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Troxclair, Adler present opposite views on tax bill

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 by Jo Clifton

City Council Member Ellen Troxclair and Mayor Steve Adler presented diametrically opposite views at Tuesday’s Senate Finance Committee hearing on Senate Bill 2, which would prevent cities and counties from raising taxes by more than 4 percent above the effective tax rate from one year to the next.

The rate, called the rollback rate, is currently 8 percent above the effective tax rate. If a city wants to go higher than that rate, it must call an election to approve it. Under current law, citizens must gather petitions seeking such an election.

The effective tax rate is the rate at which the tax produces the same amount of revenue as it did in the previous year. Rising property taxes, particularly in Austin, have meant that the effective tax rate is always a lower rate than the previous year’s.

Preventing passage of the legislation is listed as the No. 1 priority of the city of Austin as well as other major cities around the state. The Texas Municipal League also opposes the bill.

Troxclair appeared in person and told the committee she was representing herself and her constituents, who frequently complain to her about their high tax bills, she said.

Troxclair tried but failed to get the majority of Council to agree to limit next year’s tax rate to the effective rate.

State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) gave Troxclair an unfriendly reception at the committee, asking the Austin Republican whether her city had taken an official position on the legislation. She said that she did not know and that she did not remember voting on it. Troxclair was on family leave last October when Council adopted its legislative agenda.

State Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) asked which items she would cut from the city’s budget if she needed to do so because of the lowered rollback rate.

Troxclair responded that the city buys new cars every three years and that she would stop that practice for the various departments that use them, including police, fire and code compliance. She also said that she would not have voted for the additional funds for the new Central Library, which is costing about $125 million even though voters approved only $90 million in bonds.

“To me, this only strengthens the ultimate goal in local control,” said Troxclair, “empowering local citizens to have a stronger role in oversight of the government who is elected to serve them.”

Troxclair said, “SB 2 is a response to the daily pleas that I hear from the citizens of Austin, regardless of the political spectrum.”

State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) also quizzed Troxclair about her knowledge of how much of an Austinite’s tax bill goes to the city – just 20 percent – and how much to the Austin Independent School District. He noted that by 2020, more than 50 percent of the property tax collected in Austin will be sent back to the state of Texas because of the current school funding mechanism.

Adler presented written remarks requesting that the committee reject the proposal. He reiterated his remarks to the Austin Monitor, stating that SB 2 does not provide meaningful tax relief.

As the mayor wrote to the committee, “Even with the $32 a year that an average Austin homeowner would not pay for their city taxes if limited to a 4 percent increase over the effective rate, that homeowner would still write a check for $263 more on their property taxes due to the increasing school district taxes.”

Adler said, “Of the average $4,300 property tax bill for an Austin homeowner, Austin ISD represents $3,025 or 55 percent of the total tax bill. From 2016 to 2017, the AISD share increased $295.68 – equaling 75 percent of the total property tax increase experienced by Austin homeowners. If the legislature really wants to help local taxpayers, it should better fund education, because that’s the largest part of the homeowners’ property tax bill.”

He told the Monitor, “The Central Library is important to the entire city. It is going to be a really important meeting and learning place for children from all over the city. It’s going to show us what the library in the future looks like. It’s not like the old library that you and I went to when we were growing up. It’s pretty close to being on budget; it’s a little off.”

Adler said it’s true that the public approved a $90 million bond, but after that “the public indicated they wanted the library to have greater functionality, so the budget was increased.” He said although the library is slightly over budget, most of the additional $30 million is a result of the city increasing the scope of what the library should be.

Update: The committee approved a committee substitute for SB 2 on a vote of 9-5 late Tuesday night.

Photo by Katie Haughland Bowen made available through a Creative Commons license.

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