County tax liability pays off

Travis County has again received a Triple A Bond rating from Moody’s Investor Service and S&P Global Ratings. We are one of only seven counties to have this rating among the 254 in Texas. Travis County has high rates due to our large and diverse tax base amid a strong economy that relies on the state government, the University of Texas and other institutions, tech companies like Dell Technologies and Samsung, expansions with Amazon, Apple and Google and newcomers Oracle, Tesla and more. Moody’s and S&P complement the county’s historic strong fiscal performance attributed to the economy and prudent financial policies and management practices, and now to our pandemic handling and strong reserves. The 2020 budget has been well managed and despite the income shortfalls, we ended 2020 with a decent surplus of income over expenses, leaving room for another solid, but more modest result in 2021. Working under an imposed budget cap by the state legislature of only 3.5% increase from 2021. last year, for most local tax entities, Travis County continues to operate on a “medium and light” basis. Thus, the planned $ 247 million from Travis County under U.S. Federal Recovery Plan Act and other federal funds becoming available can and should address unmet local needs exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and otherwise beyond the reach of our generally and deliberately thrifty county budget. .

As County Commissioner for District 3, which stretches from downtown Austin to Jonestown, Briarcliff, Lakeway, Westlake and San Leanna, I will have one of five votes on how we invest wisely. those ARPA dollars. (Along with other jurisdictions, including the city of Austin, our region will see nearly half a billion dollars invested over the next 3 years.) Spending this much new and one-time money over the course of a few years is uncharted territory , but what we know that year after year we manage our money well and better than most. I’ll turn to our County Budget Team for advice as I vote to take bold action to make things better – for all of us.

I am particularly interested in building community resilience through emergency preparedness, skills training and land conservation, and addressing homelessness by expanding access to affordable housing, housing assistance and mental, physical and behavioral health care. The COVID-19 pandemic and historic winter storm have shown us the vulnerabilities of our community in these areas and we must act now. While we will need to increase county staff in some areas to accomplish this work, I am considering investing with community partners to scale up proven strategies in these areas. I look forward to working with our small towns, and with Austin and the private sector so that we can make lasting and transformational change.

I’m encouraged that if we strategize to reduce not only our specific Travis County allocation, but also the maximum amount we can of the myriad of other large federal funds for rent assistance, food assistance, small business support, child care support, infrastructure, etc., we can scale up effective programs over multiple years, 2021-2024. A guarantee of funding over two and three years – as long as the results are achieved – at amounts that actually cover the costs of the program would be a game-changer in any sector and catalyze the collective impact that we envisioned but did not. ‘ve never realized.

Real transformational capacity requires that we collaborate and coordinate with our regional government partners who also have access to federal funds, and with private funders who can help us make (1) wise community investments in conjunction with their philanthropy, and (2) start now to prepare with us for the cliff of federal funding after 2024, when that money is gone. Many partners, public and private, are already involved with us in the development of our county plans and other community plans (such as childcare, labor, rehabilitation, homelessness).

These partners use community data and academic research to analyze program outcomes, housing needs, funding gaps and opportunities, and they engage clients, patients, providers and consumers on what works. and what does not work. For years, the people of Travis County have asked the county for funds to identify where in community plans and collaborations their program fits. But our community does not have comprehensive community planning that actually influences funding decisions. We should (1) use this push for federal funding collaboratively to achieve and model transformational and collective impact and (2) use the next three years to build with our partners a strong plan to support what is needed beyond 2024.

So, as we continue to discuss our process for making wise investments, I suggest referring to the community plans already developed and moving forward with the following:

1. Strengthen our workforce

• Increase access to childcare services and strengthen the childcare network

• Increase vocational training and skills development programs, including the development of the Travis County Civilian Climate Corps to improve our resilience to climate change and pandemics

These initiatives are informed by the strategic plans of Centraide Success by 6 Coalition and 2-Gen Coalition, Austin Metro Area Master Community Workforce Plan, Workforce Solutions, Travis County HHS Investment Strategy, Austin Travis County Community Wildfire Protection Plan, city of Austin Civilian Conservation Body

2. Build resilience to climate change

• Catalyze efforts of neighborhoods and developers to harden homes against fires and reduce the risk / intensity of fires in open spaces

• Implement plans to reduce carbon emissions to net zero (teleworking, electric vehicles, etc.)

• Strengthen water and gas distribution networks across the county

• Paving the roads that families use to access schools, doctors and grocery stores

This work is informed by local, state and federal plans, including the Austin Travis County Community Forest Fire Protection Plan, the Urban Wildlands Interface Code, the Balcones Canyonlands Plan, and the Plan. of Travis County Climate Action.

3. Fight against homelessness

• Explore ways to encourage more affordable housing across the county and demand that these developments contribute to the resettlement effort.

• Provide housing support, skills training and counseling to help end youth homelessness in 2022

• Contribute to the community-wide effort to resolve homelessness by relocating 3,000 people in three years and expanding access to health care and jobs.

• Replace costly incarceration with health care and housing for people with mental illness

The above initiatives are informed by the 2017 Action Plan to End Homelessness, the ECHO Racial Disparities Report in Austin / Travis County 2019, the Coordinated Community Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness in Youth and the 2021 Summit to Address Homelessness Homelessness, as well as support from the Behavioral Health Advisory Committee, the Re-entry roundtable and the local report, Locked Out: Criminal History Barriers to Affordable Rental Housing in Austin.

In addition to advancing the work described above, we should simultaneously explore with our partners a process to engage community stakeholders on system level priorities and strategies to address other community needs caused, impacted. and revealed by COVID. I would like this work to include an equity-focused incubation strategy to fund grassroots initiatives that are not initially eligible for federal funding and that would struggle to meet county purchasing requirements, if our prudent and sound fiscal policies can support it.

Ann Howard is Travis County District 3 Commissioner.

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