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Split Commissioners Court endorses higher exemption for some homeowners

Wednesday, February 28, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday took a preliminary step toward enlarging the property tax exemption for homeowning residents over the age of 65 or living with a disability.

The court voted 3-2 to direct Planning and Budget Office staff to begin preparing next year’s budget based on the assumption that the exemption will increase by $5,500 to a total of $85,500.

Budget Director Travis Gatlin told the court that increasing the exemption would save homeowners somewhere in the ballpark of $20 next year, regardless of the value of their property.

“That would be applied equally,” he explained. “If it’s a $1 million home or $200,000 home, they would get the same.”

The cost to the county would be an approximately $900,000 reduction in revenue, a figure that did not sit well with Commissioner Gerald Daugherty.

“I will guarantee you, when we start doing budget, we are going to be looking for a million dollars,” the court’s lone Republican warned.

Commissioner Brigid Shea noted that signals sent by top state leaders could mean time is running out for local jurisdictions to increase exemptions that aren’t already maxed out. Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott revealed a proposal to cap property tax revenue growth at 2.5 percent. If the legislature were to approve that plan, the county would find it “very difficult to offer increased new exemptions, and (it) could likely mean budget cuts or really difficult decisions we would have to make,” Gatlin said.

Citing recent data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau in its American Community Survey, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt pointed out that just under 9 percent of Travis County residents are 65 or older, and of that group, only 8 percent live at twice the poverty level or below. That equates to approximately 7,800 county residents out of a projected population of 1.15 million. It’s unclear how many of those own their own homes rather than rent.

Based on that relatively small number, Eckhardt raised the idea of bifurcating the exemption and raising it only for disabled residents, who make up 8 percent of the county’s population.

However, Commissioner Margaret Gómez argued that helping seniors who aren’t struggling economically could have trickle-down effects on other residents who are.

“The elderly are taking care of some of those children who are in poverty,” said Gómez. “So I think it’s another way to help those children as well.”

For his part, Commissioner Jeff Travillion pointed toward perpetually rising home values throughout the decades and the consequences they have had on many homeowners who have been threatened by displacement.

“If you bought your house in 1972 and did everything you were supposed to do, and your rates are just going, going, going, I think any relief we provide to that community is really significant,” he said.

In the end, the court approved the motion to direct staff to prepare for the exemption increase on a 3-2 vote. Joining Daugherty in the opposition was Eckhardt, who bemoaned a shortage of options at the county’s disposal.

“Without a means test for our property taxes, we hurt those at the lowest economic level very hard, and those who are at the median and above have one of the lightest tax burdens in the nation,” she declared. “That is statistically true. Those that tell you it’s not, that we have the highest property taxes in the nation, that is not true. It’s most painful for those who are living in poverty who don’t fall into these preferred classes that resemble our legislatures or our people in leadership predominantly.”

The court will make a formal decision on the exemption in September when it approves the Fiscal Year 2018-19 budget.

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