Houston’s mayor as well as a former mayor and former councilman said this week they are opposed to a sales tax increase that appears on the ballot April 2.

Outgoing Mayor Don Tottingham, former Mayor Steve Hutcheson, who served in the office for 12 years after sitting on the city council and former Councilman Don Romines, whose tenure on the council spanned 30 years, said they are asking voters to turn the measure down until additional planning is made and a sunset placed on the sales tax. The sunset clause is a voter check on the city.  If it does not spend the tax revenue as promised, then voters can vote the tax down when it expires instead of renewing it.

The Houston City Council in early January approved placing a one-cent sales tax on the ballot. It would benefit the police and fire departments, as well as the parks and recreation department.

Under the proposal, the parks and rec would share half of the proceeds, the police department’s allocation would be 17.5 percent and the fire department would receive the balance, 32.5 percent.  It is expected to generate about $720,000 annually.

The trio said both the fire and police departments have seen sizable jumps in their budgets during the last two years, and they think city residents should be asking for additional detailed plans about how the money might be used. Tottingham said even with the sizable jumps, the city — for the most part —has been able to take on the extra expenditure without adversely affecting its financial position. He wonders if the departments could continue to make progress without residents paying more for it at the cash register. Houston’s sales tax rate is 7.6 percent. If passed, they said, Houston’s sales tax rate would be one of the highest in the region.

An analysis completed by the men shows that the police department’s budget jumped about 21 percent in 2018 and another 7 percent in the current budget year. Over the same time period, they said, the fire department’s budget increased from $71,803 in 2017 to about $177,810 this year.

Historically, councils have not submitted sales tax measures on the ballot without placing some sunset that requires voters to renew it, they said. Next year, a quarter-cent sales taxes for streets and sidewalks is up for its five-year renewal.

In January, when the city council approved placing the measure on the ballot, Councilman Kevin Stilley expressed the need for additional resources for both police and fire departments. He said among them are equipment needs and perhaps a full-time fire chief who could check equipment and performance of hydrants.

“I feel like they (police and fire) are in need of this. But I hate to go forward without including the parks and rec,” Stilley said at the time.

Tottingham, Hutcheson and Romines said they would have rather had the issues separate rather than lumped together.

The trio said the city does need to focus its attention on studying a new swimming facility, but little is known about two other items —a proposed recreational facility and the scope of new baseball and softball fields. No sites have been publicly discussed. Priorities change and the council’s membership turns over, and without any formal plan, continuity may falter, the group alleges.  

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