It’s no secret Austin is in an affordability crisis. Across the city, homeowners are drowning in skyrocketing property taxes and have already been forced to move out of town as a result.
But never fear, the Austin City Council has a plan to help homeowners—by raising their sky-high taxes even higher. At a recent meeting, council members laid the groundwork for a tax increase later this summer while seeking to lay the blame at the feet of other elected officials.
Mayor Steve Adler began by acknowledging the current crisis homeowners face:
“The affordability challenges in this city are hitting lots of people. It’s hitting people at the lowest end, the most in need, but it is also hitting people in the middle as well. We need to do everything we can to help those at the lowest end because they are the most in need.”
Yet the mayor went on to say the city would most likely increase taxes again next year, taking more cash away from all homeowners and hurting lower income residents who need the money most. Adler has voted for tax increases every year since being elected.
But despite those decisions, according to Adler, Austin’s high property taxes aren’t his fault: they’re the fault of the Texas Legislature and of Austin ISD.
“The reason we feel like there’s a property tax crisis in this city is not the result of city taxes or county taxes, it’s because the state property tax has gone up 288 percent in the last five years,” said Adler.
Yet taxpayers don’t have to look hard to find the increases they’re paying to the city as well. The average Austin homeowner is paying almost 80 percent more in city taxes than they did ten years ago.
Council Member Delia Garza showed an image of her own property tax bill from last year. The bill listed that $3,181 of her taxes went to the Austin Independent School District, while only about $1,200 went to the city.
“You’ll see that the great majority of your property tax bill goes to AISD. It goes to the state,” she said. “And the fraction of what’s supposed to go to AISD goes to the state’s general fund. When I keep hearing people talk about property tax relief, [they say] it’s the city, why is the city—the city’s about 20 percent of your entire property tax.”
Both Garza and Adler blamed the state’s “Robin Hood” program for the huge increase in taxes. “Robin Hood” or “recapture”, part of the state’s education funding plan, provides for the taking of property tax revenues from “rich school districts” and redistributing it to poorer school districts across the state.
It’s a terrible system plagued with problems, and Adler and Garza are justified in criticizing it. They’re also guilty of doing the same thing.
Though they claim to be upset about the state’s system, Austin’s city council routinely takes money from Austinites, both poor and rich, and redistributes it to other residents.
At the same meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo joined in the chorus complaining about Robin Hood. But Tovo didn’t complain about Austin residents being overtaxed, as she’s voted against measures to reduce property taxes. She claimed the city council should have the money instead.
“We desperately need that money and more of it to help fund the programs that benefit all Austinites,” she said.
Cities have necessary expenses like police, fire, and roads, and sometimes more funds are needed for those as a city grows. But in Austin’s case, when they waste $140 million over budget on a flawed tunnel, or spend millions giving handouts to special businesses, or have programs that give away money with no oversight, taxpayers are right to express little confidence in their requests for even more.
It’s true that the majority of the burn taxpayers are feeling is the result of other taxing entities, but that doesn’t excuse the Austin City Council for throwing matches on the fire. Indeed, because of their exorbitant spending sprees, the Austin City Council already spends 75 percent more money per resident than any other big city in Texas.
The city council can change their decisions and stop pouring gasoline on the fire. They should acknowledge the role they’ve played in bringing about higher taxes and do what they can to provide relief to homeowners. They can start by lowering the city’s taxes and cutting the wasteful spending—cutting the same harmful policies they blame others for practicing.
Meanwhile, Austinites must hold the city council accountable. Otherwise, the fire will only get worse.