Dave Rogers

For The Record

While politicians looking to stay in office say the economy is growing, don’t try to sell that line to governmental bodies in Orange County.

At a time when cities, schools and utility districts are staring down the barrel of the annual budgeting process, the tax base in the county is flat-lining.

“Unfortunately, Orange County hasn’t seen a tremendous increase in property values,” said Mike Cedars, chief appraiser for the Orange County Appraisal District, the agency charged with accurately estimating the market value of property in the county.

“I describe it as we’re the tail end of a snake. As the economy goes up, we’re down in value. We’re starting to see some commercial values go up because of plant additions. But over the past five years, it’s been pretty static.”

Lynda Gunstream, Tax Assessor/Collector for Orange County, recently presented county commissioners a report of 2016 certified values.

It shows total taxable property in the county (also called total market value) is worth $225 million more than what was here in 2015 – an increase of 3.3 percent bringing the total market value for property inside the county to $7.1 billion.

But once you deduct exemptions – for instance, those allowed industry for pollution controls and homestead discounts for homeowners – the amount on which taxes are levied (adjusted taxable value), stays the same at $5.2 billion.

Gunstream said the 3.3 percent increase was offset for the most part by “tax freezes,” for instance, when the valuation of homes increase but the owners’ tax bills remain the same because they’re over 65, or disabled.

The most valuable property in Orange County for 2016 is DuPont’s Sabine River Works, as has been the case since it opened Chemical Row in 1946. It has a total market value of $402 million and a total assessed value of $359 million after adjustments.

Those and the following numbers come from Orange County Appraisal District data furnished by Gunstream’s office.

All told, six of the county’s 10 most valued properties are on Chemical Row, FM 1006. They include No. 2 Invista (total assessed value of $324 million); No. 3 Lanxess ($193 million); No. 6 Chevron Phillips Chemical ($113 million); No. 9 Honeywell ($76 million); and No. 10 Firestone ($73 million).

A seventh of the top 10 is nearby, the Entergy Texas power plant at the foot of the Rainbow Bridge (No. 4 at $180 million).

Others on the list of the county’s most valuable properties include No. 5 Inland-Orange ($129 million); No. 7 Entergy Texas transmission ($89 million); and No. 8 Gerdau Ameristeel ($84 million).

There are a total of 22 taxing entities in Orange County. The Appraisal District and the Tax Assessor/Collector’s office keep track of them all.

Cedars’ office handles the valuations and Gunstream’s office uses the tax rates set by each of the 22 to prepare, issue and collect tax bills.

In addition to Orange County, other taxing bodies inside the county include eight cities (Bridge City, Pine Forest, Pinehurst, Port Arthur, Rose City, Orange, Vidor, West Orange) and five school districts (Bridge City, Orangefield, Little Cypress-Mauriceville, Vidor and West Orange-Cove).

There are also the county drainage district, county navigation district, a water control district, a county lateral road district and four emergency service districts

Another fun fact: Port Arthur is in the books for OCAD and Orange County’s tax office because the Jefferson County city annexed the land on which the Entergy Texas power plant sits before Bridge City was chartered as a city. The plant pays its school taxes to Bridge City ISD.

“I think people are more interested in tax values now,” Cedars said. “The appraisal district’s job is to find market values and make it as uniform as possible so everyone ends up paying their fair share.”

Taxes, though, remain a touchy topic. Knee-jerk reactions are often in play, he acknowledges.

“When you see the property values increase, most people get upset because the taxes go up,” the appraiser said. “But most of us buy property for an investment and [therefore] want our property values to increase.”