Austin City Budget Needs Affordability Makeover
Wednesday August 5, 2015
By Bill Oakey – Special to the American-Statesman
Every year at this time, Austin homeowners grit their teeth and wonder whether the City Council will remember their skyrocketing tax appraisals as they deliberate on the budget.
This year the tax appraisals were stunning, with double-digit increases as high as 27 percent in some areas. When the newly formed single-member-district City Council asked the city manager to submit a lean budget with responsible cuts, his response was pitifully weak and it suggested closing a fire station. What part of affordability does he not understand?
At the end of July, the city manager issued his official budget recommendation. In Volume One, the word “affordability” appears eight times. But the word “tax” appears 290 times and “fees” 134 times.
Property taxes would go up $40 annually for a “typical” median homestead, with the new 6 percent homestead exemption included. But that “typical” homestead is only valued at $232,272. Many longtime residents in single-family homes haven’t seen tax appraisals that low in about 15 years. Even more disturbing is the onslaught of utility increases and “add-on” fee increases averaging $7.98 per month. For most of the past 40 years, these “add-on” fees were included in our property taxes.
Here are several ideas for cost savings. Each year with our growing economy, we tend to have budget surpluses. The old city council spent nearly all of those in between budget cycles, with little or no public input. A budget is a budget, and any surplus should be used to reduce taxes, unless there is a public safety emergency.
It is long past time for city taxpayers to stop subsidizing for-profit public event companies, like South By Southwest. We could save $4 million every year in the budget with a compromise proposal. City services could be paid from three sources: funds from the Hotel Occupancy Tax, surcharges on ticket sales, and making the event promoters pay some of their own fees.
The council should consider awarding staff pay raises on a sliding scale. The city’s recent across-the-board raises, combined with bonuses and other perks, well exceed the stagnant wages of tens of thousands of other Austinites. Another opportunity for substantial cost savings involves the annual transfer of funds from the Budget Stabilization Reserves. Instead of spending more than $20 million on “wish list” items as the previous council did, the new council should time the purchases of new capital items over several years. Some of the surplus could be used to offset the cost of recent flood-related repairs, thereby cutting the budget and saving money for the taxpayers.
For better transparency, I have proposed a truth-in-taxation plan that includes a “Taxpayer Impact Statement.” This would be a chart that shows tax appraisal values from $100,000 to $1 million, in $50,000 increments. Categories should include the general and over-65 homestead exemptions. There should be columns showing the dollar amount of taxes due and the increase above last year’s amount. Taxpayers should be able to look across the chart and estimate their tax increase, based on various levels of appraisal increases up to the 10 percent appraisal cap. In my discussions of this proposal with both Austin and Travis County officials, some have suggested that the County Tax Office could help by creating a standard format for all taxing jurisdictions.
The city has a flawed policy of cramming the budget process into a few short weeks after the city manager’s recommendation. Travis County begins their budget process in February. The council should consider adopting an earlier schedule for next year. In light of the current tight deadline, they should not accept the city staff’s request to add 347 new positions, compared to only 151 that were added last year. Such a big change should require much more discussion and community input.
The tax-supported general fund has grown 38.9 percent in the last five years. Keeping the budget lean will be necessary if the new City Council wishes to achieve their goal of implementing a full 20 percent homestead exemption over the next few years. This first budget is their opportunity to prove that they are ready to quit talking about affordability and show us some real action.
Oakey is a retired accountant and writes at AustinAffordability.com.