Riding a growing tax base driven by $1.5 billion in new residential development and $623 million in commercial development in Bexar County over the last year, Commissioners Court called for the first tax rate cut since 1994.
Bexar County Manager David Smith presented the 2014-15 Proposed Budget to the Court on Tuesday, which included an $86 million countywide tax rate cut on an overall tax base projected at $112 billion for 2015, $8 billion more than the current 2014 base of $104 billion.
"Since 1994 the Commissioners Court has never raised the tax rate and has reduced it by six cents overall," Smith said.
The proposed 2014-15 budget of $1.695 billion is less than the 2013-14 $1.76 billion, and well under the $2.04 billion budget for 2012-13, which Smith said was due to completion or near-completion of a number of major capital projects.
For individual property owners, Smith's proposed budget would translate to a tax rate reduction from the current $0.3268 to $0.3206 per $100 of property.
In an election year when the county seems to have sufficient funds to budget a generous raise for exempt employees to follow the raises it gave non-exempt employees in the last budget, Smith's proposed cut was not enough for commissioners. Precinct 2 Commissioner Paul Elizondo urged a bigger cut, and he was quickly joined by County Judge Nelson Wolff.
"I wish you'd see if we could get below the effective tax rate," Wolff told Smith.
"In other words, another .6 of a cent," Smith said, having already offered a cut of that amount in his proposed budget.
"Right," said Wolff.
The 1.2 cent reduction will amount to a new proposed rate of $0.3145, a fraction less than the 2015 effective tax rate of $0.3149, enough to push the cumulative reduction to $98 million.
Homeowners won't notice much difference in their bill. A $100,000 home would have a county tax bill of $326.86, which would then be reduced by $12.36.
Rising property values and assessed valuations account for significant revenue growth, too, and one measure of that is the $4 billion in property valuations currently under appeal.
Smith said the county focused on "accelerated capital projects" during the Great Recession to create jobs, take advantage of low-interest rates, and stimulate growth. Many of those flood control projects, road and park improvements, and investment in law enforcement and detention facilities are now being completed or are finished.
Smith said the County's new focus is on improved services, in particular meeting the needs of the fast-growing reaches of the county as metro San Antonio continues to develop mostly in suburban areas, despite the heightened focus on the urban core in recent years.
Public Safety Investment
A fair amount of the budget presentation dealt with public safety investments, including 20 new officers, two new patrol substations, new dispatch communications technology, and raises for uniform personnel under the County's collective bargaining agreement.
When the presentation turned to tasers, body armor, and guns, Elizondo expressed concerns about recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and asked if there were any efforts to militarize Bexar County Sheriff's Department officers. That drew quick assurances to the contrary from Sheriff Susan Pamerleau.
"In the past several years, we have not asked for any military equipment," Pamerleau said.
"At one time we had a constable's office with all kinds of equipment, helicopters..." said Elizondo, drawing laughs from county workers.
Justice System and Health and Welfare Programs
Justice system investments center on increasing county efforts to improve drug treatment alternatives to jail and early intervention programs to reduce the number of mentally ill individuals who get arrested and jailed when the services they require are more likely to be found at the Haven For Hope.
"I've always heard that the biggest mental health care provider is the Bexar County Jail," said Precinct 4 Commissioner Tommy Adkisson.
Even with more individuals being successfully diverted to non-detention programs, the county jail staff will grow next year to oversee an estimated 4,500 inmates, an increase of 3-400 over last years, but still well below the numbers seen five years ago.
The county also is funding a range of health and welfare programs that aim to reduce adult substance abuse, prevent child abuse, promote parenting classes, and provide for the growing number of vulnerable elderly. A small staff of five people will be hired to conduct outreach efforts in the country to get more people using available social services.
Eastside Promise Zone
The county is joining the city in leveraging federal dollars flowing to the Eastside, but one of its announced projects is likely to intensify the debate over library services and whether the county is starting to build its own system independent of the city's public library system.
The new budget contains a new BiblioTech digital library for the Eastside, which Wolff said Mayor Ivy Taylor requested when she was still the District 2 Councilmember. The city already has a $17 million branch library on the drawing boards for the Eastside which will open in 2016 and include a six-acre campus to promote wellness and recreation opportunities in the community.
The county's Eastside plans also include a $4 million contribution to the Menger Creek Linear Park.
Beyond the city limits, the county has agreed to jointly fund a new animal shelter with the city of Kirby.
The county began working with a compensation consultant more than a year ago, and in 2014 gave increases to non-exempt employes to bring salaries more in line with the local and regional market. The increases, which averaged 7.47 percent, were in addition to cost-of-living increases.
The new budget contains funds to give the county's 1,080 exempt employees, mostly managers and other professionals, a 6.6 percent increase.
Non-exempt employees, meanwhile, will get a three percent cost of living increase, as will any exempt employees who did not get a salary increase as a result of the consultant's study.
The county's new livable wage is $11.67 an hour, which is tied the federal poverty level for the region.
Uniform personnel, who are in the last year of a three-year contract, also will receive a three percent cost of living increase and, come October, everyone wearing a uniform will receive a onetime lump sum payment of $500.
Both Bexar County and the City of San Antonio are on parallel tracks to approve proposed budgets for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The county has a series of work sessions and tax rate hearings scheduled for early September that are open to the public. Commissioners Court is scheduled to vote approval of the budget on Sept. 16, perhaps by grito given that will be amid 16 de septiembre celebrations.
Click here to read the county's press release on Tuesday's proposed budget presentation. Click here to download the Proposed Budget from bexar.org. The Rivard Report will make the schedule of hearings available as soon as they are posted.