tough said.

He isn’t the first Montgomery County politician to try to outflank the Texas Patriots PAC, a tea party group that’s been a force in the heavily conservative county for about seven years. Two years ago, an alternative tea party group emerged and successfully boosted several establishment candidates for county office who were vehemently opposed by the Texas Patriots.

Tough, who’d spent 15 years on the board, including five as chairman, acknowledged that he failed to motivate more of his supporters to go to the polls after the tea party’s slate went after him for publicly supporting a May 2015 county road bond referendum that included funds to extend Woodlands Parkway to Texas 249.

Bunch and Fillault successfully rallied enough Woodlands voters to defeat the bond and the parkway extension, which they said would channel more traffic through the community. Tough said that he didn’t support the extension, but rather thought the other transportation projects on the bond were too important to oppose it. Critics accused him of losing touch with residents and being beholden to special interests. County voters ended up approving a scaled-back road bond that fall, minus the parkway extension.

The Concerned Taxpayers group’s fliers cite a study commissioned by The Woodlands Township in 2011 to look at the potential cost of incorporation. The study estimated that some of the likely costs – for creating a police department, taking over road maintenance and public works, building a municipal center and assuming other responsibilities – would require increasing the property tax rate from 33 cents per $100 valuation in 2012 to 55 cents.Montgomery County currently provides these services.

Since 2011, The Woodlands has reduced its tax rate to 23 cents.

The Concerned Taxpayers’ flier shows that five candidates signed a pledge to oppose action “that would dramatically increase our property tax rate; irresponsibly add bureaucracy to our local governance; or jeopardize our unique Woodlands (quality) of life through irresponsible incorporation.” The candidates – incumbent Mike Bass along with Amy Lampman, Bob Leilich, Stuart Schroeder and Chris Grice – say they were not shown the flier before it was circulated, but agree that it would be better not to rush to incorporate.

For their part, the four candidates running under the banner of the Residents’ Advocates – a tea party-endorsed designation that they say reflects their commitment to putting the concerns of average Woodlands residents above “special interests” – contend that the information Tough is circulating is misleading.

Bunch said he believes The Woodlands needs to start planning for possible incorporation, but he said the Concerned Taxpayers group is wrongly suggesting that he and others back immediate action. For The Woodlands to incorporate, the board would have to call a referendum and then the voters would decide whether to proceed.

“We’ve had 10 years since we’ve done the regional agreements and we’ve made almost no progress,” Bunch said. “What I’m trying to accomplish is to start putting the foundation together.”

The four tea party-backed candidates – Bunch, Bruce Rieser, Brian Boniface and John Anthony Brown – all have stressed planning. They also note that if The Woodlands were a municipality, it would have more power to counter the Montgomery County government on planned road projects.

The Texas Patriots PAC has decried the Concerned Taxpayers’ campaign.

“The political elites are pushing erroneous information to scare the residents against voting for our candidates,” said Bill O’Sullivan, the group’s treasurer, in a statement.

Bunch believes that the 2011 study was inaccurate, pointing to statements, printed in bold in the study document, that emphasize that it was not intended to be a tax rate study.

“Essentially, they did a guesstimate,” Bunch said. “For anybody to claim things as factual would be lying.”

Bunch said no one knows what the actual cost of incorporation would be, but he suspects that it might be less than anticipated.

He said the study’s projections don’t reflect that The Woodlands now has a lower property tax rate and higher tax revenues. He also believes that, even as a city, The Woodlands might be able to contract out certain services and acquire existing facilities.

The Woodlands is now a special purpose district – a unique form of government that lacks the powers of a city but has the ability to collect property, sales and hotel taxes and exercise some governing authority.

Thanks to an agreement with the cities of Houston and Conroe crafted in 2007, The Woodlands cannot be annexed by either city until 2057.

Bass, the other incumbent seeking re-election this fall, believes the cost to incorporate may be even higher than what the study projected. Bass thinks that road maintenance could cost considerably more, and noted that the report did not factor in that The Woodlands may have less freedom with its hotel tax and economic development revenue than it does today.

“We really don’t know what the real number is,” Bass said. “I don’t think that a 70 percent (property tax rate increase) is unrealistic.”

A recent reassessment of the potential cost of incorporation by the township staff at Bunch’s request found that, even accounting for the lower tax rate and higher revenues, incorporation could result in an 11.22-cent tax rate increase – a jump of nearly 50 percent.

Don Norrell, president and general manager of The Woodlands, stressed that the staff report was not an official tax rate study either.

Yet another study, commissioned as an update to the 2011 study by the recently formed Montgomery Harris County Business Alliance, found that immediate incorporation could raise the township’s property tax rate by 85 percent, comparable to that of similarly sized cities.

Bass pointed to another potential problem of incorporation, noting that Texas law currently requires districts to incorporate first as a “general law” city – a government with limited authority and a small population – before drafting a charter and becoming a “home rule” city. According to Bass, there’s no legal path for a community with a population as large as The Woodlands to become a home-rule city.

Over the past year, The Woodlands board has been exploring incorporation in executive session and has hired legal consultants specializing in municipal law to provide guidance.

“We have to know how we come out with the Legislature in 2017,” Bass said. “We’ve got our lawyers and lobbyists … we need to be ready to put forward a local bill that clarifies these uncertainties.”

Tough, who was heavily involved in creating The Woodlands’ current form of government, said the township should take its time. “I consider (The Woodlands Township) to be the perfect form of limited government,” Tough said. “Why change? What’s the rush? Why pay more for the same services?”

Bunch, on the other hand, suggests holding public meetings in each of the villages, setting aside funds and pursuing legislation that can help make the transition easier.

Said Bunch, “For people to say we have all this time, I think that lacks leadership.”

READ MORE

Posted in: Library