McALLEN, RGV – The McAllen/Hidalgo County Tea Party and the OWLS civic watchdog group have acknowledged their inability to get the required number of signatures to force South Texas College to hold a rollback election.
The two groups – Hidalgo County-based OWLS stands for Objective Watchers of the Legal System – had hoped to get 25,000 signatures. They objected to a 25 percent increase in taxes that voters in STC’s district approved. The district comprises Hidalgo and Starr counties.
The OWLS and MHCTP point out that a majority of voters in Hidalgo County voted against a $159 million bond issue that included the 25 percent tax increase. The bond issue won thanks to a big “yes” vote in Starr County.
The OWLS and MHCTP issued this statement late on Monday:
“The OWLS and the Tea Party are announcing that the goal of securing 25,000 signatures to require South Texas College to have a rollback election has not been successful. This effort was initiated due to the 25.68 percent tax increase approved by the STC Board of Directors. This tax increase will impact people in two of the poorest counties in south Texas. It should be noted that when this increase was on the ballot, it did not pass in Hidalgo County. Currently Representative Terry Canales has introduced House Bill No. 382 which would create a branch campus within the City limits of Elsa or Edcouch. This bill includes a five percent maintenance tax. The proposed campus is 9.5 miles from the 46 acre City of Weslaco STC campus which has 3,400 students. A six year study by the U.S. Department of Education indicates that the graduation rate of STC students is 11 percent. This is the lowest rating in the study. Also the salaries of administration staff for this public education facility should be based on student performance and not the ability of the taxpayers to keep paying more taxes.”
The statement was sent to media outlets by Edinburg residents Fern McClaugherty and Richard Montesdeoca.
According to the Texas Comptroller’s Office, if a taxing unit adopts a tax rate that exceeds the rollback tax rate, voters in the taxing unit may petition for an election on the tax increase. A successful election limits the taxing unit’s current tax rate to the rollback tax rate.
STC went to the voters of Hidalgo County and Starr County in November, 2013, 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.”
A lively STC board meeting took place last September in which members of the public opposed to the tax increase spoke out forcefully against the measure. After the meeting, McClaugherty said: “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.”
STC President Shirley Reed gave the Rio Grande Guardian an exclusive interview following the board meeting. Asked if she found the level of opposition surprising, Reed answered affirmatively. “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.”
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, 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.”