Ve­hi­cle pro­gram fund­ing sought

State cut money from ef­fort that cleans up emis­sions in Travis.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Farzad Mashhood fmash­hood@states­man.com

Travis County has threat­ened to quit a pro­gram that gives low­in­come res­i­dents up to $3,500 to re­pair or re­place pol­lut­ing cars af­ter the state col­lected $1.62 mil­lion in fees ded­i­cated for that pro­gram from Travis County res­i­dents but re­turned just $189,000 to the county dur­ing the 2012 bud­get year.

The so-called Drive a Clean Ma­chine pro­gram saw an 87.5 per­cent fund­ing cut in the 2012-13 two-year bud­get be­cause state leg­is­la­tors used that rev­enue to help bal­ance the state bud­get in the 2011 leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

But one year into the two-year cy­cle, the state is ex­pect­ing higher over­all rev­enue, which could turn into a sur­plus of more than $8 bil­lion.

To Travis County com­mis­sion­ers, that means the state should re­store the fund­ing

to the 7-year-old ve­hi­cle re­pair and re­place­ment pro­gram. If the state doesn’t, Travis — one of only two coun­ties in the state to par­tic­i­pate vol­un­tar­ily — might opt out of the pro­gram.

Wil­liamson County, the other vol­un­tary par­tic­i­pant in the pro­gram and its tax, has is­sued a sim­i­lar warn­ing, say­ing that with­out full fund­ing it will dras­ti­cally scale back the pro­gram.

“Since we ap­proved the fee lo­cally for a ded­i­cated pur­pose, we want most — if not all — the money to come back for that pur­pose,” Travis County Judge Sam Bis­coe said. “With­out ad­di­tional fund­ing, we would be com­pelled to elim­i­nate the pro­gram.”

Bis­coe and his coun­ter­part in Wil­liamson County, Dan A. Gat­tis, are sep­a­rately writ­ing to the chair­men of the state’s Leg­isla­tive Bud­get Board, ask­ing that they re­store fund­ing.

The Dal­las-Fort Worth area’s coun­cil of gov­ern­ments, which ad­min­is­ters the pro­gram there, has also asked the chair­men, Lt. Gov. David De­whurst and House Speaker Joe Straus, to re­store fund­ing.

The state has been col­lect­ing pro­gram fees steadily but made a big fund­ing cut this year to all 16 coun­ties par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pro­gram. Be­sides Travis and Wil­liamson coun­ties, the oth­ers are all in the Dal­las-Fort Worth and Hous­ton ar­eas and have to par­tic­i­pate be­cause they fail to meet fed­eral emis­sion re­quire­ments.

The Texas Com­mis­sion on En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity, which dis­trib­utes money al­lo­cated to the pro­gram from the Leg­is­la­ture, cut the $44.7 mil­lion sent out in the 2011 bud­get year to $5.58 mil­lion in the 2012 bud­get year.

For Travis County, fund­ing went from $1.78 mil­lion to $170,000; for Wil­liamson County, it went from $683,000 to $68,700. Statewide, the cuts ranged from 86.8 per­cent in John­son County, south of Fort Worth, to 90.4 per­cent in Travis County.

The state also cut back on grants for pro­grams that help com­mu­ni­ties im­prove air qual­ity. From 2011 to 2012, Travis County’s fund­ing for those projects dropped from $390,000 to $19,000.

To­tal fund­ing from the state dropped $2.17 mil­lion to $189,000.

“The money is go­ing to the state and to a black hole that they call bud­get balancing,” Bis­coe said, crit­i­ciz­ing the state’s ap­proach of not us­ing rev­enue from some taxes and fees for the pur­pose they were col­lected.

The Drive a Clean Ma­chine pro­gram is avail­able to sin­gle peo­ple mak­ing up to $33,510 or fam­i­lies of four mak­ing up to $69,150 — three times the fed­eral poverty limit.

If the coun­ties quit the state pro­gram, they can’t run their own ver­sion with­out leg­isla­tive ap­proval, said Adele Noel, Travis County’s air qual­ity pro­gram man­ager.

“We can’t just go and im­pose fees,” she said. “We have looked into that.”

Bis­coe also noted that the Austin area’s ozone lev­els are close to ex­ceed­ing lim­its set by the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency. If peak ozone lev­els put the Austin met­ro­pol­i­tan area above the EPA stan­dards, res­i­dents here would prob­a­bly have to cre­ate pro­grams sim­i­lar to those in the Hous­ton and Dal­las ar­eas.

“The money is needed lo­cally here to fight air pol­lu­tion and air qual­ity” prob­lems, Bis­coe said. “And since we’re near nonat­tain­ment, we need it.”

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