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Travis County’s financial limitations mean shortened budget process

Monday, July 12, 2010 by Michelle Jimenez

With little room in the budget for new spending next year, Travis County Commissioners have directed staff to again significantly shorten the 2011 budget process.


Instead of seven days of hearings, during which departments can plead their case for additional funding, the court will hold a single afternoon meeting, on Aug. 12. Budget mark-up, the process of going through the draft budget to decide what to fund, will be shaved from three days to one, on Sept. 8.


The Planning and Budget Office, or PBO, is in the process of putting together a preliminary spending plan that is “framed in the context of lingering economic challenges,” the budget manual states. The county is faced with covering a $4.5 million increase in health insurance costs and a 2.5 percent employee pay raise while dealing with drops in property tax revenue and interest earned on investments, among other hurdles.


The preliminary budget will be presented to the Commissioners Court in a couple of weeks, and a final vote is expected Sept. 28.


The court used the same abbreviated process last year in light of scarce resources. Judge Sam Biscoe asked budget office staff at a June 29 meeting whether that same process might not be merited again this year.


“Last year what we said is ‘We’d be happy to entertain a discussion with you,’ ” Biscoe said at the meeting. “’If you want to give us a summary of your program, we can accommodate you during a work session…but, frankly, we think you may be wasting your time if you’re coming over with a significant budget request.’”


Departments that want to address the court this year must submit their requests to the budget office by Thursday. Those who are granted a hearing will get 30 minutes to do so at the August meeting.


Though money is tight, balancing the budget without any drastic cuts is feasible because of belt-tightening measures taken a couple of years ago, said Rodney Rhoades, executive manager of the Planning and Budget Office.


“We got out in front of the court back in 2008, and we said we see a downturn coming,” Rhoades told In Fact Daily this week.


He said the county began to build its emergency reserve fund, which stands at about $5 million now, along with other savings funds.


The county is on track to end 2010 in the black after cutting back throughout the year, including $4.5 million in department reductions. The 2011 budget will be helped by additional streamlining, the refinancing of $35 million in bonds, and $2.1 million in settlement money for an environmental case the District Attorney prosecuted.


The court has directed staff to include in the budget a 2.5 percent pay increase, with a floor of $750. With about 4,700 employees, that is expected to cost about $6.6 million.


Employees last received a raise in 2009, a 3 percent adjustment.


At last week’s meeting, Biscoe reviewed a draft memo regarding the budget to be sent to elected officials and department heads. He reiterated that the pay raise be included in the preliminary budget but told staff to include a disclaimer.


“Although we don’t know of any circumstance at this point that would cause us to modify that,” Biscoe said, “we don’t control the future, and so there could be a turn for the worse between now and when we actually make the final (decision).”


The court has authorized staff to build a budget that includes a tax rate that is up to 3 percent higher than the combined debt rate and effective tax rate, or the rate at which the county could generate the same amount of revenue to maintain last year’s level of spending.


Rhoades said the 2011 budget, which takes effect Oct. 1, looks to be in good shape, but officials are worried about 2012.


“The markets are all over the place,” he said. “We don’t know what it’s going to look like, but we’re being very, very cautious as we get through the fiscal ’11 process.”

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