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Point Austin: Getting What We Pay For

Considering the costs of community – and the benefits

By Michael King, Fri., July 20, 2012

Property taxes have risen 38% in 10 years.
Property taxes have risen 38% in 10 years.
Photo by Jana Birchum

It's a fitting coincidence that the consultant's report on Austin Police Department staffing arrived almost simultaneously with an Austin American-States­man Sunday front-pager on rising property taxes in Travis County. The Police Exec­u­tive Research Forum "Patrol Util­ization Study" reviews APD's current level of police staffing, projects population increases, and concludes that by 2017 we'll need 257 more APD staff members. Shifting 29 of those positions to non-officer staff – "civilianizing" them, as the PERF report phrases it – could reduce the specific demand for sworn officers (thus cutting the overall price tag a bit).

The July 1 Statesman report ("Property taxes up 38% in 10 years") does not specifically address public safety expenses (on the cost side, reporter Marty Toohey touches primarily on infrastructure directly related to population growth), but it leads with a fairly sobering computation: "The property tax bill for a typical Austin home rose 38 percent between 2000 and 2010, adjusting for inflation, while the median income remained stagnant." Toohey's math seems reasonable, although his central household case reflects rapidly rising property values more than rising tax rates, and several of his more foreboding sources are political curmudgeons with axes to grind.

As a homeowner, I don't find it a cause for celebration that my property tax bill has risen steadily during the last decade. But I'm also aware that homes in my northeast Austin neighborhood have more than doubled in value during that same period, and that, should I put my house on the market tomorrow, I would realize much more than my initial investment. Like many others, my "income" may have stagnated in recent, recessionary years, but my "wealth" (at least in unrealized potential) has certainly increased, in a city that has weathered that recession relatively well compared to the rest of the nation.

Beyond that initial, self-serving calculation, I'm also aware that our city, school district, county, and community college systems have made significant investments in public infrastructure and services that have on balance made this community more productive, more livable, and more safe. And the single largest bite (half or more) of our property tax bills – school taxes, for Austin ISD – is in large part a direct consequence of state government's continuing refusal to create a fair and equitable statewide funding system for public education.

No New Taxes!

But it's city budget time, and Toohey's story is just the occasion for the Statesman's annual demand that city government tighten its belt and not raise taxes. The "Taxes Are Too Damn High" editorial came in due course, a week later ("Pull back on rapid tax increases," July 8), citing the earlier story and demanding no raises for city employees (that would certainly help stagnate the local median income), and either a budget with no tax increase or no November infrastructure bond package at all (although the $400,000 proposal would require no increase). Simultan­e­ous­ly, harrumphed the editors, "A moratorium on growth would only stagnate the tax base and weaken the job market" – despite the fact that Toohey's story prominently blames insufficiently remunerated growth for rising taxes.

All of which brings us round again to the PERF report, and those 257 officers it says we'll need by 2017. That's not simply to meet growth – it also reflects the recommendation that officers be freed up for less on-demand policing and more proactive community involvement, even as the report concedes that the current "two-officers-per-thousand people" standard "does not appear to be based on an objective assessment of policing needs in Austin." (That judgment, by the way, supports Council Member Bill Spelman's uphill argument that there may be better ways to spend APD money than simply more-officers-per-dollar.)

Real Needs, Real Money

In case anybody (even among those cool heads at the Bat Cave) has forgotten, in another set of percentages, public safety currently consumes roughly 65% of the city's general funds budget. No other category of expenditure comes close, and (as the PERF report suggests), the demand for those services is very likely to grow in fairly direct proportion to the average 2.3% population growth expected over the next five years. Whether your personal preference is for that 65% (police, fire, EMS), or for social services, open spaces, roads, parks, or libraries, it's a good bet we're going to need more of all of them. They all cost money.

There are also several big-ticket items that reflect both public sentiment and real needs: more and better mass transit (rapid bus or urban rail, take your pick); a new county courthouse (if you ever visit Heman Sweatt, you know why); and maybe even a shiny new medical school, if it would actually mean greater access to health care for the Austinites who most need it.

Speaking only for myself, I'll wait until I hear the city budget debate before I decide whether another bump in property taxes has been justified. But on the whole, as a community, we have built a great city, with a much-admired quality of life. We didn't do so by pretending we could get by on the cheap.

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