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Lower county tax rate will bring higher bills

Wednesday, September 27, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

In its last regular voting session before the deadline, the Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a $1.04 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2017-18.

And, despite the court adopting a nominally lower tax rate, property owners will pay slightly more next year to keep their county government in the black.

At 36.9 cents per $100 of taxable land value, the new rate is 1.48 cents lower than its Fiscal Year 2016-17 predecessor. However, increasing land values mean the new rate is 3.42 percent above the effective rate. County staff forecasted that the average homestead value is increasing by $20,000 to $305,173.

The owner of that average home can expect to pay an extra $2.64 per month on the county’s portion of their tax bill.

During Tuesday’s discussion, both the members of the court and staff underscored the county’s fiscal discipline in recent years. A sheet listing “budget highlights” was passed around to members of the media. One of the bullet points declared that the county’s financial strength “continues to be strong.”

“Both Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s reaffirmed our Triple A bond rating earlier this year,” it reads. “The budget includes healthy reserves and is appropriately balanced against one-time and on-going funding streams.”

Budget Director Travis Gatlin also pointed out that three prior years of tax reductions mean that the average tax bill next year will be only $26 higher than the Fiscal Year 2013-14 version, representing a 2.36 percent increase that was far outpaced by increasing land values.

The budget itself is also approximately $33 million larger than last year’s. The General Fund, which covers daily operations such as law enforcement and the courts system, comes in at $749 million, or $48 million higher than FY 17’s General Fund. That increase was driven in part by the anticipated costs of dealing with the collapse of the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab as well as operating the brand-new 459th Civil District Court.

The new budget fully funds with county money the various justice programs that were caught in the crossfire between Gov. Greg Abbott and Sheriff Sally Hernandez earlier this year. Those programs operated fully on the lifeblood of state grants until Abbott yanked that money back in response to Hernandez’s new policy toward federal immigration enforcement at the jail.

Despite warnings earlier this year from County Judge Sarah Eckhardt that a higher tax bill was all but inevitable, the development of the budget was met with little public angst. That is, until Tuesday, when a group of criminal justice reformers showed up to protest a $6 million slice of the budget set aside for a brand new women’s facility at the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle.

The common thread of their remarks was that the county should focus more on diverting residents from the jail rather than adding more capacity for them.

“Just from our very early analysis, the top charges for which women are booked into the jail are nonviolent misdemeanors, included among them traffic offenses, driving without a valid license and theft,” Texas Appleseed’s Mary Mergler told the court.

Eckhardt told the speakers that she is planning to hold a stakeholders’ meeting soon to discuss the county’s jail master plan. She also pointed out that the new women’s facility will replace the existing one, which will likely be demolished.

After hearing from the speakers, Eckhardt steered the court toward separate votes on the budget and tax rate. The court passed each unanimously.

This article has been updated to reflect the new tax rate is 36.9 cents, not 3.69 cents.

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