Travis County

Slight adjustments

Crafting a county budget in tough times is a long, difficult, and not terribly exciting process, but somebody's got to do it. Travis County commissioners are in the initial stages of balancing the 2011 books and will take their first formal gander at a preliminary budget July 26, followed by a staff briefing July 27 covering the document's finer details.

With a beginning balance of $78.1 million, financial officials estimate an operating budget of about $485 million – up from $455 million in 2010. The tax rate remains a moving target until the Travis Central Appraisal District has settled property owners' appraisal protests. For now, homeowners can look for their tax bills to rise by at least 6.3%. Commissioners will cast a final vote on the new budget Sept. 28.

Taking a cue from last year's playbook, commissioners again directed county departments to tighten their belts another notch while avoiding employee layoffs. County employees will see their health insurance costs rise this year, so commissioners have committed to an across-the-board salary increase of 2.5% to help workers offset the increased rates. Beyond that, only a select number of department heads will have an opportunity to appear before the commission at an Aug. 12 hearing to make their arguments for additional funding.

The Travis County Sheriff's Office was among the early birds filing requests for a bigger budget in 2011, after trimming more than $2 million from its funding package for this year. Having to do more with less is taking a toll on officers and support staff, said spokesman Roger Wade. "We need more staff across the board," he added. "We've been understaffed for so long ... we would be happy with anything we get."

County Judge Sam Biscoe sees the staff shortages reflected in the county's overtime costs, but he isn't inclined to commit to promises he can't deliver. "I really don't see us having the money for a significant number of new people," he said.

At the same time, Biscoe suggested a willingness to shore up the county's social services and public health outfits, given the growing number of people seeking public assistance, many for the first time. "It's the little people who need a whole lot more," he said. "The lines [for help] are getting longer."

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