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County’s initial budget calls for increased spending, taxes, employees

Wednesday, August 8, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday got a peek at a preliminary Fiscal Year 2013 budget that would provide a 5 percent increase in county spending, a “modest” property tax hike and the addition of 79 employees.


Jessica Rio and Leslie Browder from Travis County’s Planning and Budget Office unveiled the $796.6 million preliminary budget, which represents an increase of $39.6 million from the prior fiscal year.


In what the budget office termed “modest growth,” the budget for the period from Oct. 1, 2012 to Sept. 30, 2013 would increase the property tax bill of Travis County property owners to 49.79 cents per $100 in assessed value, up 1.45 cents from last year.


Based on the average appraised value of all homesteads, $270,677 in FY2013, the average tax bill will increase $18 to $1,078 per household. The tax increase doesn’t include property taxes levied by the City of Austin (which plans a tax increase) or other county municipalities, nor the property taxes assessed by the Austin Independent School District or other local school districts and Central Health, the county’s health district.


The bulk of the county’s proposed FY13 budget, $574.2 million, is allocated to the county’s General Fund, which pays essential county services such as the Justice System (21 percent), Corrections and Rehabilitation (18 percent), General Government (15 percent), Public Safety (11 percent), Health and Human Services (8 percent). The additional funds to make up the nearly $800 million budget is allocated to debt service, the county’s road and bridge fund, employee insurance and other funds and transfers. Go to the county’s website to view the full budget proposal.


As part of the increased budget, the county plans to hire 79 full-time employees, several of whom have already been approved by the court. Of the additional employees, 61 are proposed new positions while the others represent transfers and other personnel moves. County officials said the need for these new positions has built up over the past few lean years after the economy “cratered” in 2008.


The budget also accounts for $14.3 million in additional funding for the county’s workforce, with about $9.5 in compensation and the remainder health and retirement benefits. This provides a 3.5 percent raise in pay for many county employees. County officials said the increase was in line with a market salary survey. The court has approved raises for many county employees, though they have yet to vote on a raise for peace officers.


With Pct. 3 Commissioner Karen Huber voting no and Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt abstaining, the commissioners narrowly approved a 3.5 percent raise for themselves, though Judge Sam Biscoe reminded those present that elected officials retained the option of rejecting the raise if they so chose.


If they take the raise, commissioners’ salaries will jump from $92,362 to $95,595. The raise increases the Judge Biscoe’s salary from $111,038 to $114,000 per year.


In contrast, Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s salary is $75,421 and Council members’ salaries are $64,043.   


Travis County gives a 20 percent homestead exemption for homeowners. At the behest of the Commissioners Court, Travis County’s Tax Office estimated the value of this exemption as about $57 million in lost tax revenue. For the average Travis county homestead, this breaks down to about $270 in annual savings.


Browder said that the total property tax base in the county is estimated to increase from $97.1 billion to $100.6 billion – an increase that includes $3.54 billion in new value.


Departmental budget hearings start Wednesday and run through Friday.


The court plans to hold two public hearings on the proposed tax rate: on the mornings of Sept. 11 and Sept. 14. The commissioners are expected to adopted the final budget at a separate public hearing on Sept. 25.

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