Point Austin: Growth Pays
Tired tax-cutting arguments ignore community benefits
In the same Aug. 6 editorial that endorsed Council Member Don Zimmerman's proposal to slash the proposed wage increase for city employees, the Statesman editors dragged out the thoughtless cliche of the tax-cut crowd (left and right): "It's no wonder so many readers of this page continue to question why Austin's explosive growth – financed in part by public dollars – is not paying for itself." Under this common metric, it's a presumption that any increase in taxes or fees for city services must mean that "growth isn't paying for itself." Instead, newcomers (or evil "developers") should assume any and all rising costs – and those of us who have lived in the city for years should be automatically exempt of (indeed subsidized for) all new public expenses.
I'll get back to that, but note first that it's become a corollary axiom that Austin's "affordability crisis" – another dubious buzzphrase – is primarily to be attributed to property taxes, especially from the city of Austin. Setting aside the fact that the harshest burden of local property taxes has been imposed by the Legislature's unwillingness to establish a constitutionally mandated, fair and equitable system of public school finance, the people hit hardest by rising prices are those who can no longer afford homes in Austin, taxes or no taxes. Those of us lucky enough to squeeze into the local market when it was still possible might well be grateful to pay our own property taxes on our ever-rising equity.
How easy it is, and intellectually lazy, to see in an extraordinarily prosperous local economy only the begrudged obligation to contribute to it, and to curse public taxation as though none of us are actually benefiting from that prosperity. "What's mine is mine – don't touch my equity" is the implicit refrain. Let "growth" – that is, somebody else, preferably a newcomer – pay the bills.
Fudging the Numbers
That's not the end of the dishonesty. The Statesman editors bluster that under the proposed budget, the property tax rate would rise from 48.09 cents per $100 valuation to 48.14. They don't mention that the city's spring forecast called for a rate cut of a half-cent, to 47.59. Instead, Mayor Steve Adler and Council directed that the proposed rate should be adjusted to pay for a 6% homestead exemption without cutting city services – ergo, 48.14 cents. The editors, one recalls, strongly endorsed a 20% homestead exemption – without even suggesting how to pay for that annual giveback to property owners. (They even fail to acknowledge that while general fund spending is growing 6% for FY 2016, rates and fees would be rising only 3.6% – could it be that "growth" is doing its part?)
The no-longer-new 10-1 Council is also grumbling about the tax rate they explicitly requested, and they're finding out just how difficult it is to maintain city services while cutting spending. So what do the Statesman editors recommend? Take the cost out of the pay of city employees, who are apparently immune from the "affordability crisis."
The editors also endorse the Taxpayer Impact Statement (subsequently enacted by a cowed Council), a public relations maneuver designed to reflect the costs of government without acknowledging the returns on investment. Some Council members complained that the statement should in theory include the entire, overlapping local tax bill. What they should have said is looking at only one side of the ledger is a good way to go blind in one eye.
Shared Prosperity, Shared Burden
Indeed, as the Statesman's editors certainly should know, Austin's prosperity is inseparable from Austin's growth. People have come here, are coming here, not because of the cool factor or the property tax rate – but because the city continues to offer economic opportunity and a good quality of life. Austinites have built, and continue to build, a great city, with a well-earned reputation for community engagement, environmental stewardship, a willingness to take risks, and yes, progressive local culture and government – witness just the recent public celebrations at the County Clerk's Office and the Capitol over the extension of marital rights to all citizens.
Growth does pay: Without it, we could not have a vibrant Downtown center, an architecturally distinguished and productive City Hall, music and cultural festivals that bring the world to our doorstep, nor major new public institutions like the hospital district and the central library. The latter represent major democratic investments in the city's future, approved by Austinites; they will enrich the community, expand health care, provide intellectual and economic opportunity to more Austinites – and yes, attract more newcomers.
As I point out elsewhere in this issue ("What Do Austinites Want?" Aug. 21), it's fortunate that most Austin citizens are not so shortsighted and miserly as the daily's pandering editors. Citizens understand that community is a shared obligation, and constantly demanding that somebody else pay the bills begins to sound like a teenager insisting he didn't ask to be born. Guess what, editors: You're here now, and we all need to shoulder our shares of the load.