County's Parsimonious Budget Plans
Ockham's Razor

by Mike Clark-Madison As we ricochet through budget-reading season (which, for Austin in August, could almost pass for entertainment), and watch the best-laid, farm-fattened spending plans of our taxpayees get turned into hash, there's something bracingly simple and pleasant about the Travis County budget: It just doesn't have that many bones to pick.

We all know what county we live in, but compared to so many Texas communities - where the commissioners court is the only government that matters - Austin's local "subdivision of the state" is, if not invisible, at least transparent. The Travis County Commissioners are competing with not one, two, three, or four, but five other entities for your financial and moral support (city, state, AISD, ACC, Capital Metro), none of which are celebrated for their good manners and thrifty ways. So, barring the occasional grandstand play - like the absurd increase requested, with attendant hissy fit, a couple of years back by then-new Sheriff Terry Keel) - the county's budget cycle is pleasantly mundane. The cycle is scheduled to culminate this year with a commissioners court vote on September 29.

There also isn't a lot of room within county government for either ludicrous expenditures or line-item horse trading. The county commissioners are in the enviable position, for local elected officials, of only providing basic services - the courts, the jail, the sheriff, the tax collector, a bunch of roads, a couple of parks, and about half of the health department. No baseball stadiums or shopping malls here. And the budget document itself goes into homely detail - a pallet jack here, an ice machine there, new chairs for Precinct 2 commish Karen Sonleitner, an unspecified on-line service for County Judge Bill Aleshire, laser printers all around - that does much for the cause of public accountability. What's more, the budget also lists all the new-money requests, known as "expanded packages," that didn't get funded.

The New County Order

The big news at the Stokes Building is the county's extensive reorganization, approved in June and set to take effect October 1. Under this plan, the county's plethora of little departments have been grouped into four program areas: justice and public safety; health, human, and veterans services; transportation and natural resources; and general government and support services.

Each of these clusters, along with planning and budget, has an "executive manager" - sort of like the city's assistant city managers, except there's nobody for them to assist. This reduces the number of folks who report directly to Aleshire & Co., from 17 to five. It does not, however, affect the 37 county officials who are themselves elected, though most of them fall automatically into either the justice group (Keel, District Attorney Ronnie Earle, all the judges and constables) or the general government group (Tax Assessor-Collector Nelda Wells Spears and County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir).

Beyond reconnecting the dots in the organizational chart, the county's restructuring eliminates four entire departments. The fire marshal, environmental policy, and EMS units are now part of the TNR (Transportation and Natural Resources) Department. Meanwhile, the old General Services department, masters of the town's scariest fleet vehicles, has been carved up among seven different departments scattered throughout the new program areas.

While the reorganization leads to some startling numbers in the budget - 2000% increases in some departments, multi-million-dollar cuts in others - the net savings are only $182,000, a mere fraction of the $3.6 million in cuts to general fund spending - i.e., your taxes - recommended in the budget. Almost half of that total comes from the decreased inmate population in the county jails and unspecified salary savings, but $1.88 million is coming out of departments' hides, in response to the commissioners' desire to budget below the "current funding level," which is what the county really spent, as opposed to what it budgeted. (Since counties don't have ordinance power, the budget is not a law, as it is at city and state, requiring legislative action for adjustment. As a consequence, county spending can rather effortlessly climb beyond what the budget says, though it is far from being bloated.) The biggest chunk of that $1.88 million is being carved from Keel's domain, not surprising since the sheriff's office is the county's largest department. In percentage terms, the hardest hit is to Child Protective Services; the budget explains this as an adjustment to rectify a 1993 increase in CPS funding, in anticipation of caseload increases that never happened.

New Initiatives

What one hand taketh, though, the other giveth, which brings us back to those "expanded packages." The notion, a pleasant one, is that county departments come up with ideas for new and better programs and services, and then create shopping lists based on those plans. The total General fund bill for these new expenditures is $2.44 million, split almost evenly between juvenile justice, adult justice, and everyone else. The largest single "Expando-Pax" belong to the juvenile court and the civil district courts, which between them get 33 new employees.

  The county also has a capital fund, made up of bond money, from which it'll be spending a bit more freely than usual, for such items as a new firing range for the sheriff's department, new air conditioning for the courthouse, and the usual road repairs. It also plans to issue $23 million in previously authorized bonds for the Criminal Justice Center project to build a new criminal courts building and jail.

The county used to issue debt to pay for some rather small-time expenditures, much to its financial managers' horror, but now relies on reserves set aside from the general fund for most of its low-dollar needs. (The ghastly debt load of the Southwest Parkway road district, which prevents the county from issuing bona fide road bonds, also keeps overall borrowing in check.) About 10% of the general fund expenditure in the new budget goes to reserves, including a new "workforce investment" kitty tied to the as-yet-incomplete recommendations of a task force looking at the county's compensation system - that is, its notoriously lousy salaries. It's expected that most of the $1.6 million will go to a restructuring of the officer pay scale and to merit raises among the rest of the county's 3,300 employees.

The Bottom Line?

All told, the line items add up to a $258 million budget, of which just under $160 million comes from the General Fund. Unlike the city with its laundry list of "enterprise funds," the county does very little of its program-level spending outside the General Fund. Most of the remaining $100 million is either coming from new debt (capital funds) or going out to service old debt. In addition, the nearly $10 million in the road and bridge fund, which comes out of your auto registration and state highway funds, is being spent directly on roads and bridges; before, it used to be transferred into the general fund and then spent on roads and bridges. This expediency makes it look like the county is taking a huge spending cut, but the real decrease is more like half a million dollars, which shows up in the transportation group. The other three groups balance out with modest increases; the largest, of course, is the justice group, accounting for well over half - $91 million - of General fund spending.

All this presumes the effective property tax rate, which would be $0.5172 per $100, down from last year's $0.5552. This 6.8% drop is more than wiped out by the 11.3% average increase in taxable property value, even higher for residential properties. Tax collections are expected to be $115.3 million, or $6.7 million more than last year, but the county's total revenue will decrease, with the largest drop due to $2.5 million in lost reimbursement for state inmates. County budget manager Christian Smith makes concerned mention of how the portion of county revenue coming from non-tax sources has declined from 40% to 27.5% since 1987.

Smith also notes that the budget was developed "in the context of very limited resources" and was "significantly influenced by the need to address a persistent shortfall between revenue and expenses." He closes the document with a curious and tart dedication "to the principle of parsimony known as `Ockham's Razor,' which says: What can be done with fewer is done in vain with more." Yet the resulting budget, while apparently low in fat, doesn't appear dreadfully austere and hasn't yet generated aggrieved shrieks from an unwilling populace. Which makes one wonder about the assertions of certain city leaders that we must increase taxes to keep up with basic-service needs. But then, most governments do not share Smith's appreciation for parsimony for its own sake - until they find Ockham's Razor held to their throats. n Travis County General Fund Budget FY1995-96 (in Millions of $)

General Govt. $25.0

Health & Human Services $17.0

Transportation/Parks  $ 5.3

Public Safety $90.1

Corrections/Rehabilitation $34.7

Justice System $25.5

Law Enforcement $18.7

Juvenile System $12.1

Reserves, etc. $20.8

Total $159.1