By Richard O. Avery, Ph.D., County Relations Officer, Texas Association of Counties
County Focus Series
Years ago, County Progress published a special series of articles to help acclimate new officials to Commissioners Court: County Focus. This set of descriptive writings authored by experts in the field covers the varied offices and departments that make up county government. What are the responsibilities of the Commissioners Court? How about the county treasurer? Who is in charge of emergency management? What job functions are assigned to the county clerk? We’ve got the answers in this comprehensive set of articles.
In our latest readership survey we were asked to publish this series once again. We updated each article as necessary and launched County Focus in March with the County Judge and the County Commissioner. April included the justice of the peace and the county court at law, and this month we feature the tax assessor-collector. In June we will cover the county treasurer and the auditor.
Tax assessor-collectors serve to assess property for the purpose of taxation and to collect taxes for the county and state. The job of the tax assessor-collector has changed over time with most of the evolution of duties centering on the combination or separation of assessing and collecting taxes. Originally, the two functions of assessing property and collecting taxes were separate. Under the Texas Constitution of 1836, the sheriff acted as tax collector, while the governing body of the county employed a separate assessor. Subsequent changes modified the duties and structure of the office. Some of these changes instructed other county offices to become the tax assessor and/or collector.
A constitutional amendment in 1932 combined the office of assessor and collector to become the present office. Article VIII, Section 14 of the Texas Constitution states, “The qualified voters of each county shall elect an assessor-collector of taxes for the county, and this person will hold office for four years.” In counties under 10,000 in population, the sheriff acts as the assessor and collector of taxes unless the voters of the county approve the creation of a separate office of tax assessor-collector.
Article VIII also states, “The tax assessor-collector shall perform all the duties with respect to assessing property for the purpose of taxation and of collecting taxes, as may be prescribed by the Legislature.” Unless the function has been contracted away as provided under legislation passed in 1979, a major responsibility of the office includes the assessment (calculation) and collection of property taxes, also referred to as ad valorem taxes, for the county. The office may also enter into contract with other entities to collect their jurisdictions’ taxes. These other entities may include schools, cities and special districts. A reasonable fee may be levied by the tax assessor-collector for collecting taxes for another entity, but this fee cannot exceed the actual collection cost.
The county tax assessor-collector is the designated voter registrar for Texas counties, unless the Commissioners Court has created the position of elections administrator to provide this function. Through mutual agreement, the tax assessor-collector may transfer this function to the county clerk, or agree to take the responsibility for elections in addition to voter registration. Voter registrar responsibilities include accepting applications for voter registration, issuing voter certificates, maintaining voter registration lists, verifying petitions for local option elections, and submitting required reports to the secretary of state’s office.
As an agent of the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, the office of tax assessor-collector is responsible for the registration, titling and title transfer of all motor vehicles and trailers in the county. State tax on all automobiles sold in the county is collected by the tax assessor-collector. Additionally, the county tax assessor-collector is responsible for the collection of special fees imposed by the county and state on coin-operated vending machines, alcoholic beverage permits, and boat registration and titling. County fees for these duties are set by statute. Because of the wide range of responsibilities performed by the tax assessor-collector, most citizens frequently come in contact with this office.
A county tax assessor-collector is personally liable for the loss of public funds in the custody of the tax assessor-collector’s office, unless a district court declares the loss is due to a reason other than negligence or misconduct. Therefore, tax assessor-collectors must be bonded with the county and the state. Before beginning to perform the duties of office, a person elected or appointed as county tax assessor-collector must give a bond for county taxes to the County Commissioners Court in an amount equal to 10 percent of the total amount of the preceding tax year’s county taxes, not to exceed $100,000. The bond for state taxes is payable to the governor and must equal 5 percent of the net state collections from motor vehicle sales and use taxes and motor vehicle registration fees in the county during the preceding year. Each bond may not be less than $2,500 or more than $100,000. The Commissioners Court of a county with a population of 1.5 million or more may set the bond for county taxes in an amount greater than $100,000.
A county tax assessor-collector must successfully complete 20 hours of continuing education each year. The continuing education must include at least 10 hours of instruction on laws relating to the assessment and collection of property taxes for a county assessor-collector who assesses or collects property taxes. A county tax assessor-collector may carry forward from one 12-month period to the next up to 10 continuing education hours. In addition, a county tax assessor-collector must complete continuing education courses on ethics and on the constitutional and statutory duties of the county tax assessor-collector not later than the 90th day after the date on which the county assessor-collector first takes office.