McALLEN, September 19 - While opponents of South Texas College’s proposed tax rate increase are busy getting a petition signed for a rollback election, the college’s board of trustees is seeking legal advice on whether such an election is valid.
“It is a legal question and I really cannot answer that,” said South Texas College President Shirley Reed, when asked if a rollback election could occur. “We do not know if we could be forced into this. We were very clear when the voters said you can levy, you can assess and you can collect the three cents,” Reed said.
STC went to the voters of Hidalgo County and Starr County last November, asking for a “yes” vote for collecting an additional three additional cents for the College’s maintenance and operations and another “yes” vote for a $159 million bond issue. The measures were approved by voters, although the two counties were split, with Hidalgo narrowly voting “no” and Starr rather more convincingly voting “yes.”
Emotions ran high at an STC public hearing on Thursday that focused on a possible 26 percent tax rate increase. Some people, such as Nina Boyd, who lives between Elsa and Weslaco, said they were set to lose their homes because of high property taxes. Afterwards, tax increase opponent Fern McClaugherty was busy giving out her business cards. She said she would start collecting signatures for a petition for a rollback election.
“We need about 22,000 signatures in Hidalgo and Starr counties and we think we have a very good chance of getting them. You saw the emotion in that room. People are angry. Doesn’t it break your heart to see people are going to be losing their homes? They cannot afford the taxes we have to pay,” McClaugherty said.
In an exclusive interview with the Guardian after the hearing, STC President Reed questioned whether vocal opposition to the tax rate increase was being orchestrated by someone or some groups.
“We cannot stop them from circulating petitions. That certainly is their right but this really is going to require a legal interpretation and it is certainly not because the college is not being very open and transparent. We think the language is very clear as it was stated on the ballot,” Reed said.
The OWLS (Objective Watchers of the Legal System) and the McAllen/Hidalgo County Tea Party were well represented at the hearing and voiced opposition to the tax increase.
Asked if she found the level of opposition surprising, Reed said yes. “It was a very emotional response. They seemed to be unaware we had an election. They seemed to be unaware what it was for. They misquoted a wide variety of statistics that are simply not accurate. It certainly seems as if it is being orchestrated.”
Thursday’s hearing was the second STC has held about its new tax rate. The STC board of trustees is expected to vote on the issue at a meeting at the Pecan Campus in McAllen next Tuesday. In her interview with the Guardian, Reed said STC had been transparent about what the election was all about.
“We asked the voters last November to authorize - and this is important - to act on leveeing, assessing, and collecting three additional cents for the maintenance and operation of the College to go to a total of 14 cents. For me, that was very clear. We asked the voters to approve it. We spent a year on public hearings, traveling all over the two counties. The other item we asked the voters to approve was the issuance of $159 million in construction bonds. We cannot build buildings unless the voters approve construction bonds. We go from our old rate of 15 cents to a new rate of 18 ½ cents. It is a total of three and a half cents.”
Reed said that if one does the math the percentage tax increase is 25 to 26 percent. However, she said that is not the best way to look at it. “If we had gone from one cent to two cents that would be a 100 percent increase - we do not think that is the issue. For a homeowner with a $100,000 home it would be $35 a year. Many of the speakers this evening were talking about losing their homes because of the taxes, that they couldn’t afford it. We can only be responsible for our portion of the tax. We have been very conservative, fiscally very responsible; very transparent. If you look back at the website we put together explaining this to the public, the frequently asked questions, all the brochures we developed, they very clearly explained what we wanted to do, what it was for, why it was necessary.”
Asked about claims made at the hearing that only one quarter of the tax increase is going on education and training, Reed said: “That is an error. The half cent is going to pay for the buildings. The three cent increase is going to pay for the hiring of more faculty, developing more training programs, preparing students to go right into the workforce. That is information was simply not correct. I have no understanding as to where they got that information.”
Asked about claims made at the hearing that STC ranks bottom among four-year institutions for graduation rates, Reed said: “We are not a four-year institution. We are a community college. Our graduation rate is 19 percent. It is complicated calculation but we have the highest graduation rates of the very large community colleges in the state of Texas. We are fourth in the nation for graduating Hispanic students.”
Reed reiterated that STC was transparent about what it was proposing in last year’s bond election. “We went before the voters. We explained the issues, what we were going to do, why we were going to do it. I would restate they (the voters) approved levying, assessing and collecting this tax.”
Asked about the fact that Hidalgo County voted against the bond issue, Reed said: “They may say that but the College has a district that is two counties. Both counties are treated equal. It is the joint vote of both counties that determines whether we can levy this tax or not. The voters have spoken.”
There was one member of the audience that spoke in favor of the STC tax increase. Paul Curtin is a businessman from McAllen. After the hearing, Curtin told the Guardian: “An investment in South Texas College is an investment in our community. South Texas College is what attracts companies to come and invest here. They create the workforce for those companies to come and invest here. That is a good investment. Sixty or 70 percent of the students at STC and UTPA are in the first generation in their families that have had the opportunity to get higher education, to get them out of poverty. That is why we support the college and university.”
Paul Rodriguez is an STC trustee. He told the Guardian that STC has historically set low tax rates. “The prospect of raising somebody’s taxes is not a pleasant thing. We are not excited about. However, when you have the need, when you are growing as much as we have been… we have to turn people away from our programs because we are maxing out and we do not have the facilities. We have a growing population and a growing demand. Do we lock the doors and say we are not going to do anymore?”
Rodriguez pointed out that STC is not acquiring any new land and only building one completely new facility. The rest of the new construction is occurring at existing campuses, he said. “There is only one new facility, in Pharr, the Law Enforcement Academy and for that one, the land is being provided by the City of Pharr. We are expanding the nursing and allied health facility, for which there is a big, big, need,” he said.
Rodriguez added that if one tracks the increased prosperity of the Rio Grande Valley, it has improved “dramatically” since the formation and expansion of STC.
There were about 20 opponents of the STC tax increase at Thursday’s hearing. Among the comments made were that “people will be overwhelmed” by the tax increase and that “the little guy is getting hurt.” Critic Dave Asher cited publications stating that 51 percent of the Hidalgo County population has a debt related to collections and that 34 percent are living in poverty. “People keep saying it is only…, it is only…, it really frustrates me. It depends on who is saying, ‘it’s only’,” Asher said. He added that he had never seen any split votes among STC’s board of trustees. “I have never seen a ‘no’ vote. It is like a little club and the rest of us are on the outside looking in,” Asher said.
Tax increase opponent Lonnie King asked the STC board to look for other ways to fund growth, rather than asking taxpayers to foot the bill. He said he had noticed STC has a lot of directors. “There is something else you can do. Take another look at your budget and see if you cannot do it another way,” he said.
In her remarks to the board, McClaugherty said taxing bodies were originally set up to assist people and improve the quality of life. “Now, it seems to be more about building an empire.” McClaugherty said. She said people should not think her group, the OWLS, was against education. However, she said, funding for education should not get to the point where STC is mortgaging the homes of people that cannot afford to pay.
“You board members are looking to the future while the population from which you are taking the money is concerned about today,” McClaugherty said. “When we found out about this 26 percent increase, no one could believe it. The reaction was amazement. We have trusted you with our kids but now you are using them to get more money from the poor. Obviously, we have misplaced our trust.”