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County unveils $1.19 billion preliminary budget

Wednesday, July 24, 2019 by Jack Craver

Travis County budget staff unveiled the preliminary draft of the county’s 2019-20 budget Tuesday. This year’s budget is particularly important since it’s the last one the Commissioners Court will approve before tough new restrictions on property tax revenue kick in next year.

“This year has challenged us to think more strategically as we face greater pressures from state government and local demands for increased services,” said Jessica Rio, who oversees the county’s planning and budget office, in a memo explaining the proposed budget.

This year, the county, like most other Texas local government entities, will be able to collect up to 8 percent more property tax revenue for government maintenance and operations (M&O) than the previous year, without voter approval. In future years, the county will be limited to an annual increase of only 3.5 percent, unless voters approve a higher increase.

The proposed budget totals $1.19 billion, about 9.7 percent greater than last year’s budget. However, some of that new revenue is a result of new construction, which doesn’t count toward the state-imposed revenue caps. The proposed general fund is $859 million, a 7.6 percent increase over the previous year.

The budget includes a net increase of 20 full-time positions, a negligible increase in a workforce of 5,445.

Staff has proposed a 6 percent increase in the M&O effective tax rate, which would lead the average homeowner to pay about $121 more a year in county property taxes. That is in line with the 6 percent increase in the value of the average home, from $326,894 to $348,887.

At this point, however, the budget that staff has crafted is only based on estimates of property tax revenue, since the Travis Central Appraisal District has yet to certify the total taxable values in the county. TCAD has been moving far more slowly than in typical years due to a new system the organization put in place for property owners to appeal their appraisals.

Assuming staff’s estimate is close to being accurate, the Commissioners Court has room to increase spending further than what is proposed in the preliminary budget.

While county staff grapple with the new revenue limits imposed by the state, they are also responding to pressure from county leaders to find money to boost services and increase pay for county workers.

Nearly half of county spending falls under three categories created by county staff: justice system, corrections and rehabilitation, and public safety. That includes the offices of the district attorney, county attorney, county constables, criminal and civil courts, indigent defense and the probation system. Some departments, such as the Sheriff’s Office, which manages the jail, are split over multiple categories. Combined, those three categories amount to $402 million or 45 percent of the general fund.

Perhaps the most notable new expenditure is the proposed new public defender’s office. The preliminary budget estimates that the program, which is contingent on the county receiving a grant from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, will require the county to spend a little more than $4 million a year to match the funding received from TIDC.

New programs aren’t always necessary to increase spending, however. The budget includes over $12 million that staffers have identified as necessary just to maintain existing programs that have become more expensive to run, often due to increased maintenance or contract costs.

Of course, the cost of attracting and retaining employees continues to rise, particularly in a region as prosperous as Austin. The budget sets aside roughly $8 million to increase compensation for employees, including nearly $1 million to raise pay for the lowest-paid workers to at least $15 an hour and $4.6 million to align the pay of thousands of other county employees with that of comparable public sector employers in the area.

Photo by Jericho [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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