The two city officials who are up for election in November made a final unsuccessful attempt last week to cut the city’s enacted tax rate, drawing ire from other council members.
City Representatives Isabel Salcido and Claudia Rodriguez were the only council members to vote against passing the city’s budget and tax rate on Tuesday.
Their new position came as a surprise to many, after Salcido and Rodriguez joined City Representative Cassandra Hernandez in drafting a August 1 trial in the El Paso Times which celebrated the rate the board passed on Tuesday.
“Showing up at the very last minute and saying ‘no, we don’t approve of that’ is just disrespectful to this community and everyone here today,” city representative Alexsandra Annello said of the interview. failed efforts by his colleagues to adopt what is known as the no-new-income tax rate. This rate is approximately 4 cents per $100 of property assessment lower than the adopted rate and would have created a budget deficit of $17 million.
Tuesday’s budget passage came days after Salcido and Rodriguez launched their re-election campaigns, attracting several challengers for their seats. They are the only sitting council members in the November ballot, after Rep. Cissy Lizarraga declined to seek re-election and because Rep. Peter Svarzbein served the maximum two full terms allowed by the city charter.
By a vote of 6 to 2, council on Tuesday set the property tax rate for the coming fiscal year at 86 cents per $100 of property assessment. According to this rate, a taxpayer living in an average value home – assessed at $167,000 – would see the city’s share of their tax bill increase by about $83 per year. Although lower than previous years, the tax rate adopted does not compensate for the surge in home values.
In the weeks leading up to the budget’s passage, city officials, including Salcido and Rodriguez, misrepresented the lower tax rate as a tax cut or savings for taxpayers, despite the increase property tax bills from homeowners.
Salcido, at Tuesday’s budget meeting, urged the board to instead adopt the no-new-income rate of 82 cents per $100 of assessment. That’s the rate under which the city would have collected the same amount of property tax revenue, excluding new construction, as it did for the current fiscal year, when it ends this month.
Reading from a prepared statement, Salcido said that because El Paso residents have had to tighten their budgets, the city must do the same. Rodriguez supported Salcido’s motion to pass the no-new-income rate, citing the impact that rising home values will have on tax bills.
Their move fell through 6-2.
“At this point, moving to a tax rate with no new income would be bone cutting,” Svarzbein said.
Chief Financial Officer Robert Cortinas said adopting the non-new revenue rate would mean a $17 million reduction in the budget. The tax rate proposed by city staff was lowered twice at the request of city council before being passed.
Launch of re-election campaigns, votes change
Salcido launched his re-election campaign Aug. 17 and faces two challengers for District 5, which covers the Far East from El Paso. Rodriguez launched his campaign Aug. 14, attracting three challengers for the District 6 seat that covers parts of the East Side and Lower Valley.
Previous votes on the budget and finances always become big issues in elections, said Richard Pineda, chair of the communications department at the University of Texas at El Paso. He said any time incumbents nearing the end of their terms radically change their position just before an election, it’s a hard sell for voters.
“I think that sounds good in the minute and probably gives a healthy sound to be able to say, ‘I opposed that or I pushed that away’, but the hardest thing for a starter is that they’re basically running against opponents and they are racing against their record,” Pineda said.
Before launching their re-election bids, the two city representatives voted in favor of previous budgets that included tax increases.
El Paso Matters asked Rodriguez and Salcido about the factors that led to their attempt to pass the no-new-income rate despite multiple opportunities ahead of Tuesday, and whether they think it’s an issue that will be raised in their campaigns.
“The proposed tax rate is just that, a proposal to kick off the annual budget process,” Salcido said in an email response. “City officials are never required to make a final decision based on how they voted on the initial tax rate as it was first introduced. If so, what would the public contribution be used for? »
She said voters would be discouraged from voicing their opinions if their representatives had already made up their minds before going through the entire budget process and hearing from the public.
“It was clear that after the first vote on the proposed tax rate (August 1), many residents I heard of wanted a lower tax rate,” Salcido said.
Salcido, who was elected in December 2018, has voted to approve the budget and tax rate every year since her election.
Rodriguez released a statement after Tuesday’s vote that said, in part, that she was continuing her commitment to voters to be a “fiscally conservative” member of the council.
“Over the past two years, I have been able to push for no new spending, while holding the line with no new increases to the municipal portion of the tax rate for property owners and implementing a host of savings for our seniors and military veterans,” she said in the statement.
Elected to serve an unexpired term in December 2019, Rodriguez was absent when council passed the 2020 budget and tax rate and voted in favor of the 2021 budget and tax rate, resulting in tax increases.
“Before the vote on Tuesday, multiple attempts were made to lower the tax rate, in the end I did not get the result I wanted and that is why I favored a rate without new income. I am proud to be the fiscally conservative voice of the council and welcome anyone who wishes to challenge my voting record,” Rodriguez said in an email response to questions.
A matter of time
In April, council unanimously passed a directive ordering City Manager Tommy Gonzalez and CFO Cortinas to draft a budget with a lower tax rate. Due to rising real estate assessments, the city was required by state law to cut rates unless it sought voter approval.
The first proposal introduced in June was a tax rate of 90 cents per $100 of property assessment, down three-quarters of a cent from the current year.
Under this proposed rate, an average value home would have paid about $150 more in municipal taxes next year.
Salcido issued a statement to the media on July 14 saying she was asking the board to consider options to further reduce the tax rate, but made no mention of the rate without new income.
In mid-July, the council unanimously approved a paper presented by Salcido, Rodriguez, and city representatives Hernandez and Henry Rivera to further reduce the tax rate. The motion did not specify the development of a proposal with the rate of non-new income.
In El Paso, residential values are rising much faster than commercial and industrial values. This means that even if a government adopts a no-new-income rate, property taxes on homes would generally increase slightly, while commercial and industrial property taxes would generally decrease slightly.
Cortinas on August 1 introduced the lower tax rate of 86 cents per $100 of property assessment, about 4.5 cents lower than previously proposed. Both Salcido and Rodriguez voted to approve the introduction of this rate as the last to be considered. Svarzbein was the only council member to disagree.
Neither Salcido nor Rodriguez made a motion at the time to direct the city manager or chief financial officer to consider a budget built around the non-new revenue rate, or to identify budget cuts.
Also on August 1, a guest column written by Hernandez, Salcido, and Rodriguez published in the El Paso Times, widely bragged that the city has not raised the tax rate in recent years and that it ” would reduce taxes and allow all residents to save money”. reducing the budget by millions.
The column made no mention of considering a push to adopt the non-new-income rate.
Salcido and Rodriguez again did not raise concerns or offer to adopt the non-new revenue rate at the Aug. 16 public hearing before Tuesday’s final budget was passed.