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How the ‘average Austinite’ is driving city budget talks

His family makes $77,800 a year before taxes and spends 22 percent of it on the mortgage, 15 percent on transportation and 14 percent on child care. He drives a 4-year-old Toyota Camry. He has a toddler in day care and an older child in an after-school program.

He is the average Austin resident. And according to city staffers, Austin taxes and fees are barely a blip on his budget.

Last month, city staffers created a profile of the imagined average person, based on data about average salaries, expenses and other lifestyle calculations. (“One car you see all over the city is Toyota Camrys,” Deputy Chief Finance Officer Ed Van Eenoo told the council.)

Perhaps most significantly, the staff reported that a typical resident’s city tax bill is $1,092 a year, 1.4 percent of their total income — though that doesn’t include the county, school district and other agencies whose taxes, combined with the city, average 8 percent of a median income.

City of Austin taxes and fees make up 3.4 percent of a median family’s budget.

Those numbers have become a go-to point as city officials discuss how they can impact affordability.

Mayor Steve Adler has used the average homeowner’s finances as part of the pitch for a possible bond package to go before voters in November.

“We’re going to be arguing about whether the percentage of (the average resident’s) income spent on the city of Austin is 1.2 percent or 1.6 percent,” he told a Chamber of Commerce crowd about the budget process. “That’s it. That’s how this council is going to be graded.”

City Manager Marc Ott used the same numbers during one of several budget talks last month to argue that the city property tax bill makes a small difference to city affordability compared to other taxing entities.

The typical situation can vary

As the council weighed May 18 whether to roll out a curbside composting program that would eventually cost residents $5.40 per month, council members, including Delia Garza, pointed to the “Average Austinite” profile to argue the proposed fees are minimal.

Council Members Sheri Gallo and Ellen Troxclair, who tend to be fiscally conservative, cautioned that fees and taxes can be significant to Austin families.

“We can make that argument for everything we talk about,” Troxclair said during the composting discussion. “Those fractions add up.”

And Council Members Greg Casar and Ora Houston noted that residents in their districts have lower incomes than elsewhere in the city. Housing and transportation costs also vary widely, ZIP-code specific data collected during a 2014 city analysis of housing shows.

Along the East Riverside Drive/Oltorf Street area, where the median income is among the lowest in the city, housing and transportation costs make up more than half of the $30,183 median household income.

In the Circle C Ranch area, where the median household income is $126,525, housing and transportation costs take up barely more than a quarter of monthly income.

Residents downtown, where rents have risen faster since 2010 than anywhere else in the city, spend 28 percent of a median $68,152 household income on rent, but have the lowest transportation costs in the city.

It adds up

Where do Austin people spend their money? The answer, of course, varies.

For Ron Cartlidge, 77, a former teacher, magician and Harry Houdini biographer, the bulk of his pension goes to medical bills to care for his wife, who has dementia. He built his house, near East Riverside Drive, 45 years ago when Woodland Avenue was a dirt road, on a lot that cost just $4,700, he said.

Now, a senior homestead exemption helps keep the taxes low on the house, but city utility bills put a huge dent in his budget, he said. Twice last summer he had bills that topped $500 a month. He tries to keep those down by not cooling the house to below 80 degrees unless he has visitors.

For others, child care is one of the biggest expenses. Day care costs for a baby can run $1,000 per month — roughly the same as a mortgage payment for many.

Laura Garcia, 33, whose family of four lives in a one-bedroom apartment in the Mueller area, said the rise in housing prices makes a big difference. They’ve lived in Austin for eight years, but in just the last three have seen their rent jump from $600 per month to $800.

Garcia called the city’s ordering of rent, transportation and child care as the top expenditures as roughly accurate for her family. But smaller expenditures do count. She said a budget squeeze has come from the day-to-day costs of buying clothes and food for her young daughters.

“Everything in the city is more expensive,” she told the American-Statesman in Spanish.

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