The Austin Chronicle

Travis County Holding Steady ... for Now

By Amy Smith, July 31, 2009, News

Travis County budget officers on Monday rolled out a bare-bones, yet balanced, preliminary budget for 2010, the first step toward preparing for bigger financial challenges in 2011 – thanks in large measure to a projected $1 billion tumble in new property value, a reflection of hard times in a construction industry that had spent the last several years turning dirt at a frenetic pace.

Not much is likely to change on paper between now and Sept. 29, when county commissioners will approve the final package. Things are so grim, in fact, that com­mis­sioners, in an unusual move, have essentially nixed going through the motions of holding budget hearings this year. "I don't see a whole lot of action going on," County Judge Sam Bis­coe predicted earlier this month, noting that, with no pay raises and only limited increases for county programs and departments, there's no point in raising anyone's hopes of snagging some extra cash. Most departments have submitted budgets with 5% reductions, which include hiring freezes on "non-essential" positions. With such belt-tightening measures, the county will avoid employee layoffs, but about 300 vacancies will remain unfilled by permanent employees.

"While the county still faces budgetary challenges for [2010], it does so with officials prepared to control costs, make careful expenditures, and implement improved efficiencies while meeting the public demand for services," Rodney Rhoades, executive manager of the county's planning and budget office, and county budget Director Leroy Nellis wrote in their executive summary, delivered Monday to commissioners and other county officials.

In that context, budget officers presented a preliminary total for all funds of $648.5 million for the 2010 budget year, which begins Oct. 1. That's a 1.9% decrease from the 2009 budget. About $4.9 million will be stashed to help weather the economic recession. A glance through the executive summary shows a nickel-and-dime approach to pinching pennies. Holding off on replacing old carpet in county offices, for example, will save an estimated $44,454. New coats of paint will also have to wait, saving $28,662.

The initial budget is balanced at a tax rate of $0.4254 per $100 valuation, meaning the average homeowner will see a 5.43% increase in the county tax bill – about $47.16 a year.

The Sheriff's Office will trim $2.3 million from its budget, eliminating 34 full-time positions. And sheriff's officers will not see increases in their paychecks this year. Part of the reduction in the sheriff's department can be attributed to a population decrease in the county jail. That means staffing for corrections could be reduced by 25 full-time positions that are currently vacant. At the same time, the county will continue funding with nearly $2 million various pilot programs, many of which are designed to reduce populations in jail and juvenile detention by addressing the needs of inmates with mental illness and substance abuse problems.

Funding for several programs will move from the "ongoing" column to the "one-time" column, which means such mainstay programs as Keep Austin Beautiful could lose a $24,200 contribution from the county – unless increased litter in unincorporated areas prompts officials to rethink the matter in 2011.

Among increases in 2010, the county is expected to kick in an additional $138,774 for the Travis Central Appraisal District, in view of recent revelations that the appraisal district could be lowballing property values of large commercial parcels. Extra funding for the district, Biscoe says, could help provide needed resources to better appraise high-dollar properties. On a slightly brighter note, the total taxable value for Travis Co. property jumped from $95.07 billion in the 2009 budget to $97.61 billion for 2010. A gloomier side of that picture is that new property value totals $2.93 billion – compared to $3.97 billion in 2009.

The on-again, off-again effort by the city and county to improve the Waller Creek area Downtown could move closer to realization. The county's proposed contribution to the Waller Creek Tax Increment Financing Zone is at $250,000, up from just over $66,000 in 2009. The increase follows a city-county deal struck in March 2008.

Property Tax Rate: Impact on Average Homestead

(All homestead values per Travis Central Appraisal District as of July 21, 2009. Source: Travis County.)

FY 2009 FY 2010 Increase
Appraised value of average homestead $281,440 $284,962 $3,522
Taxable value of average homestead $210,818 $215,363 $4,545
Tax rate $0.4122 $0.4254 $0.0132
Average tax bill $868.99 $916.15 $47.16

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