Travis County commissioners unanimously approved two cost-saving measures July 2 in an attempt to offset the state’s 3.5% property revenue cap when it takes effect in fiscal year 2020-21.
First, the Commissioners Court unanimously approved sending out a letter to all county offices and departments explaining the impact of the cap and some strategies that are being considered in response.
Second, commissioners approved a plan to recover fees for services and revenue-generating contracts that are under the purview of the court.
County staff have emphasized that, going forward, budget decisions will be made with greater focus on those services the state mandates the county provide, alternative revenue streams to property taxes, data-driven decisions, and increasing efficiency and efficacy of county programs.
“Not one thing is going to solve the problem,” Budget Director Travis Gatlin told commissioners. “It’s going to be multiple, multiple strategies.”
A change of culture at the county
Unlike the city of Austin, Travis County does not anticipate having to cut staff positions as a result of the cap.
“There is no layoff happening,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said.
However, budget staff recommended that county offices and departments review their expenses, budget requests and especially any positions that have been vacant for more than a year in an effort to address potential cost savings.
Gatlin told commissioners there are currently 46 county staff positions that have been vacant for a year or more. An additional 34 positions will have been vacant for a year if not filled by Sept. 30, the last day of this fiscal year.
The planning and budget office proposed that in the future, any positions that remain vacant for longer than a year and fall under the Commissioners Court’s control be frozen so resources can be better allocated.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty emphasized the cap is going to require a different approach to management by county offices and departments.
“The message that I think that the Commissioners Court needs to be sending to every elected official and department head is that you have got to think differently about what you have thought in the past about how to run your department,” Daughtery said. “This is a new day.”
County staff projects there will be $30 million less in annual ongoing revenue and budget flexibility at the 3.5% revenue cap by FY 2023-24 compared to the forecast based on the county’s past tax revenue.
“It does mean a culture change, to some degree, but I think we are up to it,” Eckhardt said. “We need that culture change so that we won’t be in a position where it feels very unfair.”
Finding alternative revenue streams
In September 2018, county commissioners adopted a series of fee- and revenue-related items for FY 2018-19.
Since then, county staff has begun examining the current state of fees and revenue-generating contracts, such as for providing services to other jurisdictions, and intends to make these topics a priority of the FY 2019-20 budget process.
“While increases in these sources of revenue will not offset the reduction from revenue caps, ensuring full cost recovery for these items may provide some relief from the budgetary pressures revenue caps will place on the County,” staff wrote in a brief.
The adopted budget for FY 2018-19 includes $29.2 million in revenue-generating contracts and services fees over which the Commissioners Court has contract. This amount represents less than 5% of the county’s general fund.