"For many of us, taxes will be going up this year; that’s a fact. After pinching pennies during four lean years of recession, Travis County and other local jurisdictions need to make tough decisions. I was elected to make those decisions and scrutinize the county’s budgets, and I believe this year’s proposed Travis County increase — about $25 for the average homestead — is necessary to provide the services and make the investments we need right now. Let me tell you why.
Texas counties are required by law to provide for county roads and bridges, law enforcement and corrections, judicial systems, public records, and health and human services. Large counties like Travis also provide for parks and other programs that add to the quality of life for local residents. The county budget is determined by the needs of these required services.
Travis County receives the bulk of its revenues from property taxes. Unlike cities, however, counties do not collect sales taxes. Because some municipalities have seen a rise in their sales tax revenues this past year, they are able to avoid tax increases. Travis County, on the other hand, saw a drop in property values, making revenues relatively flat. Meanwhile, the county has continued to grow in population despite the recession, and those services we’re required by law to provide have to keep up with that growth. Not investing in those services now — kicking the can down the road — is fiscally imprudent.
In fact, the current budget is already trying to catch up with what has been postponed during the recession. Let’s consider public safety. Wildfire preparedness and quality law enforcement are critical to our quality of life. We know from last year’s tragic events what happens when we’re unprepared for wildfires. That’s why this year’s budget includes fuel mitigation funds and a firefighting helicopter. As for quality law enforcement, without it crime goes up. This not only risks our very own safety but increases the cost of the judicial, corrections, and probation systems Travis County must provide by law.
Travis County is fortunate to have excellent law enforcement and we need to keep it that way. However, in recent years, with no meaningful salary increases, the County has lagged significantly in the local competition for law enforcement talent. I have not taken a pay raise since coming to office and voted against one for elected officials this year, but when it comes to law enforcement, we need to pay for the quality we want. Travis County can’t compete with current Austin Police Department salaries — and APD has recently announced that it plans to hire 250 new officers in the next several years. That translates into turnover for Travis County and more money for overtime to fill vacant positions and for hiring and training new officers. I believe it is smarter and more cost?effective to keep excellent law enforcement in place.
Keeping Travis County affordable is a challenge for both the public and private sectors. It’s clear, from the data and from our own experience that growth doesn’t always pay for itself. The state budget is shrinking ?? with many costs being pushed down to counties. And Texas counties lack the authority they need to manage growth responsibly. One result is deplorable traffic congestion, made worse by the state’s failure to do its job and improve its highway system. Because of years of state delays, Travis County is helping to fund the interim fix at the Y in Oak Hill, which we all know is desperately needed. But with all the services that Travis County is required by law to fund, we have to be very judicious about using our funds in these ways.
Travis County’s AAA bond rating is probably the best gauge of good fiscal management (including its bond indebtedness). Other counties have not survived this recession so well. But we are on the road to recovery. Making judicious investments in our future may cost a bit more now but will make us better prepared to weather future challenges and enjoy our unmatched quality of life.