Tax rates are probably the most important policy decision a city government can make. These rates determine the scope and scale of the city services that the community can afford. The needs of businesses and households differ, and those tax rates are an important signal to them about the type of government services and level of operations they might expect in that community. The property tax is especially important in Texas. This post will summarize how the property tax rates of cities in Dallas County have changed over the last two decades. Tax rates have generally increased in Dallas County, but these increases have been concentrated in some cities and happened during certain periods.
Setting Tax Rates
According to the Texas Municipal League, 89 percent of cities and towns in Texas impose a property tax. This tax accounts for 41 percent of all municipal revenue in the state. The property tax is the most flexible revenue source available to a municipality. The city council may set a tax rate without the need for a referendum. Case law has also shown that the property tax rate, if imposed according to state law, is not subject to repeal by any voter initiative. Before imposing a rate, the city council must approve a budget that reflects a property tax. Upon adoption of that budget, the council votes to set a tax rate. As long as the annual increase in that tax is less than 108 percent of the effective tax rate, the levy is not subject to potential voter challenge. The effective tax rate is the rate that would bring in the same revenue as last year given the changes in appraised values. Senate Bill 2 is now under consideration by the Texas House of Representatives and would reduce the trigger for a roll-back election to 105 percent.
The maximum tax rate a city may impose varies according to its classification under state law. Home rule cities, essentially those operating under their own charter, may impose a rate up to $2.50 per hundred dollars of property value. We are not aware of any city in the state that has imposed a rate anywhere near that level. Most cities have rates that are less than a third of that. General law cities, depending on type and population, have various maximum rates: Type A over 5,000 population, $2.50, under 5,000 population, $1.50; Type B, 0.25; Type C cities’ maximum rate varies between $0.25 and $2.50, depending on population.
The following analysis is based on tax rates for the 25 cities that are primarially in Dallas county. These cities are: Addison, Balch Springs, Carrollton, Cedar Hill, Cockrell Hill, Coppell, Dallas, DeSoto, Duncanville, Farmers Branch, Garland, Glenn Heights, Grand Prairie, Highland Park, Hutchins, Irving, Lancaster, Mesquite, Richardson, Rowlett, Sachse, Seagoville, Sunnyvale, University Park and Wilmer. Portions of many of these cities lay in surrounding counties, but they are required to impose a uniform tax rate on all their jurisdiction. The same tax rate applies to all property types: residential, commercial and personal property. We obtained historical tax rates from the Dallas Central Appraisal District for 1998 to 2016. These tax rates were in effect for the fiscal years immediately following. For example, the 2016 tax rate was used to collect property tax revenue for the fiscal year that ends in September 2017.
Changes in City Tax Rates
In Dallas county, property tax rates are generally higher today than in 1998. The average tax rate in 1998 was 0.5772. The average rate in 2016 was .6677. This amounts to an increase in the average rate across all cities of 9 cents per $100 in property value. The median tax rate, that is the rate of the city with the middle tax rate, grew about 8 cents over the period.
This growth was not uniform. The pattern of increase since 1998 is a stair step. Tax rates increased after the 2001 recession and remained level until the Great Recession, when they increased again. This is evident in Figure 1, which shows the median tax rate over the period.
The property tax base responds slowly to economic recessions. As the economy declines, appraisals tend to take several years to fully reflect the impact of the downturn. When we look at the five years following the last two recessions, we can see how these Dallas County cities responded. Five years after the 2001 recession, 12 of the 25 cities in Dallas county had higher tax rates compared to the year of the recession. These cities increased their rate by 7 cents on average. Five years after the Great Recession, 18 of 25 cities had higher rates five years later. Their average increase was 8 cents. This is similar to the pattern nationally, where cities struggled with declining appraisals for three years following the end of the recession.
Another interesting feature of this data, is that the difference between the highest tax rate and lowest tax rate each year also increased, especially after the Great Recession. See Figure 2. This gap became dramatic in recent years and probably reflects a combination of factors and sharp tax rate increases in just a few cities.
Tax rates have changed in Dallas County for many reasons. In some cases, increases in tax rates were a response by cities to recessions. Many of these cities also decreased the rate of growth in their budgets and cut many programs. In other cases, taxes were increase to accommodate higher debt loads. Most cities in Dallas County are relatively mature and have streets and water mains that are reaching the end of their useful life. Decisions about operations and infrastructure will continue to weigh heavily on local leaders.
Next week we will look more closely at the tax base of these cities to better understanding reasons for these tax rate changes.