in Houston, Texas
Montrose Management District levies an under-the-radar tax, something all too common in Texas when it comes to special government districts
Tuesday, Oct 18, 2011, 12:30PM CST
By Lee Ann O'Neal
Montrose

The organizers of a “a well-planned, high-quality community” in Montrose are getting some “stakeholder input” they didn’t bet on.

Business owners have petitioned to dissolve the Montrose Management District, which was set up, they say, without their knowledge or input.

The district levies a tax of 12.5 cents per $100 of value on commercial properties, a bill of about $420 for the $336,000 property on Montrose Boulevard owned by Mayor Annise Parker and her partner Kathy Hubbard, listed as treasurer of the management district’s board. The tax would be in addition to the $8,475 they pay to the Houston schools, the city, county and other governments.

The Houston Chronicle and the West University Examiner have followed the business owners’ Stop the District! effort.

BlogHouston is cheering them on:
Kudos to the business owners who are determined to abolish this unaccountable, secretive taxing entity that serves no useful purpose for the general public and was created virtually under cover of darkness by elites to benefit elites.
“I hate to say it, but it was kind of a scam,” one citizen reportedly said at a board meeting last week.

This lack of transparency is common to special government districts, as Texas Watchdog reported earlier this year. After all, when’s the last time you called up the director of your local mosquito control district?

Texas Watchdog’s Jennifer Peebles found exponential growth statewide of such special government districts. The number of such districts has quadrupled since 1952, with 2,300 of them at last check, not counting school systems. Some districts can be set up with the vote of one person.

Peebles described their lack of accountability:
They’re so easy to create, and there are now so darn many of them -- many of them small  -- that some of them operate almost totally off the radar screen of the general public. …

A county commissioner taking flak from voters about sales tax increases in a certain neighborhood can deflect the criticism toward the board members of the tiny “special district” that voted to raise the tax rate in that area.

But unlike the county commissioner, whose name and phone number might be readily available to most county residents, people in that area may have little idea about the existence of the special district, much less know the identities of the people who oversee it or make its decisions.

And the members of that governing board may be appointed instead of elected, meaning their names aren’t regularly put forth on a ballot to get a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from the people they govern.
In Montrose, the district’s lawyers are reviewing the petition signatures to see if the people have given the whole operation a thumbs-down.
 
***
Contact Lee Ann O’Neal at 713-980-9777 or leeann@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of Montrose street sign by flickr user MikeRastiello, used via a Creative Commons license.
Comments
David Johnson
Sunday, 10/23/2011 - 08:56AM

Ellen Cohen is running for Houston City Council, District C. The Houston Chronicle endorsed her. She is an active Democrat. She is a reject State Representative (defeated in the last election). You see a lot of her signs around. They were generally passed out at Democratic Party meetings. If things go as they normally do, I think she will be elected. That’s a real shame. She shouldn’t be. Ellen Cohen is what’s wrong with government.

I am a retired teacher. I have owned property in the museum area since 1976. Last year I learned that business and rental property (over 8 units) were to be placed in a “West Montrose Improvement District” and would be subject to an ADDITIONAL property tax of $1.4 million. Property owners were appalled. But the West Montrose Improvement District went forward with $1.4 million in new tax money at the disposal of this new group. This group, it turns out, acts independently, can borrow and indebt us, and act with no voter approval. The group claimed it would “attract business” and clean graffiti and beautify esplanades. But first, this august body had to pay Vincent and Elkins $250,000 for “legal fees in setting up the district.” How did an independent group get $1.4 million in our property tax money with no controls placed on them by any voter?

Simple. When Ellen Cohen was in the Texas House of Representatives, she wrote a bill sponsored with Rodney Ellis to create the West Montrose Improvement District. (An East Montrose Improvement District had been established in 2006). In previous attempts, it took 51% of the assessed property owners property owners to approve the plan. Cohen couldn’t get 51%. But Ellen Cohen is not restrained by concepts like majority rule. The requisite number was then reduced to 50 signatures from assessed property owners and when they couldn’t locate 50 to sign the enabling petition, to get the bill moving in Austin, they HAND PICKED 25 assessable property owners to request the proposed Service Plan-the West Montrose improvement district. Cohen’s bill and the $1.4 million in yearly additional property taxes creating the West Montrose Improvement District was passed and signed by Rick Perry. (who said liberal democrats and conservative republicans couldn’t both work together when clever new ways to pick the taxpayer’s pockets could be devised?)

A year ago, angry property owners got their Montrose Improvement District tax notices. Forty some owners spoke against this new district having uncontrolled taxation powers. No one spoke in support. Guess what? The Board of Directors of the West Montrose Improvement District didn’t listen to any of them. When property owners began a petition drive to dissolve the new taxing district, they were told that they didn’t need 25 or 50 property owners or even 51% of the affected property owners to dissolve this new taxing authority. No, Ellen is a great bill writer. To dissolve her district created by 25 people, we had to have 75% of the assessed property owners sign the petition to dissolve. That represented many hundreds of property owners. The work began and hundreds of property owners signed the petition to dissolve the Ellen Cohen property tax piggy bank . Hundreds signed. Virtually no one supported this tax grab. But when petitions reached 62% of the people involved signing on to dissolve Cohen’s new money-maker we learned that these special districts don’t die easily. The “groups” running the East and West Montrose Improvement Districts merged. Now the petition drive had to get 75% from BOTH districts! You have to appreciate Ellen Cohen’s sense of democracy. And do you want to know the wonderful thing about this? The petition drive continued until it reached nearly 80% of the affected property owners IN BOTH IMPROVEMENT DISTRICTS -Petitions to dissolve and break up Ellen’s tax grab game.

I wrote Ellen Cohen and asked her to come to the meeting today (October 14) to see democracy in action-the presentation of the petitions to dissolve the district. She didn’t show up. I wish she had. After crafting a multi-million dollar tax scam, she should have been there to see the board she created go into executive session to decide if they were going to fight the petition that had overcome Herculean odds. I just wish Ellen had seen the “group” she created going into closed session to decide if they were going to hire attorneys (with our tax money) to fight our petition with a thousand signatures to stop their enrichment scheme from taking MORE of our tax money. I guess there is a point where even she could be embarrassed.

Why vote for someone who takes tax money in near-secret meetings, changes the rules, provides a huge slush fund for all the usual suspects and more fundamentally thwarts basic concepts of democracy? Behavior like this gets campaign contributions and she has the most!

I called Ellen Cohen and this is what she told me, “The majority of my constituents wanted the improvement district.” She knew that wasn’t true when she said it. And with a thousand property owners signing petitions against her tax grab, it has proved to be profoundly false and self-delusional.. Even some of HER 26 petition signers wanted their names erased from the enabling petition. She and her buddies wouldn’t let them take their names off.

I am not advocating a vote for any one. I believe we all have a responsibility to speak up when perpetual office-holders can’t let go of their political games. I can’t afford Ellen Cohen in city government. I can’t abide her lack of candor. It really doesn’t matter if she lacks judgment, good sense, or integrity (or a combination of all) . Please do what the voters in House District 134 did: send her into retirement. There are four other candidates. If you do vote for Ellen Cohen, don’t ever talk about “politics as usual”. Ellen Cohen IS politics as usual.

David Johnson

davidajohnson@sbcglobal.net

(409) 621-1679

David Johnson
Sunday, 10/23/2011 - 08:58AM

Ellen Cohen is running for Houston City Council, District C. The Houston Chronicle endorsed her. She is an active Democrat. She is a reject State Representative (defeated in the last election). You see a lot of her signs around. They were generally passed out at Democratic Party meetings. If things go as they normally do, I think she will be elected. That’s a real shame. She shouldn’t be. Ellen Cohen is what’s wrong with government.

I am a retired teacher. I have owned property in the museum area since 1976. Last year I learned that business and rental property (over 8 units) were to be placed in a “West Montrose Improvement District” and would be subject to an ADDITIONAL property tax of $1.4 million. Property owners were appalled. But the West Montrose Improvement District went forward with $1.4 million in new tax money at the disposal of this new group. This group, it turns out, acts independently, can borrow and indebt us, and act with no voter approval. The group claimed it would “attract business” and clean graffiti and beautify esplanades. But first, this august body had to pay Vincent and Elkins $250,000 for “legal fees in setting up the district.” How did an independent group get $1.4 million in our property tax money with no controls placed on them by any voter?

Simple. When Ellen Cohen was in the Texas House of Representatives, she wrote a bill sponsored with Rodney Ellis to create the West Montrose Improvement District. (An East Montrose Improvement District had been established in 2006). In previous attempts, it took 51% of the assessed property owners property owners to approve the plan. Cohen couldn’t get 51%. But Ellen Cohen is not restrained by concepts like majority rule. The requisite number was then reduced to 50 signatures from assessed property owners and when they couldn’t locate 50 to sign the enabling petition, to get the bill moving in Austin, they HAND PICKED 25 assessable property owners to request the proposed Service Plan-the West Montrose improvement district. Cohen’s bill and the $1.4 million in yearly additional property taxes creating the West Montrose Improvement District was passed and signed by Rick Perry. (who said liberal democrats and conservative republicans couldn’t both work together when clever new ways to pick the taxpayer’s pockets could be devised?)

A year ago, angry property owners got their Montrose Improvement District tax notices. Forty some owners spoke against this new district having uncontrolled taxation powers. No one spoke in support. Guess what? The Board of Directors of the West Montrose Improvement District didn’t listen to any of them. When property owners began a petition drive to dissolve the new taxing district, they were told that they didn’t need 25 or 50 property owners or even 51% of the affected property owners to dissolve this new taxing authority. No, Ellen is a great bill writer. To dissolve her district created by 25 people, we had to have 75% of the assessed property owners sign the petition to dissolve. That represented many hundreds of property owners. The work began and hundreds of property owners signed the petition to dissolve the Ellen Cohen property tax piggy bank . Hundreds signed. Virtually no one supported this tax grab. But when petitions reached 62% of the people involved signing on to dissolve Cohen’s new money-maker we learned that these special districts don’t die easily. The “groups” running the East and West Montrose Improvement Districts merged. Now the petition drive had to get 75% from BOTH districts! You have to appreciate Ellen Cohen’s sense of democracy. And do you want to know the wonderful thing about this? The petition drive continued until it reached nearly 80% of the affected property owners IN BOTH IMPROVEMENT DISTRICTS -Petitions to dissolve and break up Ellen’s tax grab game.

I wrote Ellen Cohen and asked her to come to the meeting today (October 14) to see democracy in action-the presentation of the petitions to dissolve the district. She didn’t show up. I wish she had. After crafting a multi-million dollar tax scam, she should have been there to see the board she created go into executive session to decide if they were going to fight the petition that had overcome Herculean odds. I just wish Ellen had seen the “group” she created going into closed session to decide if they were going to hire attorneys (with our tax money) to fight our petition with a thousand signatures to stop their enrichment scheme from taking MORE of our tax money. I guess there is a point where even she could be embarrassed.

Why vote for someone who takes tax money in near-secret meetings, changes the rules, provides a huge slush fund for all the usual suspects and more fundamentally thwarts basic concepts of democracy? Behavior like this gets campaign contributions and she has the most!

I called Ellen Cohen and this is what she told me, “The majority of my constituents wanted the improvement district.” She knew that wasn’t true when she said it. And with a thousand property owners signing petitions against her tax grab, it has proved to be profoundly false and self-delusional.. Even some of HER 26 petition signers wanted their names erased from the enabling petition. She and her buddies wouldn’t let them take their names off.

I am not advocating a vote for any one. I believe we all have a responsibility to speak up when perpetual office-holders can’t let go of their political games. I can’t afford Ellen Cohen in city government. I can’t abide her lack of candor. It really doesn’t matter if she lacks judgment, good sense, or integrity (or a combination of all) . Please do what the voters in House District 134 did: send her into retirement. There are four other candidates. If you do vote for Ellen Cohen, don’t ever talk about “politics as usual”. Ellen Cohen IS politics as usual.

David Johnson

davidajohnson@sbcglobal.net

(409) 621-1679

Adrian Heath
Sunday, 10/23/2011 - 09:35AM

Read a great scholarly article about special districts here -

Finding the truth about special districts

http://law2.fordham.edu/publications/articles/500flspub8301.pdf

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