Wednesday, August 28, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

County Budget Office looks for way to help fund Public Integrity Unit

In preparing for the Fiscal Year 2014 budget mark-up process, the Planning and Budget Office Tuesday presented Travis County Commissioners Court with ways to offset the cost of funding the state’s Public Integrity Unit.

District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg oversees the unit, which prosecutes public corruption, tax, insurance and motor fuels fraud in the State of Texas.

Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Perry stripped the unit of its $3.7 million annual appropriation following Lehmberg’s April DWI arrest. In addition to putting hundreds of pending cases in jeopardy, the move also put more than 35 employees’ jobs on the chopping block.

After Texas lawmakers failed to bail the unit out, Commissioners voted 4-1 to dedicate nearly $2 million in funding to help keep the unit going.

The county’s FY2014 preliminary budget lists revenues and expenditures of more than $800 million.

“We’re looking at scrubbing the budget,” said County Executive Leslie Browder. “Really looking at all of our estimates and any opportunities we have to basically kind of chip away at funding for the Public Integrity Unit.”

Suggestions include reducing some of the county’s security spending by more than $400,000. If the county delays hiring new full-time employees until Jan. 2014 and eliminates two currently vacant positions, it could save more than $460,000. The District Attorney’s office has offered to decrease its operating costs by about $55,000 (and Lehmberg, who is partially paid by the county, declined the county portion of her pay increase.) The department also suggests financing the county’s IT equipment with short-term debt in lieu of general fund resources which could free up more than half a million dollars.

“This is just one path the court could take,” said County Budget Director Jessica Rio. “During mark-up they can decide what they want to do to provide funding.”

Other items to highlight on the county’s FY2014 preliminary budget include a proposed property tax of 49.46 cents per $100 of taxable value, and a $5.6 million – or 3 percent – wage  increase for classified employees.

“I want to continually remind the folks what Travis County is doing to try to bring some sort of tax relief,” said Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis. “Just to let you know how much money we are not bringing into the revenue stream, I found out $77.5 million is what we are allowing to go back to the taxpayers instead of coming to Travis County with exemptions,” Davis said, referring to homestead, senior citizen and disability exemptions. “We’re doing more with less. I’m really proud to be associated with a court that has the type of intention to bring some type of tax relief to the taxpayers of Travis County.”

The county has three days to complete its budget mark-up process beginning Sept. 4. The county tax rate must be finalized by noon on Sept. 5. Two public hearings on the tax rate are set for Sept. 17 and Friday, Sept. 20.

The proposed budget will be filed on Sept. 20 with adoption set for Sept. 24.

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