Wednesday, February 4, 2015 by Gene Davis

Travis County talks appraisals, city business

In a discussion on state legislative proposals aimed at increasing fairness in property tax appraisals for homeowners, several Travis County commissioners called out City of Austin leaders for not implementing a 20 percent homestead exemption for property taxes.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said that while the proposed citywide exemption “was an easy deal to run on,” the newly elected city leaders “are having a hard time figuring out what do they want to cut” to make up the estimated $36 million the exemption would reportedly cost the city.

“I’m proud that Travis County (implemented a 20 percent homestead exemption) a long time ago, and it’s probably the most advantageous thing we have done for the county,” Daugherty said.

Meanwhile, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said at several points during the discussion that commissioners should “refrain from weighing in on the intention of those down the street.” She said commissioners criticizing how Austin City Council handles issues could lead to Council criticizing commissioners in the future.

“I’m reluctant to step into the city business with how they handle their budget or tax exemptions,” she said.

Jim Wick, spokesman for Mayor Steve Adler, said the homestead exemption remains a policy goal for the office. However, he said the current priority of the mayor’s office is to get the new city committee system up and running and to hold policy forum workshops over the next several months.

Wick said that the affordability crisis was a huge issue on the campaign trail, and that he expects “robust debate” on how to potentially fund a 20 percent homestead exemption in the future. He noted that Adler’s campaign proposed phasing in the exemption over four years, which would reduce the stress the exemption would put on the budget. Wick added that Adler would also consider additional measures to help improve affordability in Austin.

Commissioner Ron Davis said the county must work with the city and other entities to address the property tax affordability issue. Davis said he has heard from multiple people who were in tears over potentially losing their home because of an increase in property taxes.

“Travis County can’t do it by itself,” Eckhardt said. “It will take all of us to deal with it.”

Specifically during the Travis County Commissioners Court meeting, commissioners heard details on two proposed Senate bills and a proposed House bill that would, in part, reform the property tax appraisal process and set a limit on the dollar amount of a person’s homestead tax exemption.

Commissioners ultimately decided to hold a work session on the proposed bills before giving their official support. Daugherty said he would like to see a list of the arguments in favor and against the proposed bills, while Davis asked that subject experts attend the work session.

“(The work session) has to be unemotional and based on facts,” Commissioner Margaret Gomez added.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

property tax appraisal: The value of property as determined for use in assessing area property taxes.

property tax exemptions: Generally, discounts on homeowners' property tax bills. This can refer to elective such elective status as historic discounts and the broad discount offered by Travis County and other entities for a property owner's homestead. That exemption, called the Homestead Exemption, is offered for homeowners who occupy the home in question.

Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.

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