A Big Thanks To Council Member Don Zimmerman

By Bill Oakey – June 6, 2015

In the City of Austin, the name Don Zimmerman means different things to different people. Whenever I bring up the name, I get a variety of strange looks and interesting expressions. I suppose there could easily be more than one Don Zimmerman here, since Austin has become a pretty big city. The Don that I know best currently represents District 6 on the Austin City Council. Before he was elected last November, he earned a reputation as a fighter for the taxpayers, even occasionally taking his battles to court.

When I walked into his office at City Hall recently, I came prepared with documents and notes to support my affordability proposals for the upcoming City Budget. We did not discuss party politics. It was a straightforward dialog about longstanding problems with the budget. The most amusing thing he showed me is the City’s latest “Budget in a Box.” It actually does come delivered in a box. This cleverly marketed product could be easily mistaken for some kind of X-Series video game console kit, complete with hardware and software manuals and a DVD. It looks colorful and exciting from the outside:

Budget box

City of Austin Budget In a Box

But to put it mildly, Don Zimmerman was not impressed. The first thing he showed me came as no surprise, but it ticked me off nonetheless. Get ready for this everybody…we should have known it was coming. The wonderful news from the Budget In a Box is that the City is forecasting a slight decrease in the property tax rate!  Yes, once again we are not being told the Truth-In-Taxation percentage of the estimated tax increase. That is why the first item on my reform list has always been Truth In Taxation. Because of the high property tax appraisals this year, the tax rate could go down slightly and we would still see a pretty stiff tax increase, especially those people whose appraisals have hit the 10% cap. The truthful amount of the City’s tax increase would be stated as the increase above the “effective rate.” That is the amount that would generate the same amount of revenue as the City received last year. By law, they can raise the effective tax rate by as much as 8% without triggering a rollback election by citizen petition. Last year’s tax rate changed by only a fraction of a penny, but the increase above the effective rate was 3.8%.

Meanwhile, back in Don Zimmerman’s office, we looked at the chart on Page 57 of the Five Year Financial Forecast. I will not attach an audio recording of the words that may have slipped out when we saw the huge chart of tax, utility and utility add-on fee increases. You can read it yourself right here. For a “median-value home” of $221,086 the bottom line projected increase is $18.53 per month. The tax portion of that is only $7.05. But here’s the problem. The estimated tax amount does not include any new programs or changes made by the staff or the City Council. And the chart does not take into consideration whether your home saw a double digit tax appraisal increase. So, the tax increase that you would actually see on your bill would most likely be considerably higher. And, by the way, how many people do you know who live in a “median-value home” that is appraised that low?

To summarize my meeting with Mr. Zimmerman, he told me that he supports my affordability proposals. And he mentioned one of his own that I will explain in detail in another posting. We all have a big hill to climb between now and the end of the budget season. It will not be a stroll on the beach, like the Beach Boys portrayed in their 1974 album, Endless Summer.

As for Don Zimmerman, some of you may have him confused with that other guy out there that some people think is “way out there.” The one that brings to mind flying saucers, conspiracy theories, and tables levitating to the sound of voices from the dead. That is not the Don Zimmerman that I talked to down at City Hall. But, I don’t want you to leave this blog disappointed if you came here looking for a pathway to adventures from another world. Just grab a beer or a glass of something else and check out this video.


4 thoughts on “A Big Thanks To Council Member Don Zimmerman

  1. Todd

    Good article. Thanks for referencing Endless Summer and I will have fun watching Aliens on the Moon. Todd Sent from my iPhone


  2. Ben

    I’m surprised Zimmerman wouldn’t be supportive of the City reaching out to the community and putting into context how much a typical taxpayer pays for City services. Granted, the information presented is very high-level, but it’s hard to strike the right balance with most people. I’ve seen the Budget in a Box documents and I don’t see any mention of lowering the tax rate or effective tax rates. That information was presented in the Forecast Report along with the chart you mentioned in your post. I sympathize with the Truth in Taxation arguments, but I think Zimmerman overreacts any time he sees mention of lowering the tax rate. All the reporting I’ve ever seen on the City/County/School District budgets always mention the tax rate along with the annual increase in taxes for the average household.

    Also, the chart from the Five Year Forecast Report does take into account the overall increase in appraised value for all taxable properties within the City limits, which was around 9% if I remember correctly. And while you might not know anyone with an appraised value that low, by definition 50% of homeowners in Austin have a taxable home value less than $221,086 and 50% have a value higher than $221,086.

    1. Bill Oakey

      It was Mr. Zimmerman who opened his Budget in a Box and showed me the statement about lowering the tax rate. The Five Year Forecast is the basis for current Staff and Council discussions on the Budget. In fact the City Website page for their meeting schedule lists the Five Year Forecast as the topic for Wednesday’s Budget Work Session.

      The official staff proposed Budget will not be released until later this summer.

      As for the “tax rate” vs. Truth in Taxation issue, the City has consistently used the “We’re holding the line on the tax rate” argument for many, many years.

      My current reform efforts on that began in 1987 on my old Sears typewriter. My Statewide Truth in Taxation proposal was enacted and signed by Governor Bill Clements as H.B. 328. The other successful proposal that I had in 1987 was the Over-65 school tax freeze.

  3. Gonzalo Camacho

    What city government does equates to asking the opinion of the public on how to conduct heart surgery instead of engaging a heart surgeon to do what he/she is trained to do.
    Why do we pay staff and others to prepare budgets and then ask the public to engage in budget making? I forget, they call it PC public engagement process so bureaucrats can confirm that it was us who signed off on the budget.
    Need to fire some of them incompetent or “playing with politics” bureaucrats me thinks.
    I don’t buy the “in-the-box” game. We spend millions of tax dollars in hiring professionals to do the job. Maybe it is time for them folks to earn their salaries (and benefits).


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