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Sheriff, others may take issue with planned Travis County 2011 budget

Wednesday, July 28, 2010 by Michelle Jimenez

In the face of plans by Travis County Commissioners to hold the line on new spending in the 2011 budget, Sheriff Greg Hamilton says his department has voluntarily made requested spending cuts for the past two years, but suggests that further reductions in his department’s budget could have a negative impact on public safety.  Several other county departments are planning to make a case for additional funding too.


Commissioners on Tuesday heard a presentation of next year’s preliminary budget, a $698.6 million spending plan that includes a 2.5 percent across-the-board pay raise for employees and elected officials. Aside from the pay raise, the budget for the 2011 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, includes little else in the way of new spending. Officials say the increased spending keeps pace with inflation and other rising costs, such as higher health insurance premiums.


Half a dozen departments, most of whose budget requests didn’t make it into the preliminary spending plan – including Sheriff Hamilton’s operation – are expected to go before the court in the next few weeks, some during regularly scheduled meetings, and others at an Aug. 12 hearing.


One of the most in-depth funding discussions is likely to take place when Hamilton, who has indicated to county staff members that he has a long list of topics to discuss, pleads his department’s case. Hamilton’s budget accounts for about one-third of the county’s operating budget.


In a letter to the court, Hamilton said that his department has made cuts for the past two years and cautioned that the community, as it faces increased homicides and gang activity, could suffer if further cuts are made.


“I am concerned that any continued cuts to my agency would have a direct impact on the citizens of the county,” he wrote in the letter. “While on the surface it may seem ‘fair’ that we all have to cut equally in an attempt to balance the books, I am concerned that law enforcement is feeling the brunt of this simply because we have the largest budget.”


Among his requests, Hamilton is asking the court for 68 additional corrections officers and security coordinators, at a cost of $3.6 million.


Rodney Rhoades, executive manager of the county’s Planning and Budget Office, delivered the proposed budget to commissioners on Tuesday with a message that county finances are stable, thanks to belt-tightening measures taken over the past few years, but officials must continue to be vigilant.


“We are obviously, as the new construction values have dipped, we are certainly not seeing new dollars coming in as we have in the past, but we are in good financial condition,” Rhoades told the court.


New construction adds taxable value to the county’s property tax rolls, and more than half of the county’s revenue comes from property taxes.


The proposed general operating budget, which pays day-to-day costs, is $487.5 million, up from $455.7 million last year. The $32 million — or 7 percent — increase includes $11.3 million to cover the pay raises and higher health insurance premiums, $8 million to build reserve funds and $3.3 million to cover other increased operating costs, among other expenses.


The proposed tax rate is 46.58 cents per $100 of assessed property value, up from 42.15 cents. While the higher tax rate would generate revenue to cover additional spending, budget writers say a higher rate is needed just to maintain the current level of spending. That’s because property values are expected to drop in 2011 to $94.4 billion from $98.4 billion. Included in that drop is a decline in new construction. The county expects to add $1.9 billion in new construction value to the rolls this year, compared with a projected $2.9 billion last year.


Taxpayers can expect to see an increase in their bills, even with a decrease in the average taxable home value, which is expected to drop to $218,542 in 2011 from $230,186 this year — after the 20 percent homestead exemption is applied. At the lower value, the average tax bill would increase by about $48 next year, bringing the total tax bill to $1,018.


Those estimates could change because they were based on figures provided to the county prior to the Travis Central Appraisal District certifying its tax rolls. However, budget Director Leroy Nellis said he doesn’t anticipate significant changes.


The court is scheduled to hold public hearings on the proposed tax rate Sept. 21 and Sept. 24.


Nellis told the court that an analysis of the county’s new construction for previous years indicates it could take between seven and eight years to cycle out of a recession and get property values back to their pre-recession levels.


“When was the last time new construction rebounded in, say, four years?” County Judge Sam Biscoe asked Nellis at Tuesday’s meeting. “This estimate is kind of disappointing.”


Nellis said the county did rebound within a year from a slight recession in 1996.


“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Nellis told Biscoe.


“I feel a whole lot better now,” Biscoe said jokingly.


Biscoe told Nellis and Rhoades during a meeting earlier this month that the court should receive only the most pressing requests for additional funding. Half a dozen departments and offices, including the Sheriff’s Office, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services and the Transportation and Natural Resources department, have requested hearings, which are expected at meetings over the next few weeks.


The court did not discuss the requests at Tuesday’s meeting, but backup materials included with the meeting agenda lay out each department’s case.


The court is scheduled to adopt the final budget on Sept. 28.

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