Travis County commissioners fine-tune FY 2019-20 budget, add Palm School rule and census funding

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Travis County commissioners approved a series of rule updates and expenses to include in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2019-20, which they are scheduled to approve Sept. 24.

The changes include a rule for how to use proceeds from a future sale or lease of the Palm School and a one-time investment of $200,000 in the 2020 Census effort. Commissioners voted unanimously to approve them at a Sept. 17 meeting.

Palm School proceeds

Based on a request from commissioners, county staff drafted a new budget rule that specifies the allowed uses for proceeds from a potential sale or lease of Palm School.

Should the county sell or lease the property or building, any proceeds would be used for human services, such as workforce development, early education and child care, behavioral health support, criminal justice diversion initiatives and indigent representation.

Other allowed uses, per the new rule, include infrastructure to support rural transportation and water and septic tank improvements.

Earlier this summer, commissioners approved draft terms for a set of restrictive covenants regarding the Palm School site. The terms—essentially guidelines for future use, regardless of who ultimately owns the property—include requirements to pursue national and state historic landmark designations for Palm School, to complete restoration work before any new construction can take place and to keep up with ongoing building maintenance.

Perhaps most notable is a requirement that 80% of the property’s occupiable space be dedicated to heritage or community uses, while maintaining that the primary area be available and open to the public.

The draft terms also limit development on the property.

Although county and city officials, along with community groups such Save Palm School, agree that the site should be preserved as a community resource with historic value, commissioners have also seriously entertained selling the property.

In July, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt proposed in a letter to City Manager Spencer Cronk and Austin City Council members that the county swap ownership of Palm School with the city in exchange for a group of other properties of comparable value.

The Travis Central Appraisal District values the Palm School site at $53 million, with the restrictive covenants taken into consideration.

The city has not yet formally responded to this offer.

Another factor in the county’s motivation is the recently passed property tax revenue cap, which has led commissioners to stress the need to find alternative revenue streams as the cap will limit their ability to raise property tax revenue.

“I’m in no way interested in handcuffing ourselves with the ability to monetize at least some of that tract,” Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said at an Aug. 20 meeting.

Census funding

Commissioners also approved the use of $200,000 of allocated reserves to help fund Census 2020 outreach and education activities at their Sept. 17 meeting.

The funding fits in with the county’s other efforts to support the upcoming census effort, including the appointment of a census program manager earlier this year.

The city of Austin recently budgeted $200,000 for similar activities, and other Texas counties have also committed funds to ensure a successful Census, including Dallas County, which will contribute between $1 million-$1.5 million and Harris County, which will contribute between $3 million-$4 million, according to a brief prepared by Travis County staff.

One analysis cited by Intergovernmental Relations Officer Deece Eckstein at a July 30 meeting estimates that for each person missed in the count, the local community loses $1,500 in federal funding annually.

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Emma Freer
Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her beat includes the Travis County Commissioners Court and local business news. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.
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