Municipal (City) Government

General Law and Home Rule Cities

While every square inch of Texas is included in one of its 254 counties, not all of Texas falls inside the limits of a city. Cities are created by its citizens, who are granted a charter by the state of Texas in the same way a corporation operates under a state charter.

Cities can be organized in two basic ways, depending on their size.  Cities with a population of less than 5000 people can only exist as general law cities. A general law city has only the powers specifically granted by the legislature, which do not include broad annexation or regulatory powers. Cities with a population greater than 5000 may elect home rule status. Home rule cities can do virtually anything they want that isn’t prohibited by the legislature – leading to some of the issues discussed at the beginning of this chapter.

Larger cities (those exceeding 225,000) have a unique authority: that of “limited annexation”, whereby an adjoining area may be annexed for purposes of imposing city ordinances related to safety and building codes. The residents can vote for mayor and council races but cannot vote in bond elections (and, consequently, the city cannot directly collect city sales tax from businesses or city property tax from owners).

The City of Houston has exploited a provision in the state law that allows it to share in sales tax revenues along with special districts (municipal utility districts, for instance) that cross an area “annexed for limited purposes.” This has led to a spiderwebbing known as limited purpose or special purpose annexations that consist of mostly commercial properties facing major streets. These extend through otherwise unincorporated areas in what is known as the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ), which, for Houston, extends five miles beyond its city limits. This has led to conflicts between city and county officials over the provision of services to these areas not included in the agreements.

The purpose of limited annexation is to allow the city to control development in an area that it eventually will fully annex; it is meant to do so within three years (though it can arrange “non-annexation agreements” with local property owners), and those agreements with municipal utility districts also cloud the picture. During each of the three years, the city is to develop land-use planning for the area (zoning, for example), identify needed capital improvements and ongoing projects, and identify the financing for such as well as to provide essential municipal services.

Municipal elections in Texas are nonpartisan in the sense that candidates do not appear on the ballot on party lines, and do not run as party tickets. However, a candidate’s party affiliation is usually known or can be discerned with minimal effort (as the candidate most likely has supported other candidates on partisan tickets). In some instances, an informal citizen’s group will support a slate of candidates that it desires to see elected (often in opposition to an incumbent group with which it disagreed on an issue). However, each candidate must be voted on individually.