By Bill Oakey – August 4, 2016
Before you even start reading this, get ready to think about what you can do to help. The proposed City Budget is moving like a freight train through City Hall. We don’t have much time to slow it down. What we face is a taxpayer, utility ratepayer and fee payer disaster on two major levels:
1. The budget raises property taxes by 8% above the effective rate, which is the highest allowed under Texas law, without triggering a rollback election.
2. Every utility charge and utility add-on fee is slated for increases – so high that the total dollar impact on the “typical” resident is 2.4 times higher than the record tax increase!
Hang Onto Your Hats for This One Folks – If They Raise Property Taxes 8% Every Year Going Forward, Your Taxes Will Double In 9 Years!
And if your tax appraisals keep going up, they will double a lot sooner. Now let’s take a look at what I found after reviewing the City Budgets adopted since Fiscal Year 2011. In most of those years, the effective property tax rate only increased by about half of the legal maximum of 8%:
|Fiscal Year||Effective Tax Rate Increase|
You can review several years of the Austin City Budget here.
How Does the City Staff Rationalize These High Proposed Increases?
In Volume 1, Page 29 of the budget, you will find a cheerful note declaring that a “typical family” would only pay $324 per month for City taxes and fees. They state that this is only 4.8% of the median family income for our region. Well, just look at your utility bills and your property tax bills. Then, sit down with your neighbors and take a look at theirs. Ask each other how many of you would consider yourself “typical,” based on this chart in the Budget. If you live in anything larger than a small condo, your utility bills, fees and taxes are probably much higher.
But here’s the biggest flaw in the argument about City taxes and fees being “only a tiny portion” of your annual income. That doesn’t account for the long parade of other taxes from AISD, Travis County, Central Health and ACC. Of course you could isolate just one taxing entity on your total bill and claim that it isn’t really all that bad. But hey, we have to pay the entire bill! And it’s absurd to suggest that a “typical” family currently pays only $221 per month on their utility bills. The mere suggestion put forth in the City Manager’s proposed Budget that we the citizens don’t have a problem with these costs is outrageous, preposterous and insulting to our collective intelligence!
Please Share This Blog Piece With Your Neighbors, Friends and Co-Workers
Ask them to use this single-click link to email the Mayor and every City Council member. If the City Manager and his staff can’t find a way to make the City departments run more efficiently and more affordably, then it is simply time for them to hit the road!
How Could the City Council Easily Trim the Budget?
Last year I fought hard to convince them to apply cost of living pay increases on a sliding scale. The wealthy managers and executives at the top do not need the same percentage increase as the lowest paid grunt workers. Several City Council members spoke favorably of the idea and even floated various scenarios to make it happen. I pointed out that many times during my 35 year career as a State employee, the Legislature gave us flat dollar amounts as pay raises. This helped the lowest paid workers and held down the skewed impact of percentage increases. But last year, the City Manager sent a screaming and crying letter to the City Council, complaining that the entire staff had been humiliated by the suggestion of more equitable pay increases. This caused the City Council to fold their tents and abandon the idea immediately.
But Here’s the Crazy Irony In the Situation
Year after year, City officials complain that the State will not allow a flat dollar amount to be used for the City homestead exemption on our property taxes. Every City Council for as long as I can remember has wanted the Legislature to change the law. They have argued correctly that a percentage increase in the homestead exemption favors wealthy homeowners. A 20% exemption on a $1 million home is $200,000. But for a $150,000 home, it is only $30,000.
Well, here’s my question. Why not apply that same logic to across the board pay raises for City Employees? The chart below shows what happens to lower end and higher end employees if they all get a 2.5% pay increase every year for 10 years. Ask yourself if a flat dollar amount would be more equitable. Or at least a sliding scale of some sort on the percentage amount.
|City Employee Pay Raises at 2.5% Per Year|
|Year||Low End Salary||High End Salary|
You can see how the rich get richer. For the record, Politifact Texas reported that as of Sept. 1, 2014, 879 City workers earned between $100,089 and $304,657.
Let’s Put a Human Face On Austin Affordability
My friend, Todd Jones, sent me the following email and granted permission for it to be published. I can’t think of anything to add to his comments. Except that I would like for each City Council member to print it and leave it by their bedside between now and the end of the budget cycle.
I am over 65 and my property taxes are still around $10k this year even though my AISD portion was frozen when I came ‘of age.’
My home is paid for but my taxes are far more than what I paid each year when I had a mortgage. I am retired and my pension and social security check did not go up this year.
I just received a utility bill for over $500. for July. This is the highest bill I have ever received during any summer month since I moved back to Austin from San Antonio in 1983. We are not lavish when it comes to running our air conditioning. In fact, we recently bought an expensive high SEER central air conditioner in effort to save money on our electric bill. Apparently that was for naught given the city’s ridiculous tier system for measuring water and electricity. We water twice a week to keep our yard from becoming a desert.
We are a man and a wife, both retired finding living in Austin un-affordable. I suppose we receive some benefit from our taxes we pay but it’s hard to rationalize the amount we pay -vs- the benefits received. We hope to continue living in Austin because we have a son and a grandson who live here. However we feel like we have no representation when it comes to affordability.
While we could make a lot of money by selling our home and moving to almost anywhere else…we really would hate to pack up and leave in disgust.
(Feel free to use this letter or a portion as one example of disillusionment with living in a city and county on spending sprees that do not take in to account individuals on a fixed income or people who do not make a lot of money).
Musical dedication to the City Manager and any other staff members who do not understand affordability and who refuse to accept the notion of pay equity for City employees:
“Hit the Road Jack” – Ray Charles, 1961