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Travis County reduces proposed tax rate

Wednesday, September 2, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Crucial new data has given Travis County’s budget writers a little extra leeway to lower the proposed property tax rate in the next fiscal year.

A Planning and Budget Office staff presentation before the Commissioners Court on Tuesday revealed that the Travis Central Appraisal District beat expectations by estimating the net taxable land value in the county at $137.1 billion, or $3 billion higher than expected.

That has allowed the PBO to revise its proposed tax rate down by one penny to a new rate of 41.69 cents per $100 of taxable value.

In less obtuse terms, that means the 2016 tax bill for the owner of the average homestead valued at $350,082 would be a full 79 cents lower than in 2015.

While that number might not by itself drop a significant set of taxpayers’ jaws, a little context does grant it a bit more substance. Earlier this month, PBO staff was estimating that the same hypothetical average homeowner would have to pay an extra $22 in 2016.

“We have set some very clear parameters for this budget season, and we are sticking to those parameters, and it’s very gratifying,” a beaming County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said on Tuesday.

While the new proposed tax rate remains lower than last year’s rate, the county is expecting increased revenues in 2016. PBO is expected to rake in $570,299,956 to fund county operations next year.

PBO County Executive Jessica Rio brought the new figures before the court in order to get the commissioners’ imprimatur on the notices advertising public hearings on the proposed rate.

Those hearings lead up to, and include, the Sept. 29 public hearing after which the Commissioners Court is expected to take a final vote on the new budget.

Between now and then, there are still opportunities for the proposed tax rate to change. The commissioners will meet next Wednesday for the budget mark-up session, a confab that Commissioner Ron Davis expects could rearrange more than a few budgetary calculations.

“And of course once we start adding to it, then the numbers are gonna change,” Davis said. “That’s what the budget mark-up thing is supposed to be about, and we’ve got to be real cognizant of what we do during this budget mark-up (because) that’s where the rubber meets the road.”

One significant part of the new budget is a potential 3 percent raise for county employees, which the commissioners voted on Tuesday to extend to a number of elected officials, including themselves.

Eckhardt acknowledged to the Austin Monitor that “it’s never, ever popular to give pay increases to elected officials in any circumstances, ever.” She said, however, that it’s a matter of practice for the court to extend the same courtesy to elected officials as it does to other county employees. She also noted that the raises are optional, and that she herself will not take hers.

The county’s compensation manager, Todd Osburn, told the commissioners that Travis County’s officials aren’t enjoying the same level of compensation as their colleagues in other large Texas counties.

“We did collect data on elected officials in Harris, Bexar, Dallas and Tarrant counties. … Generally speaking, we found that the county commissioners are well below market,” Osburn said. “I believe the county treasurer was somewhat below market. Generally speaking, the rest were either near market or slightly below.”

With the new available salaries, the commissioners could each choose to take home up to $101,417 per year.

Despite advertising a public hearing on the proposed raises, no residents showed up on Tuesday to protest them. The commissioners ended up voting 3-0-1 to approve them, with Commissioner Brigid Shea abstaining and Commissioner Gerald Daugherty off the dais.

The next public hearing on the proposed budget will happen on Tuesday, Sept. 22, at 6 p.m. in the Travis County Commissioners Courtroom at 700 Lavaca St.

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