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Carlos B. Lopez, Constable

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Bruce Elfant

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Constable's Notebook - June 2004

Over the next three months the City of Austin and Travis County officials will be setting their annual budgets that fund public safety, EMS, the courts, healthcare, roads, parks, libraries, etc. Cities are funded primarily through sales and property taxes while counties must rely mostly on property taxes. Property tax appraisals have dropped by about 5% and sales tax collections are down by about 3%. As a result the City of Austin faces an estimated $75 million shortfall. Since local units of government are constitutionally required to adopt balanced budgets, they will have to raise taxes (or user fees), cut services or do a combination of both.

State budget cuts to many programs will make it even harder for cities and counties to balance their budgets. Thousands of Texans who will no longer have access to health care will be forced to turn to city or county funded hospital emergency rooms which is by far the most expensive and least effective method of providing health care services. Cuts to probation, mental health and drug treatment services will mean that many that relied on these services will be placed or kept in our jails.

The spending decisions that our city council members and commissioners will be making are the most difficult budget choices they have had to make in many years. Most of us don’t want our taxes raised or our services cut. If you were a council member or county commissioner what budget decisions would you make? At least half of city and county budgets are comprised of public safety funding (police, fire and EMS). There is little support to cut public safety. You could follow the state’s lead and cut health and human services, but most believe that these services are already under-funded and cuts here would result in more expensive consequences. Funding for parks, libraries and pools are aggressively defended by neighborhood activists. Local health and safety code enforcement previously cut has already rendered their enforcement problematic. What about roads? You could cut funds for roads and road improvements but you would be run out of office - or worse! Just cut out the waste. Yes there is waste in city and county government. The city manager has already made about a million in cuts and identified another $2 million in savings. If you cannot find $75 million in cuts, would you consider increasing user fees or taxes? Increasing taxes is the least favorite option for any politician. But cutting programs that support the safety, health and well being of our community is not easy either.

The bottom line is that the city and county cannot maintain all services without increasing taxes. Conversely they cannot hold the line on taxes without making some deep cuts in services. It is important that individuals and community organizations let our leaders know what services should be funded and how they should be paid for. After all, we are the ones who will have to live with and pay for the decisions they make.



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