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During recent research, we came across an El Paso Herald Post article from 1970 that caught our attention. We believe readers will find this interesting as well. The article argues that there exists a “hidden government” in El Paso that sets public policy and yet, the membership is not elected. Many readers are likely aware that the city and county governments have many boards to which the elected officials appoint members to. Readers have likely argued that some board members have too much power. Others have commented government boards are often used as steppingstones towards political office. To see it labeled as a “hidden government” by the newspaper added a dimension to how government wields power in the community.

The 2020 book, Who Rules El Paso?, by the Community First Coalition argued that Woody Hunt and Paul Foster are the real political power behind the city’s public policy agenda. The argument is that through their wealth they put politicians in positions to support their public policy agenda. However, elected offices aren’t the only political power base. There is, for example, the city manager’s office that sets public policy by controlling the budget. Theoretically, the city manager implements the public policy of the elected officials, however it has been argued that El Paso’s city council has become subservient to the city manager. Whether this is true or not remains debatable. However, city boards can and do wield public policy in El Paso.

The El Paso Public Service Board

Case in point is the El Paso Public Service Board (PSB). The PSB is a quasi-governmental body that is an extension of the city’s water utility. Officially it is a “non-profit, public utility” that manages El Paso’s water supply. The PSB’s board consists of the city’s mayor and six board members that are appointed to the board by city council members for four-year terms. Although separate from the city, officially, the PSB is an arm of the city government.

It taxes the homeowners of El Paso through service fees like the Storm Water fee that is added to the water bills of El Paso properties. Although called a “fee,” the Storm Water fee is a tax. But the Storm Water fee is not the only “tax” that the PSB levies on El Pasoans, albeit indirectly. Because the PSB is considered a separate entity from the city, it is required to pay the city a City Franchise Fee.

As of March 1, 2020, anyone with a water utility meter is required to pay the franchise fee, which is currently $1.24 for a “typical residential customer.” That fee is added to the water bills and sent to the city. In other words, it is a city tax disguised as a fee on the water bill.

But the PSB is not just an unelected taxing entity, it also sets public policy through the land it controls in the city. In 2019, the PSB controlled 22,430 acres of land in El Paso. For 11 years, the PSB refused to sell land to home builders. By not selling land, the PSB “slowed housing development or shifted it” to other locations, thus setting land development public policy for housing in El Paso. [2]

As readers can observe, the unelected board members of the PSB not only levy taxes but also sets the city’s public policy.

However there is more. According to the 1970 newspaper article about El Paso’s “hidden government” it is made up “of the boards and commissions that make recommendations to the official administration.” In 1970, the city had 22 boards and commissions. [1] There are about 64 city boards currently.

There are many community boards from different taxing entities that influence public policy in the city. One such example is the City Plan Commission. The Plan Commission influences the votes taken by city council on land issues, from condemnation to the use of the property. Some of its unelected members have been accused of influence peddling and self-dealing activities. An example is Ray Mancera, who in 1986 helped to enact flea market rules that some argued benefited Mancera’s flea market business. Mancera served on the Plan Commission while operating the Fox Plaza flea market.

Likely the most impactful unelected board that affects El Paso’s taxpayers the most is the El Paso Central Appraisal District (CAD).

El Paso Central Appraisal District

Although not a taxing entity, per se, the CAD represents El Paso’s taxing entities that collect property taxes from property owners. It is the entity that has the most impact on taxes, but that few taxpayers understand or realize its impact on them.

In 1980, as the CAD was being organized, the city’s taxing entities held a $5.5 billion tax roll. [5] By 2021, the “total market valuation of single-family homes in El Paso County” was $34.62 billion, an increase of 18% from 2020. [7] By 2009 the number of taxing entities were down to 16. [9]

The CAD was created by the Texas Legislature’s Truth in Taxation that required the creation of a taxing entity. [4] The law was intended to “prevent gross inequalities found throughout the state, such as El Paso’s 23-year-old values.” [3] El Paso had not reappraised property values for over 23 years. The 13 El Paso entities that represented the taxing entities in 1980, had trouble agreeing on the makeup of the five-member board for the CAD. After lawsuits were litigated, El Paso’s taxing entities agreed on a nine-member board. In April 1980, the board selected its first chief appraiser. [3]

Cora Viescas, who was elected in 1979 as the city’s tax assessor/collector, was to the first chief appraiser. The city’s tax office was one of the entities that was to be merged into the CAD. Twenty-eight applications were received to fill the position for the first chief appraiser for El Paso. Viescas was the preferred choice to fill the spot by most of the membership. [4]

On October 1, 1980, Viescas became the CAD’s first chief appraiser. [6] She retired in 2007, after serving as the chief appraiser for 27 years. She had held the job of chief appraiser longer than anyone else in Texas at the time of her retirement. [8] Dinah Kilgore, who was Viescas assistant, was promoted to chief appraiser and remains in the post today.

The chief appraiser “makes the appraisals,” according to the CAD. What this means is that her office sets the values of El Paso’s properties that determines the amount of taxes they pay. The chief appraiser is governed by a Board of Directors. The board hires the chief appraiser but “have no authority to set values or appraisal methods”. There is also an Appraisal Review Board that taxpayers can lobby to reduce the taxable value of their properties.

Readers have likely heard or read letters to the editors from taxpayers complaining about the difficulty of arguing their cases for reduced property values or how the CAD unfairly penalizes homeowners over commercial property because the system favors expensive litigation for adjusting property values.

Although, the CAD does not set public policy nor does it set tax rates, it nonetheless acts like a part of the hidden government by the fact that it affects all taxpayers directly or indirectly (renters) and acts as a buffer between the taxpayers and the taxing entities when taxpayers complain about rising taxes.

Because the CAD sets property tax valuations, it affects the taxes paid by property owners even though a taxing entity does not raise their tax rates. In 2021, most El Paso property owners saw their “taxable home values substantially increase” in 2021. [7] The higher valuations increased property taxes on many homeowners.

The CAD Board of Directors are appointed by taxing entities. The City of El Paso controls two out of the nine positions. Currently the city’s two board members are Tanny Berg (Secretary) and Jackie York (Member). Both were appointed to the board on February 16, 2021 by Oscar Leeser. Berg and York were not elected. However, Precinct 2 County Commissioner David Stout (Member) “requested” to be appointed to the CAD in May 2021. [10] Stout currently serves as a board member. Another elected member of the board is Shane Haggerty (Member), who currently serves in the Ysleta Independent School District (YISD) board. Also, Freddy Khlayel-Avalos (Member) serves on the El Paso Independent School District Board.

Joshua Acevedo (Member), who is on the CAD board, may also be an EPISD board member but we could not confirm this by press time. We will update the article as more information becomes available.

The other board members are Eduardo Mena (Chairperson), Walter L. Miller (Vice-Chairperson) and Cynthia Ramirez (Member).

The CAD argues that the board has no authority in setting property values. However, it should be noted that the chief appraiser reports to the board and the board sets the CAD’s budget. Because of this, it can be argued that the CAD board has influence over the valuation of the properties that pay taxes to the taxing entities belonging to the CAD.

To understand how the CAD operates as a hidden government entity, readers need to understand the use of the term “tax rate,” which is the rate set by elected officials each year. The tax rate determines the amount of property taxes property owners pay. However, the tax rate is only part of the equation. The other part of the equation is the valuation of the property, which is set by the CAD.

If a taxing entity keeps the tax rate the same, but property values increase, the taxpayers pay more taxes, although the rate remains the same. This is where the CAD acts as a buffer to the elected officials.

On August 24, 2021, El Paso City Council voted to keep the tax rate the same as the previous year. [11] City officials proclaimed that they were not raising taxes. Yet, most El Paso property owners are seeing higher taxes this year. The reason is because the CAD has raised the value of properties leading to higher taxes on the properties.

Not withstanding the higher taxes, City Manager Tommy Gonzalez said that “the reason why we kept the rate as we did last year and we will again this year is to help the community come back”. Gonzalez was conveniently ignoring the higher cost to the taxpayers because of rising property valuations.

On the other hand, the County of El Paso voted unanimously on August 30, 2021 “to not increase property taxes for the 2022 fiscal tax year.” The County accomplished this by reducing the tax rate to ensure that rising property valuations do not increase the tax burden on the property owners. [12]

The El Paso Central Appraisal District impacts El Paso voters directly by increasing property taxes, although it does not set public policy. Taxing entities pay to keep the CAD in operation. By their appointments to the board, they have influence over how the CAD operates. As such, the CAD can be argued to part of the El Paso hidden government.

There are many more public boards manned by unelected individuals that influence directly or indirectly the community’s public policy agenda. The examples above serve to illustrate how they act as El Paso’s hidden government.

Footnotes:

  1. Wayne McClintock, “E.P. ‘Hidden Government’ Made Up of Many People,” El Paso Herald Post, July 16, 1970.
  2. Vic Kolenc, “El Paso Water board breaks land-sale drought with pending $6.94M sale to homebuilder,” El Paso Times, March 19, 2019.
  3. Susan Ihne, “Rates dive, property values jump, bills stay the same,” El Paso Times, April 9, 1980.
  4. Peter Brock, “Viescas expected to win countywide appraisal post,” El Paso Herald Post, July 11, 1980.
  5. Peter Brock, “Haggerty wants secret vote in selecting tax appraiser,” El Paso Herald Post, July 16, 1980.
  6. Ken Flynn, “Viescas gets ready to move from city post to county job,” El Paso Herald Post, September 22, 1980.
  7. Vic Kolenc, “El Paso home taxes valuations going up due to hot real estate market,” El Paso Times, April 7, 2021.
  8. David Crowder, “Retired appraiser gets Star on Mountain,” El Paso Times, June 27, 2007.
  9. Sarah Tenorio, “CAD budget stands despite Socorro vote,” El Paso Times, July 23, 2009.
  10. County Commissioner Precinct 2 David Stout Facebook Video Post, May 12, 2021.
  11. Dylan McKim, “El Paso property tax rate stays the same, yet home owners pay more,” KVIA, August 24, 2021.
  12. Erika Esquivel, “El Paso County votes to not increase property taxes for 2022 fiscal year,” KFOX14, August 30, 2021.

Martin Paredes

Reporting on public corruption, border politics, immigration and public policy in El Paso since 2000.

2 replies on “El Paso Hidden Government”

  1. So should all of these entities – PSB; CAD; Boards and Commissions – be elected? It’s hard enough to get 20% of the voters out for anything and can you imagine if there were another 30 to 50 names on the ballot?

  2. I didn’t get that the author wanted these entities to be elected. I saw that he was pointing out how El Paso’s politics is controlled by just a few individuals and the process by which this happens. El Paso is an oligarchy. It is by the few and for the few, but paid for by those with little to no voice. The CAD has significant membership from politicians who control other entities in El Paso. Quid pro quo at its finest.

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