Mayor Leonard Scarcella loves his hometown
"Property tax set at zero seems to suit Stafford." That Houston Chronicle headline grabbed me.
Since the property tax is probably the most unpopular tax, most people would read that story. However, the main reason it got my attention is that Leonard Scarcella is still mayor of his hometown, a job he's held for 39 years.
Leonard came onto my radar screen in the mid-1960s when he went to work, while attending law school, for an accounting firm that provided services to a Fort Bend County newspaper I published.
One of Leonard's passions was, and still is, sports. He wrote sports for the newspaper for a time and, as he does everything else, did it quite well.
His greatest passion is the city where he grew up. Leonard has lived and worked in Stafford his entire life, with the exception of time at Texas A&M and an active stint in the Air National Guard (same unit as Dubya). He practices law but what he practices most is compassionate, efficient government.
Stafford is the largest Texas city (25,607) with no property tax, which the city stopped levying 14 years ago. There are about a dozen cities without a property tax. Fortune rates Stafford 36th among America's 100 best places to live and launch a business.
The city collects sales and franchise taxes. Stafford's good mix of retail, manufacturing, commercial, service and wholesale businesses provides enough money to operate the city, provide services and, among many other notable facilities, build a unique entertainment and cultural complex. Stafford Centre has a 1,100 -seat per forming arts theatre, 25,000 square feet of convention center space and four festival fields on 43 acres of property in the city's center.
Stafford residents still pay property taxes to the county and to the school district, which is another Scarcella success story. It is Texas' only city with a municipal school district.
In the mid-1970s, Stafford children were attending Fort Bend Independent School District schools when FBISD decided to halt busing. A large number of Stafford students were minority and poor, thus relied on buses. Requests to reinstate the bus service were refused, so Staffordians, with Leonard and city council leading the way, decided to form a municipal school district. They received the okay from the Texas Education Commissioner and spent several years in the courts before gaining final approval despite FBISD and the Houston Independent School District opposition.
The Texas Legislature tried to ban municipal school districts. In addition to Stafford MSD, the lawmakers were concerned because the Cit y of Houston was making noises about its own school district. The law ultimately passed but not before some maneuvers by Stafford officials got small municipal districts exempted. The entire process ran from 1976-1981 and school began in 1982.
Leonard was a quiet but driving force behind the municipal school district. In addition to the busing issue, the mayor and many residents felt FBISD ignored the Stafford business and industrial tax base, which could certainly support its own schools.
Stafford MSD is not the only educational achievement during the Scarcella years. The city obtained innovative legislation and financing to construct a state-of-the-art science and technology center for the Houston Community College on the Stafford campus. It was the first such authorized city-college educational facility in the state.
Leonard's v ision and leadership are also pointing Stafford toward success in other endeavors: a massive program to improve transportation; the construction of a police and fire facility; and the crown jewel, the entertainment and cultural complex.
Even without a city property tax, Stafford has built a $10 million reserve and figures to pay off a $2 million bond program in the next five years.
City residents happily point to savings on mortgage payments without a property tax.
Leonard Scarcella's devotion to his hometown is remarkable. And, while his vision for Stafford obviously extends quite a distance, he has a few years to go to match a counterpart down the road in Fort Bend County — Richmond Mayor Hilmar Moore, who will reach 60 years in that office in September. Those who know Leonard won't discount the idea of him topping that record.
You can learn more about Stafford, and Leonard, at www. cityofstafford.com.