Travis County, 5th Biggest in Texas, Adopts $1.2 Billion Budget

The budget raises property tax revenue by the maximum 8 percent limit and includes funds for increased electronic monitoring for defendants diverted from the Travis County Jail.
by Mary Huber, Austin American-Statesman | September 25, 2019 AT 3:04 AM

(TNS) - Travis County, Texas, on Tuesday adopted a $1.2 billion budget for fiscal year 2020 that includes raises for staff and elected officials but stops short of giving law enforcement the full pay increases requested.

The budget raises property tax revenue by the maximum 8% limit one last time before a state-imposed revenue cap of 3.5% goes into effect in January.

County commissioners also approved a tax hike, setting the 2019-20 tax rate at 36.92 cents per $100 in property value, a 1.5-cent increase from last year's rate. The owner of the average home in Travis County, valued at $347,655, can expect to pay $1,283 in the county's portion of the tax bill, about $126 more than they paid last year.

Both the budget and the tax rate were adopted by a unanimous vote, though many commissioners expressed dismay at approving such a significant tax hike.

"I think all of us are aware that this is probably not the most acceptable budget to the majority of the public," Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said. "I always feel concerned when our community is really struggling to pay their taxes."

The budget includes $4.3 million in matching funds to establish a public defender's office. The Texas Indigent Defense Commission awarded the county a four-year, $20.1 million grant in August to that aim. Travis County is one of the largest jurisdictions in the country without a public defender who can represent those unable to afford a lawyer.

Other new expenses include $1 million for a new criminal district court, $600,000 for increased electronic monitoring for defendants diverted from the Travis County Jail and $500,000 for additional staff to support the sexual assault unit in the Travis County District Attorney's Office.

The budget also includes nearly $18 million to give raises to staff and elected officials to bring them up to the market rate. The county also approved increasing the minimum wage from $13 to $15 per hour. All staff who did not receive a market salary increase or minimum wage increase will get a 3% raise. Commissioners also gave themselves a 14% raise for fiscal 2020, the second-such year they have awarded themselves a raise of that size.

The county did approve a step increase for county law enforcement, moving them up the salary scale, at a cost of $1.9 million. However, commissioners rejected the sheriff's unions' request for a 3% across the board raise for all law enforcement, saying the request came too late in the game for them to study the fiscal impact.

The Travis County Sheriff's Law Enforcement Association and Travis County Sheriff's Officers Association sent letters to members saying they had numerous meetings with elected officials over the last several months to prepare them for the request.

"We want our members to know that we put in a lot of hard work since January to make this happen, and it should've happened," the letter said. "We have been diplomatic way too often and the boiling pot has run over. Our frustrations and will to fight will not dissipate until they do the right thing for our members."

The budget also includes $10.3 million for an energy savings project in county jail facilities, $2.6 million for emergency assistance to provide rent, food, and utility assistance for at-risk populations, $7.8 million for road repairs, $500,000 for initial staffing and operational costs for the 2017 voter-approved Bee Creek Sports Complex in western Travis County and $200,000 for outreach efforts for the 2020 census.

The total budget is 11% larger than last year's. The general fund, which is largely funded by property taxes, grew 10.6% to $882 million, Travis County Budget Director Travis Gatlin said.

Travis County also approved the $291 million budget for Central Health, which provides health services to low-income residents.

©2019 Austin American-Statesman, Texas. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.