PAY­MORE NEXT YEAR?

Pro­posal would in­crease bill for av­er­age-value home about 4.5 per­cent and not cut ser­vices

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Suzan­nah Gon­za­les Amer­i­cAn-StAteS­mAn StAff

Travis County’s pre­lim­i­nary 2011 bud­get raises prop­erty taxes but doesn’t cut ser­vices

Many Travis County tax bills would rise next year, but there would be no cuts to ser­vices un­der the county’s pre­lim­i­nary 2011 bud­get pre- sented to com­mis­sion­ers Tues­day.

The county’s prop­erty val­ues fell, but the pro­posed tax rate would rise 4.43 cents, which would in­crease the tax bill for the av­er­age-val­ued home ($218,542 af­ter a homestead ex­emp­tion) by $47.74, or about 4.5 per­cent, bud­get di­rec­tor Leroy Nel­lis said.

The prop­erty tax rate would rise to 46.58 cents per $100 of val­u­a­tion from this year’s tax rate of 42.15 cents per $100 of val­u­a­tion.

Com­mis­sion­ers are ex­pected to adopt the tax rate and the 2011 bud­get on Sept. 28. The 2011 bud­get year be­gins Oct. 1.

Prop­erty tax rev­enue would in­crease to $348.9 mil­lion, com­pared with $333.2 mil­lion this year, in part to make up for de­clin­ing taxes from new con­struc­tion and a drop in in­vest­ment earn­ings.

New con­struc­tion in­creases the amount of the county’s prop­erty tax rev­enue, but such con­struc­tion is down about $1 bil­lion from the cur­rent year.

The county’s av­er­age home value, af­ter a homestead ex­emp­tion, for this year was $230,186. Ap­ply­ing this year’s tax rate, the av­er­age county tax bill was about $970. (The new av­er­age home value and the tax rate are ex­pected to change based on cer­ti­fied ap­praisals from the Travis Cen­tral Ap­praisal District.)

Ap­ply­ing the 46.58-cent tax rate, the av­er­age county tax bill would be about $1,018, a $48 in­crease.

Travis County prop­erty taxes rep­re­sent about 17 per­cent of the to­tal prop­erty tax bill for home­own­ers in the county, Nel­lis said.

The $698.6 mil­lion pre­lim­i­nary bud­get is about $43.5 mil­lion more than this year’s bud­get — a 6.6 per­cent in­crease.

The gen­eral fund — the county’s op­er­at­ing bud­get — would in­crease to $487.5 mil­lion from $455.7 mil­lion this year.

Ex­penses are pro­jected to grow to $487.5 mil­lion, from $455.7 mil­lion this year, be­cause of in­creased health in­surance costs and re­tire­ment ben­e­fits for county em­ploy­ees, and pos­si­bly higher util­i­ties and fuel costs, among other in­creases in op­er­at­ing ex­penses, Nel­lis said.

The pre­lim­i­nary bud­get also con­tains re­serves of $85.5 mil­lion, in­clud­ing money that com­mis­sion­ers set aside in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the eco­nomic slow­down, which will be car­ried over from the cur­rent bud­get year.

Bud­get of­fi­cials rec­om­mend that the county main­tain its un­al­lo­cated re­serve at 11 per­cent of the gen­eral fund, a rate the county has main­tained since 1995, Nel­lis said.

He said the pre­lim­i­nary bud­get seeks to avoid lay­offs and sus­tain ex­ist­ing pro­grams in an­tic­i­pa­tion of what is ex­pected to be equally chal­leng­ing 2012 and pos­si­bly 2013 bud­get years.

In an April 21 let­ter to com­mis­sion­ers, Travis County Sher­iff Greg Hamil­ton wrote that he is “be­com­ing in­creas­ingly concerned that fu­ture cuts and the en­su­ing re­duc­tion in ser­vices lev­els for both our law en­force­ment and corrections du­ties will ul­ti­mately have con­se­quences that will have a di­rect im­pact on the safety and well-be­ing of our cit­i­zens.”

The sher­iff’s of­fice has the largest bud­get among county de­part­ments and makes up nearly a third of the county’s de­part­men­tal bud­gets, Nel­lis said. There would be no lay­offs of Travis County staffers un­der the pre­lim­i­nary bud­get, which in­cludes a 2.5 per­cent salary in­crease for em­ploy­ees and elected of­fi­cials not on the ju­di­ciary pay scale to help off­set higher health in­surance costs.

Com­mis­sion­ers this month ap­proved the 2.5 per­cent pay in­crease as part of the pre­lim­i­nary bud­get. The raise would cost about $6.7 mil­lion.

Of­fi­cials say the raises will help off­set what em­ploy­ees pay in in­creased health in­surance costs. There was an 8 per­cent, or $4.4 mil­lion, in­crease in health in­surance costs for county em­ploy­ees, ac­cord­ing to Nel­lis.

One va­cant clerk po­si­tion deemed un­nec­es­sary in the Precinct 3 con­sta­ble of­fice was elim­i­nated in the pre­lim­i­nary bud­get, Nel­lis said.

The bud­get also in­cludes po­si­tions and pro­grams that com­mis­sion­ers ap­proved pre­vi­ously, such as le­gal staffers to work on county land use is­sues in the county at­tor­ney’s of­fice and a pro­gram to ad­dress chronic ab­sen­teeism in pub­lic schools.

Travis County prop­erty taxes rep­re­sent about 17 per­cent of the to­tal prop­erty tax bill for home­own­ers in the county, ac­cord­ing to bud­get di­rec­tor Leroy Nel­lis.

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