County Governments in Texas

County Tax Assessor-Collector

Part of the county tax assessor-collector title is somewhat misleading - all tax "assessment" is now done by appraisal districts. The "collector" part still applies, however. In addition to collecting all county property taxes, the county tax assessor-collector usually collects property taxes for other taxing jurisdictions within the county, such as school districts and cities. He also issues license plates and registration stickers, and handles voter registration.

County officials are elected in partisan elections, and commissioner precincts are redrawn every ten years following the census to roughly equalize the population of each. Unlike other states, Texas does not allow for consolidated city-county governments. Cities and counties (as well as other political entities) are permitted to enter “interlocal agreements” to share services (for instance, a city and a school district may enter into agreements with the county whereby the county bills for and collects property taxes for the city and school district; thus, only one tax bill is sent instead of three). Texas does allow municipalities to merge, but populous Harris County, Texas consolidating with its primary city, Houston, Texas, to form the nation’s second-largest city (after New York City) is not a prospect under current law.

Unlike cities, which can receive sales tax revenue, counties are funded almost entirely with property taxes. Counties in Texas are general-law units of government, with limited regulatory powers. In most counties, this doesn’t present a major problem. Populated areas are generally incorporated as cities, which have more extensive regulatory authority. Unincorporated areas – those areas outside the city limits of any city – have historically been rural areas with less need for regulation. Harris County, however, has become an important exception. Harris County’s population is nearly 5 million people as of 2019, with more than 2 million in the unincorporated area. If the unincorporated part of Harris County were a city, it would be the fifth-largest city in the United States. Fourteen states have fewer residents than the unincorporated part of Harris County, which has no building code and limited land use regulation.

Meanwhile, in West Texas, Loving County has the exact same governance structure to administer a county with an estimated population of 152 – from which voters must choose at least a dozen elected county officials.

Harris County sums up some of its challenges in its annual budget report:

Harris County government provides services to all of the residents of the county. Most of the higher cost county functions including the courts system, Hospital District, county jail, and most of the county administrative functions are located within the City of Houston. County government is the primary provider of roads, parks, facilities, and law enforcement for the unincorporated areas.

Harris County funds the county-wide and unincorporated area services primarily with property tax revenue. Despite the significant size and population of the unincorporated area, the county does not receive sales tax revenue to help fund services. The unique, ongoing challenge for Harris County government is to meet the needs of this rapidly growing unincorporated area without the funding sources provided to large cities in Texas. Most of the growth in expenditures in the County General Fund during this period has been for county-wide functions including law enforcement, the administration of justice, managing the jails, and the growing cost of indigent healthcare. As the population continues to grow, the demand for services, new roads, and expanded facilities in the unincorporated areas of the county will increase.

Texas counties are prone to inefficient operations and are vulnerable to corruption, for several reasons. First, most of them do not have a merit system but operate on a spoils system, so that many county employees obtain their positions through loyalty to a particular political party and commissioner rather than whether they actually have the skills and experience appropriate to their positions. Second, most counties have not centralized purchasing into a single procurement department which would be able to seek quantity discounts and carefully scrutinize bids and contract awards for unusual patterns. Third, in 90 percent of Texas counties, each commissioner is individually responsible for planning and executing their own road construction and maintenance program for their own precinct, which can result in poor coordination and duplicate construction machinery.