Travis County is a place where working people like teachers, artists, waiters, government workers, and retirees (to name a few) cannot afford to live. Some may call this “Keeping Austin weird,” but I call it unacceptable... It’s hard to argue with the findings in the consultant’s audit of Travis County government. Rampant disorganization, low morale, no performance reviews, extremely delayed hiring for vacancies… The report went on, and on, detailing rampant, chronic mismanagement.
Op-Ed by Mike McNamara, candidate for Travis County Judge
Keep Austin “Dysfunctional”?
Travis County is a place where working people like teachers, artists, waiters, government workers, and retirees (to name a few) cannot afford to live. Some may call this “Keeping Austin weird,” but I call it unacceptable.
Recently, an independent consultant called it “dysfunctional.”
It’s hard to argue with the findings in the consultant’s audit of Travis County government. Rampant disorganization, low morale, no performance reviews, extremely delayed hiring for vacancies… The report went on, and on, detailing rampant, chronic mismanagement.
In a March 9 article about my opponent’s besting of her primary challenger, the Statesman cited her 5 ½ years of experience on the commissioners court as an advantage, quoting a campaign worker as saying, “[T]here’s an old rule in politics that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But the consultant’s audit says much is broken in Travis County. The dysfunction has cost taxpayers at least $2 million a year. I contend it’s a whole lot more. When was the last time the County took a fine-toothed comb to its departmental budgets? If there’s this much dysfunction on the surface, how much more could be discovered – and dealt with – if the County made each department account for every dollar it spends?
I also recommend the City of Austin have an independent audit of its operations performed, just as the County has done. Many articles have been written about (and citizens are very concerned about) mismanagement at the city level.
In fact two citizens’ groups, the Grey Panthers and Citizens for Shared Governance, have petitioned U.S. Attorney Robert L. Pittman to do an audit of the city over suspected misuse of tax dollars. I support their effort and urge Hon. Pittman to bring the truth to light.
Something I believe is a great first step to fixing the dysfunction is creating a zero-based budget. It means building the budget from the ground up, justifying every dollar a department wants to spend. As Travis County Judge, I will do a zero-based budget in my first year to get an accounting of how every department is spending your tax dollars.
Citizens are afraid they will no longer be able to afford to keep their homes. What is the response from entrenched politicians? Feed on that fear. Point fingers at someone else. Take no responsibility for the spending decisions that have lead to this affordability crisis.
Look at the recent media blitz about appraisals. The truth is, appraisal reform will take YEARS to get through the Legislature and will likely result in no actual tax relief for homeowners.
Tax relief will only come when local governments lower their tax rates. The amount of taxes a person pays on their property (or through rent increases) is determined by multiplying the TAX RATE by the APPRAISED VALUE.
Texas law allows for something called the Effective Tax Rate, a provision requiring a lower tax rate when property values go up, so there’s not a revenue windfall for local governments.
Here is a simplified example of how the Effective Tax Rate works:
Imagine that all of the properties in Travis County (total tax roll) were valued at $1,000 in Year 1. The county sets a 10% tax rate, so the taxes collected would be $100.
Then in Year 2, appraised values go up to $1,100. The Effective Tax Rate would be only 9.09% because that’s the rate it takes to generate $100. ($100/$1,100 = 9.09%).
Say that in Year 2, new properties come onto the tax roll. The total value of those properties is $120. The county would get $100 of revenue from the current properties PLUS an additional $10.91 from the new properties.
In all, the County would get $110.90 in Year 2 ($1,220 x the Effective Tax Rate of 9.09%). If the County wants more taxes, they must increase the tax rate above the Effective Rate.
This year, Travis County is doing just that. They are setting the tax rate well above the Effective Tax Rate, even though appraisals are higher. So, your property taxes are going to be higher.
Our local leaders need to concentrate on creating budgets with a tax rate that does not exceed the Effective Tax Rate. Budgeting this way still lets them provide all necessary services, even in a growing community.
Only by operating on the Effective Tax Rate can residents see any real tax relief. As County Judge, I will hold the line on taxes. Setting the tax rate is the responsibility of the Commissioners Court, not the Central Appraisal District and not the Legislature.
Raising taxes shouldn’t be “business-as-usual” for Austin and Travis County. It has to be the last resort.
It’s a new season in Austin. Citizens are looking for leaders who will champion changes in how the City and County do business. The task will not be easy, but it’s the only way to resolve the dysfunction. I believe we can make Austin that weird, wonderful place artists, musicians, teachers, public and private sector workers – heck, all of us – want to live.