The Role and Powers of County Government – Part 3

September 19, 2013   // 0 Comments

by Travis County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Dougherty

Two of the most important powers of your Commissioners Court that affect all Travis County taxpayers are: (1) set the County’s property tax rate, and (2) approve the County’s budget. August and September are the two busiest months for us as we look at the preliminary budget, conduct budget hearings on additional budget requests, and make changes to the proposed budget during “mark-up”. We’ve gone through all that for this year, and now we’ll act on the tax rate and budget on Tuesday, September 24th.

My actions and votes during this process have been consistent with the principle that “we take no more money from Travis County taxpayers than we did the previous year”. I want to protect taxpayers by taxing them at the EFFECTIVE TAX RATE. This is what I said I would do when I ran again, and what I will continue to do in my efforts to control County spending and lighten the tax burden on taxpayers. I’m only willing to increase the budget by the dollars we receive from the value of new construction calculated at the effective tax rate (for this year that would be about $5.6 million).

In February I VOTED NO on our Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Guidelines because those guidelines allowed a tax rate at 3% above the effective tax rate. On September 24th I WILL VOTE NO on the tax increases associated with the proposed FY 2014 tax rate and budget.

If we are genuinely committed to keep the tax burden on our citizens as low as possible, we must revise our budgeting process to require less spending in many areas. That way we can have sufficient funds for true necessities without continuing to raise taxes. I know there’ll be times when we’ll have to spend extra dollars in certain areas. I’m willing to do that for truly needed items, but we can only do that if we are extra vigilant with each year’s budget and get our on-going spending under control.

Our preliminary budget started with a 3% increase this year. By doing that, we sent the message that no reductions in spending were required. Then, we allow budget markups to add more dollars. We need to have the mindset to require more efficient operations and less spending. Without the conviction to change this process, we are destined to increase spending every year and further burden our taxpayers.

The Commissioners Court needs to be willing to send all departments this message: “This is all the money we have to spend, find ways to craft your department’s budget within the available dollars, truly prioritize your spending so that you’re only spending what is absolutely necessary, and remember… it’s not our money, it’s the taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars that they’ve entrusted to us”.

I think every department and branch of our County organization should be forced to “scrub” their budget, to make those hard decisions on where to spend a finite amount of money. Just like our taxpayers have to budget within their “means”, we at Travis County must learn to budget within our “means”. After all, our “means” is taken from those taxpayers, and we can’t continue to take more and more from them.

We hear so much about “affordability” here in Austin and Travis County. A big portion of that is the increasing tax burden imposed on our residents by ALL of our taxing entities—including utility and other fees, sales taxes, property taxes, and assorted huge bond elections. We’ve seen newspaper editorials, guest editorials, and letters to the editor that call for all taxing entities to do their part to lessen the tax burden for all.

As the Austin American-Statesman calls for all taxing jurisdictions to lessen their tax burdens, who will take the lead? I say, let’s have Travis County be the one. For the last 10 years we’ve increased the General Fund an average 6.9% each year (averaging a $28.4 million increase each year). Take out FY 09 and FY 10 (when we were forced to hold the line during a recession), then our increase averaged 8.1% each year (averaging a $33.2 million increase each year).

We need to take that FY 10 mentality (1.1% increase for a $4.9 million increase). We need to show our taxpayers that we hear their plea, we know their plight, and that Travis County is willing to do its part to help alleviate their tax burden. To paraphrase an email from one of my constituents: “Take a bold step to provide relief for the taxpayers… send a signal to the City that it too can find ways to reduce their budget”. We need to send the following message to ALL the taxing jurisdictions: “Travis County is offering tax relief for our constituents, and we challenge you to do the same thing”.


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