First, the bad news – we raised our County tax roughly two cents this year to $0.4855 per $100 valuation. Next, the good news – even and especially in an economic downturn, Travis County is effectively and efficiently maintaining or increasing county services to sustain quality of life for all of our residents. Our tax rate has remained between $0.40 and $0.50 per $100 valuation for more than 10 years. We have the highest possible bond rating reflecting our creditworthiness and years of sound fiscal management. We have a lean organization that has maintained less than five county employees per 1,000 residents since at least 1998. And, Travis County remains one of the most desirable counties in which to live in the United States with a median household income well above state and national medians.
Despite our efficiency and good fortune, the tax increase is nevertheless necessary. The increase goes to pay for more law enforcement and corrections personnel, additional court and prosecution services and more health and human services. These categories of county spending are reflective of the convergence of three factors – increased poverty, the economic downturn and State budget cuts.
While our population growth brings new residential and commercial construction that translates into additional property tax revenue (Travis County may not collect income or sales taxes), the additional revenue is not sufficient to cover the societal cost of an increasing percentage of residents living in poverty. The County’s population increased more than 25% over the last decade. The percentage of individuals living in poverty increased more than 50% over the same time period (from 12.4% living in poverty per Census 2000 data to 19.2% living in poverty today). Increases in poverty bring increases in crime, illness and unmet basic needs.
Our increasing poverty rates predate but are seriously compounded by the economic downturn. The poverty rate has been on the rise throughout the decade but we have seen a significant jump in just the last year (from 16% to just above 19%). Additionally, our unemployment rate has risen from just under 4% in 2008 to its current rate just above 7%. The County has seen increasing demand for emergency rent and utility assistance, water services to poverty stricken areas, adult education and workforce development opportunities, access to affordable child and elder care and access to affordable physical, mental and dental health services.
While we normally have an enviably low crime rate in comparison to other counties of our population density, we are seeing spikes in crime and neglect that drive up costs in law enforcement, adjudication and corrections. Spikes have been particularly remarkable in family violence and drug- and alcohol-related crimes. Serious juvenile criminal cases have increased sharply. Additionally, our civil child abuse and neglect docket has increased by more than 30% in the last year. While difficult to know with statistical certainty, it is at least reasonable to suspect that the economic downturn is an exacerbating factor in these increases.
State Budget Cuts
The last Legislature reduced State investment in all of the following areas in which county government has a role:
- Adult Justice and Prosecution
- Juvenile Justice
- Corrections and Jail Diversion
- Workforce Development
- Mental Health
- Adult and Child Protective Services
In addition to these cuts that directly affect county services, State cuts to education and Medicare reimbursement rates will have indirect impacts on the County’s budget as well.
In conclusion, while we face many challenges, Travis County is prepared. Through shared responsibility and robust partnership with Travis County’s 25 civil and criminal courts, 20 municipalities, 17 school districts, 15 law enforcement agencies and the amazing network of nonprofit organizations, we will continue efficient and effective efforts to reduce the grinding effects of poverty and insecurity so that more Travis County residents can enjoy the benefits of their labors in peace.
[For more on my philosophy regarding equity in property taxation, please see my 4/29/2011 blog post, “Tax Equity and Governmental Credibility.”]