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Travis County considers next year’s budget

Monday, August 22, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County is ever closer to a $1 billion budget.

Last Thursday, the Commissioners Court learned during its annual budget work session that staff is preparing a $976.3 million forecast for Fiscal Year 2016-17.

That’s a $25 million increase over what the county had budgeted for FY 2015-16.

For the third year in a row, the proposed tax rate has been lowered, this time to 38.38 cents per $100 of valuation.

In addition to maintaining the maximum 20 percent homestead exemption, the court also this year increased from $75,000 to $80,000 the optional exemption for elderly and disabled homeowners.

Despite the lower tax rate, rising property values will mean the average annual county tax bill on a $250,000 home will increase by $10.56, according to the taxpayer impact statement prepared by staff. That same document does not account for impacts felt by renters.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt on Thursday praised the minimal splash the preliminary budget posed for residents, but she portended a less hopeful future.

“I do want to prepare people that even though I firmly believe we’ll be able to bring this budget in at neutral to the average taxpayer, it’s probable that in 2018 we won’t be able to pull off the same, because we are seeing some known unknowns,” said Eckhardt. Among those variables, she identified both flood and fire mitigation investments.

One of the drivers of the FY 2016-17 proposed spending increase is a 4.6 percent spike in the budget at the Sheriff’s Office. That amounts to $7.4 million more than 2016’s $160 million outlay.

The increase is largely fueled by capital costs – including $2 million for new vehicles – but also by new staffing considerations. However, the court is considering funding only eight of the Sheriff’s Office’s requested 37 new hires.

Another significant figure in the proposed budget is the proposed $14.2 million requested by the Transportation and Natural Resources Department for the Southwest Sportsplex project in Lakeway. The pet project of Commissioner Gerald Daugherty would plop several new baseball and soccer fields into a fast-growing and affluent section of the county.

Daugherty indicated on Thursday that the county could pursue funding of that project through the issuance of Certificate of Obligation bonds, a contingency that Eckhardt said she had concerns about.

“We use certificates of obligation when time is of the essence. This is not one of those times,” said Eckhardt. She suggested that the county will be searching for voter approval of new debt during a bond election in 2017.

“I anticipate that the bond package will include transportation, parks, probably flood mitigation strategy, and probably court capacity,” Eckhardt said.

The Commissioners Court is slated to have two public hearings on the new budget on Sept. 20 and 23. The vote to adopt it is scheduled on Sept. 27, and the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Photo by fancycrave1 made available through a Creative Commons license.

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