The Austin City Council is either unable or unwilling to stop itself from raising taxes to near or at maximum legal levels — despite larger revenues, windfalls, and growing tax bases. In doing so, city officials have shown themselves to be drunk on tax hikes, and it’s time to implement a 12-step program.
How else can their actions be explained? Year after year, without much — if any — consideration for the public’s ability to pay through-the-roof tax bills from the city, county, school districts, hospital district and Austin Community College, elected officials have continued to impose steep tax hikes. Other cities, such as Round Rock and Cedar Park, have held the line on taxes, even while giving employees a pay raise and expanding city services.
Certainly, well-financed local governments provide services to residents and take care of parks, libraries, schools, roads and people in need. But there are limits – points at which more harm is being done than good when taxes are raised beyond certain levels. As local contributor Bill Oakey notes in his commentary below, the current system is not sustainable for most city residents whose wages have not kept pace with ballooning housing costs, electric rates and tax bills. It’s disheartening that the public’s ability to pay has been an afterthought in budget decisions.
That concern continues to be trumped by other priorities, such as providing substantial yearly pay raises and benefits for city and county employees and, in some cases, pay raises elected officials have awarded themselves; tax rebates for private companies that relocate to Austin or Travis County; and tax breaks for homeowners of historical homes in upscale neighborhoods. The steep and continued increase of tax bills is curious given all the additional money generated by new construction and businesses, a rebounding economy and larger revenue from higher property values. Elected officials tout growth as a counterbalance against such steep tax increases. Yet that benefit is not showing up in our tax bills.
That situation caused Austin City Council Member Laura Morrison to pose this question, “What do we have systemically in our business model that, even with growth, we can’t keep up with expenses … and (because of higher rates) are taking more and more of a bite out of people’s incomes?”
That question deserves an immediate answer. And neither the council nor the commissioners court should approve budgets until that question is answered and budgets are adjusted to reflect the financial realities of people who are paying the bills. Taxpayers should be getting a break, given all the extra money the city and county are taking in.
But the binge continues.
American-Statesman writer Sarah Coppola reported in recent editions that Austin’s property tax rate would increase from 50.29 cents per $100 of property value to 51.14 cents. That rate is just below the highest rate the city could choose under state law — 51.34 cents — without triggering a possible election to limit the increase.
Under the proposal, the typical Austin household would pay $173 more in property taxes, utility bills and other fees next year if the budget is approved in September. Austin would add 365 jobs to its nearly 12,400-person payroll, including 23 jobs in the planning department to review, inspect and permit new construction. Local attorney Bill Aleshire has a good recommendation to address planning department expenditures, including new jobs: Make the department a self-supporting enterprise from user fees. Council Member Mike Martinez, citing 900 positions in the city that are vacant, doesn’t see the need to add hundreds more. We agree. Council Member Bill Spelman is challenging the idea that Austin needs an additional 47 police officers in jobs that can be filled by non-civil service employees, who earn considerably less than police officers.
To give taxpayers a break, the council should take the long overdue step of granting home owners tax relief through a homestead exemption, as the county already offers.
For its part, the county also is on a bender regarding its expenditures. Earlier this month, two county commissioners, Margaret Gomez and Ron Davis, voted themselves and about 40 other elected officials a 3 percent pay raise. They were joined in that arrogance by retiring County Judge Sam Biscoe. The proposed budget for the next fiscal year also includes 3 percent across the board pay raises for all employees, though employees received hefty pay raises this year and the year before.
Though county tax bills will rise nearly 3 percent for the average homeowner, the tax rate will decline by a wee bit, about 1.1 percent. Taxpayers could and should get a bigger break, given the windfall to the county budget from rising property values. Officials seem unaware that most residents don’t share their affluence or ability to pay ever-increasing tax bills.
We’re not advocating that the city, county and other taxing entities practice strict austerity. Perhaps smaller tax increases are warranted in some cases, but they should be justified. We are arguing for tax sobriety.