Tuesday, September 2, 2014

McNamara: Travis County's Dysfunctional Government

"Deliver the poor and needy;
Free them from the hand of the wicked."
Psalm 82:4

Fantastic op-ed this from Mike McNamara in today's Statesman (reprinted in full)
Travis County is a place where working people such as artists, teachers, construction workers and retirees cannot afford to live. Some may call this keeping Austin weird; I call it unacceptable.

Recently, an independent consultant called it “dysfunctional.”

It’s hard to argue with the consultant’s audit of Travis County. Rampant disorganization, low morale, no performance reviews — the report detailed ongoing mismanagement.

The consultant suggested hiring a county administrator to iron out the wrinkles. That may help; however, the way that county government functions — or not — is the primary responsibility of the elected commissioners court.

The consultant said this dysfunction costs taxpayers about $2 million a year. I contend it’s more. If there’s this level of 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?

Since the county is in the middle of its budget cycle, my suggestion is the commissioners court prepare a zero-based budget — build the budget from the ground up, starting at zero and justifying every dollar they want to spend.

Citizens are scared they won’t be able to afford to stay in their homes. Rather than offer solutions that provide real tax relief, the response from entrenched politicians is to feed on that fear, taking no responsibility for the decisions that led to this affordability crisis.

Take the recent media blitz about high appraisals: The truth is, appraisal reform will take years to get through the Legislature and may not result in tax relief. But the county could give some immediate relief to property owners if they would set budgets according to the effective tax rate.

The taxes the county levies on properties are determined by multiplying the tax rate by the appraised value.

The effective tax rate provision in state law requires the tax rate be reduced when values of properties on the tax roll go up, so there’s no windfall for local governments.

Here is a simplified example of how that works:

Imagine that all of the properties in Travis County were valued at $1,000. The county sets a 10 percent tax rate, so the taxes collected would be $100.

Then the next year, appraised values go up to $1,100. The effective tax rate would be 9.09 percent, since that’s the rate it takes to generate $100. That same year, new properties come on the tax roll. The total value of those properties is $120. The county would get $100 of revenue from the current properties — plus $10.91 from the new properties. In all, the county would get $110.90 that year ($1,220 x the effective tax rate of 9.09 percent).

If the county wants more revenue, it must set the tax rate above the effective tax rate. This year, Travis County is going above and beyond the effective tax rate, and it has done so every year for the past six years.

Our local leaders need to concentrate on balancing the budget with the effective tax rate. It’s not a tax cut — it’s a tax freeze, except the county still gets additional dollars from new properties on the tax roll. They can still provide all of the necessary services to residents, even in a growing community.

Setting the tax rate is the responsibility of the commissioners court, not the Travis Central Appraisal District and not the Legislature. The higher taxes we pay directly result from the higher tax rates they set.

Raising taxes shouldn’t be “business as usual” in Travis County. It should be the last resort.

It’s a new season in Austin, and voters are looking for new leaders who will implement major changes in how local government does business. The task will not be easy, but it’s the only way to resolve the dysfunction and make Austin that weird, wonderful place where musicians, teachers, public and private sector workers — heck, all of us — want to live.


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