Commissioners hold Friday budget hearings with Travis County staff

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Travis County Commissioners held budget hearings Aug. 9-10 to evaluate a number of the 400 plus requests for funding submitted by county staff related to the preliminary FY 2018-19 budget. Staff from emergency management, health and human services, transportation and natural resources, among other county departments presented a range of requests—from upgrading vehicles and equipment to hiring additional staff.

“I’m trying to be mindful of having a countywide approach and not focusing our investments where there are other governmental resources in the field,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said in response to a request for funding school-based social services programs with Austin ISD. “Not that I don’t see tremendous need, tremendous benefit from this program. I’m just trying to figure out what [the county’s unique role]is here.”

The state of Texas requires counties to provide services related to the judicial system, health and social services, law enforcement and county maintained roads. During Aug. 10 budget hearings, the commissioners balanced budget requests with state mandates and an effort to maintain the proposed tax rate of 35.27 cents per $100 of taxable value, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said.

Emergency services requested funding to implement an unmanned aerial system for public safety—using drones to locate people stranded in a flood, inspect bridges and search for victims in a fire or after a tornado. The county currently does not own drones, but multiple teams in the area, including the Department of Public Safety and the city of Austin, have programs already approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The budget request—$50,000 for phase one costs, which include training drone operators, FAA certification and other startup costs—was met with some resistance.

“I would really like to know where we can make a meaningful and different contribution,” Commissioner Brigid Shea said. “If it’s just that those guys have the toys and we want them too, that’s not a good rationale for me.”

The preliminary budget includes funding for a new elections system, additional investments in county parks, as well as funds to support ongoing Travis County programs and services. Workforce investments will be considered and finalized by Commissioners Court later in the budget process, according to county documents.

Estimated at $1.07 billion, the proposed budget is a 3.2 percent increase over the county’s current budget for FY 2017-18.

The property tax rate used in the preliminary budget is 3.37 percent over the effective tax rate. This represents a 2.39 percent increase for the average taxable homestead, meaning residents could see, on average, a $27 increase in the county’s portion of property taxes, or around $2.24 per month.

“If we’re going to keep this tax rate in a spot that all of us are going to be comfortable [with], that’s going to drive what we’re willing to sign off on,” Daugherty said.

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