Budget Balance, Discipline and Competing Interests

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It’s budget time again, and as the Austin American-Statesman has pointed out, many taxing jurisdictions within Travis County are contemplating increased tax rates.  My job is to keep Travis County taxes as low and fairly distributed as possible while providing effective and efficient services to our residents.  The “big picture” arguments around the County budget appropriately are:
  1. How necessary is the service given other competing needs?
  2. Is the County the best entity to provide the service sought?

As to the first question, no one who is paying attention is unaware of the tremendous needs within our community.  By most economic standards, those of us in Travis County who are doing well are doing exceptionally well.  Those of us who are not doing well, however, are continuing to fall behind.  Our most recent poverty rate for children under the age of 18 is 21%.  An increasing percentage of our residents (41%) are suffering under housing cost burdens that are unsustainable.  And, we are all struggling with the implications of living in an increasingly dry climate.  At budget time we are faced with a dizzying array of options for addressing these critical issues, with all of these options reliant on property taxes that are largely insensitive to a person’s income.

As to the second question (although ill-suited due to reliance on property taxes and confined political boundaries), counties are increasingly called upon to provide city-level services in unincorporated areas and regional services that were once the domain of the state.  We are being called upon for wildfire response, emergency and mental health care, land-use planning, educational services, workforce training and water policy.  We are stretched both financially and statutorily.  But to ignore the needs and await city annexation or the State’s response would be detrimental to Travis County residents.

These new service lines are heaped on top of our traditional obligations to provide courts, jails and roads.  In fact, rising property taxes due to the increased scope of our responsibilities are chilling the public’s support for a desperately needed expansion of courthouse capacity (we are currently 60% over capacity in our 82-year-old historic courthouse and approaching similar overcrowding in our criminal courts).

We must make some trade-offs.  The current proposed budget is 7.5% higher than the previous year’s budget.  That equates to roughly $40 million more in expenditures.  The County budget is pretty lean and finding places to tighten the belt is difficult.  It is not appropriate, based on the needs outlined above, to cut:

  • Social services
  • Court services
  • Emergency services
  • Law enforcement or corrections personnel
  • Transportation and environmental improvement projects

It is politically difficult to reign in escalating peace officer compensation and tax breaks for corporations.  However, I will not shy away from the politically difficult if it means more resources to effectively, efficiently and equitably address the needs of the most vulnerable in our community.

In this budget cycle I would like to have seen more targeted and performance-based investment in social programs, jail diversion and justice programs, transportation and parkland infrastructure, fire protection and water quality and quantity preservation.  With the exception of fire protection, we did not substantially increase our investments in any of these areas.  We did, however, substantially increase peace officer pay and corporate tax breaks.

I would have liked for our peace officers to remain on their current generous pay scale. While law enforcement and corrections increase safety for us all, the cost of such services cannot eclipse the needs of those served.  There is no question in my mind that Travis County Sheriff’s deputies are the best in the State. They are also the best compensated in the State.  I do not begrudge the best being paid the highest.  The question is how high should the highest be.  I favored pay increases in accordance with the previous pay scale at a cost of $4.2million (an average 5% increase).  The Court voted a $10 million pay scale increase (an average 11% increase) to keep pace with the Austin Police Department.  Going forward, I suggest a collaboration between the Commissioners Court and the Austin City Council to address this detrimental competition between the highest paid sheriff’s deputies and the highest paid police officers.  This type of salary pegging of public safety employees against each other to drive up salaries is part of the problem that has financially crippled many local governments in California.  Crime rates, population, geography, turnover, recruitment and other measurable metrics all have a roll to play in bringing reason to our compensation decisions.

Throughout the year I would have liked the Court to be more discerning in granting tax breaks to corporations. Even though Travis County is one of the fastest growing and most desirable regions in the United States, we shifted $12 million this year onto current residents to attract new residents. With the addition of Apple (which I voted against) and two solar arrays (which I voted for), the aggregate cost in coming years is expected to rise. Going forward I would grant no more tax breaks unless the proposed business is directly engaged in a socially beneficial activity for which there is little or fledgling economic support (e.g. alternative energy production, affordable housing, “green” manufacturing) and/or hires mostly Travis County residents, a substantial number of which would be from economically disadvantaged areas of the County.

Equitable, effective and efficient county government demands that we balance the burden of property taxes against the benefits of the services we provide.  We all pay taxes and we all benefit from government. We are all in this balancing act together.

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