Editorial Roundup:

The Dallas Morning News. May 31, 2020.

Here’s a path forward to cutting Texas’ skyrocketing property tax bills

If you’ve owned a home in Texas for any amount of time, you’ve joined thousands who have felt the pinch of skyrocketing property tax bills.

And this year, higher appraisals — a stunning 15% hike for some homeowners — are particularly shocking and hard to understand because COVID-19 has tanked the economy, leaving many of us struggling financially to make it through this pandemic.

But this unfair process, loaded onto the backs of homeowners, has been going on for a long time.

There is something wrong with a system that creates a tax bill so high that folks are forced to consider whether they can afford to stay in their homes.

The reality is that our tax bills are the result of a complicated and often confusing set of laws, policies and procedures. But simply put, there are two sides of the equation: the appraised value and the tax rate.

We find ourselves in a constant tug-of-war with officials on one side saying lower the tax rate and those on the other side saying lower the appraisal values. And in the middle, homeowners are saddled with the ever-growing tax bills.

We’re calling on officials on both sides of this situation to work together on some real solutions. And for homeowners to pay close attention to both.

Here’s how we got here.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Houston Republican chair of the property tax committee, reminded us that homeowners won’t see any results from the much celebrated reforms that put a 3.5% cap on property tax revenue growth for cities and counties until next year.

On top of that, the super-hot Texas economy that existed Jan. 1 — when appraisals at market value are mandated — generated steeply higher appraisals for homeowners. Then COVID-19 hit.

The pre-COVID appraisal situation can’t be allowed to stand.

City Manager T.C. Broadnax speaks about the city’s equity indicators project at the Communities Foundation of Texas in Dallas, Texas on Friday, October 28, 2019. (Lawrence Jenkins/Special Contributor)

We’ve praised lawmakers for the work they’ve done to control tax rate revenues. But they also must turn their attention to the appraisal system.

The good news is that Bettencourt told us that the state is set for a ratio study of property valuations in the fall. It’s sort of a report card to gauge the quality and accuracy of appraisals. It’s a statistical analysis that compares the appraised value to the market value of a property. That can get at how well appraisal districts are performing.

Lawmakers are also pushing for standardized valuation methods across the state to better compare apples to apples on properties.

He also encourages homeowners to participate in the process when tax rates are being set by local governments in the summer and early fall. And for some shorter-term relief if they feel their values are too high? Protest. There’s evidence that it works.

Take Harris County, for example, which had the highest average value increase of 8.75% in the state. It has already settled nearly 60,000 cases below last year’s values.

And we encourage taxing entities to redouble efforts at payment plans for tax bills and work to give hurting property owners breaks on penalties and interest.

Here’s an uncomfortable truth: Municipalities need our tax dollars to provide services. But they must take into account that there’s only so much homeowners can contribute.

Collin County Judge Chris Hill — in one of the fastest-growing counties in the country for many years running — operates under the principle that when values go up, the county should reduce its rate accordingly. He hears from homeowners who are frustrated by their high appraisals. But he said it’s deceptive of any official to tell every homeowner to protest, as Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins recently did, when they can just lower the tax rate.

We know it’s not that simple. Jenkins proposed lowering Dallas County’s rate only to be shot down by commissioners.

And while appraisal districts are hamstrung in some ways by inflexible laws, they still must find solutions for a more equitable appraisal system.

We’ve had too much finger-pointing over who’s most responsible for our high tax bills. It’s time we finally do something about them.

There’s still time to protest in Dallas and Collin counties this year

-Deadline in both counties is June 15.

-In Dallas County, Informal protests will be handled online through uFile, and by phone or by email. Because of concerns about COVID-19, most formal hearings will be handled virtually, likely by one person.

-In Collin County, No in-person hearings will take place. Online or phone is preferred. Panels will have three deciders.

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Houston Chronicle. May 30, 2020.

Blast off! NASA has returned to the rocket-launching business, and with a welcome twist.

The nation that first sent humans to the Moon just launched two more into the sky, a final and high-stakes test of a new approach by NASA to manned space flight that, if successful, could change nearly everything about the way America engages with space.

The launch had been scrubbed Wednesday by NASA’s exemplary caution, and Saturday’s storms threatened to scrub it once more, but improving conditions cleared the way for the once-familiar fiery spectacle at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla. On hand as the countdown approached zero and the massive rockets blazed into thundering, thrilling life were celebrities, space junkies and politicians — including President Trump, freshly arrived from the White House.

The pre-launch anticipation had been unusually intense, especially since the destination for the two astronauts — Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken — is the relatively close-by International Space Station, where crews supported by the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European nations have been making flights to and from for years.

This time, however, the rocket ferrying the astronauts into low orbit is an American rocket, launched from American soil. That hasn’t happened since 2011, when the Space Shuttle program was discontinued and NASA began hailing rides for its astronauts aboard Russian rockets.

Now, America is back in the rocket business, and this time with a partner. The rocket that blasted off Saturday and the capsule that will if all goes well dock in about 19 hours with the space station was designed, built and owned by a private company, Elon Musk’s pioneering SpaceX.

If the mission is successful, it will validate a vision of a public-private partnership born years ago and stands to radically transform the U.S. space program, right down to the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Saturday’s launch is the final test for the concept, which involves NASA as a client, rather than the all-powerful mastermind of space exploration. The expectation is for SpaceX and, eventually, other firms to be hauling people and cargo to and from space regularly.

Eric Berger, a former Chronicle reporter who is now senior space editor at the science and technology publication Ars Technica, told the editorial board that while Saturday’s launch represents a major test for the new approach, he sees nothing but upside so far.

“Honestly, this has been a great program; fusing the brash, fast-moving, fix-it-and-fly style of SpaceX with NASA’s lumbering bureaucracy but deep human spaceflight knowledge. It’s worked out for both, and the taxpayers,” Berger said..

It’s also seen as just the beginning. SpaceX and others are dreaming of delivering payloads ranging from human tourists to commercial cargo in and out of the lower orbit above Earth. And NASA is eyeing a return to the Moon, with a giant landing station orbiting that silvery satellite and providing a means for missions to Mars and beyond to be undertaken in stages.

The expansive vision of NASA as both a partner and a leader in manned space flight was given a key boost by the NASA Transition Authorization Act or 2017, a massive overhaul of the space program that was sponsored by Houston’s Sen. Ted Cruz, an early champion of private space exploration.

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San Antonio Express-News. May 30, 2020.

People need food; this is not the way to provide it

The mystery of how San Antonio event planner Gregorio Palomino, with no experience in food distribution, scored a $39 million contract from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to feed needy families during a pandemic is one that must be solved.

But the greater priority is feeding those families. The delaying of that by Palomino’s struggles to deliver food justifies taking the contract away from him and awarding it to a company that can get the job done.

In individual letters sent last week by U.S. Reps. Lloyd Doggett and Joaquin Castro to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, both San Antonio representatives asked Perdue to investigate how Palomino’s company, CRE8AD8, was awarded the contract.

“Why did USDA decide to contract with entities without a proven history or track record of fulfilling the basic tasks of the program over applicants with years of experience in the industry?” Castro wrote.

Doggett demanded the contract be canceled, writing, “This contract was issued without a credible background check with a company not licensed to perform and with no work history indicating a capacity to perform at a time of urgent public need for competent delivery.”

Palomino can’t be trusted to provide a truthful representation of himself or his company, nor can he be trusted to provide the vital service for which he’s been contracted. In last Sunday’s Express-News, reporter Tom Orsborn detailed the scope and brazenness of Palomino’s lies, a word we use sparingly but is inescapable in this instance. Lies that were easily debunked.

On CRE8AD8’s website, Palomino claimed iconic local companies USAA, Valero Energy and Fiesta San Antonio as among his clients. When officials from these companies denied ever working with Palomino or his company, he removed the claims from the website.

His LinkedIn profile cited service on the board of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, but the chamber says that isn’t true.

Also false appear to be his claims of operations in 27 cities around the world and the credential of “CMP” — Certified Meeting Professional, a designation by the Events Industry Council representing extensive knowledge of meeting management. It’s a designation the council says Palomino hasn’t earned.

Palomino’s attempt to explain the confusion to Orsborn was pathetic, beginning with the words, “My CMP is a different acronym …”

This is akin to a physician saying, “My M.D. is a different acronym …”

But all of Palomino’s misrepresentations would be irrelevant — but still disturbing because honesty matters, right? — if he were providing crucial food to the people in such desperate need. On Thursday, he delivered 235 food boxes, a paltry start.

His $39 million contract is for the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which directs surplus food toward families suffering financial hardship because of the pandemic. It obligates CRE8AD8 to buy 18 million pounds of food, pack it into 750,000 individual boxes, and transport the boxes to food banks and other nonprofits in seven states by June 30.

As Eric Cooper, who heads the San Antonio Food Bank, has said, failure on this is not an option. But failure is all we see at this point.

More than a potential failure to fulfill a contract, this is a failure of moral responsibility to feed people who are at their most vulnerable. Palomino and CRE8AD8 should have never been awarded this contract, and we join Doggett and Castro in asking to know why this happened.

As we await answers about this and the broader USDA program, cancel the contract and award it to a company with a proven track record to fulfill its contractual and moral responsibility to feed the hungry.

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