Yes, Austin, your taxes are rising (and more to come)

Aerial view of an Austin neighborhood.
RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Lately I’ve been feeling like a grad student at III Forks. The menu looks great. I’m just not sure I can afford it.

Officials have recently unveiled several ambitious proposals befitting Austin’s progressive reputation. A modern transit system, possibly with light rail lines, that could cost upwards of $10.5 billion to build. A $250 million to $300 million investment in much-needed affordable housing. At least $33 million to fix up some city pools — or make that $60 million if you want to cover all the needed repairs to prevent any pools from closing.

And maybe it’s just bad timing, but all of these proposals bubbled up the same week we got our new property value assessments. Let me guess: Yours went up, too.

So you can bet, despite the drumbeat on affordability over the past few years, that higher tax bills are coming. Not because there’s no other way: Officials could lower the tax rate to offset the rising values, such that homeowners would pay the same amount as last year. But that rarely happens. The government’s need for your tax dollars is too great. More often than not, officials get the best of both worlds: They enjoy political cover by touting no increase in tax rate, while raking in the extra dollars from applying that same old tax rate to your increasingly valuable home.

You may remember last year’s sobering analysis by American-Statesman reporters Melissa B. Taboada, Mary Huber and Claire Osborn, which found the average Austin homeowner was paying $7,607 in property taxes, an increase of $517 over the previous year and a $1,342 spike from five years earlier. Those rising bills get folded into rents, too, and not surprisingly, a study last year found nearly half of Austin renters were “burdened,” or spending more than 30 percent of their income just to keep the roof over their head.

We’re hurting. But instead of relief, we’re getting new proposals to spend even more money.

City and county officials are quick to note — and rightly so — that the largest and fastest growing piece of your property tax bill comes from the state’s dysfunctional system for raising public school revenue. True. And state lawmakers need to fix that, urgently.

But local officials don’t get a pass. They’re adding to the pricey menu, too.

Capital Metro officials are months away from finalizing their Project Connect plan, which includes rapid bus or light rail lines up North Lamar/Guadalupe, down South Congress and out to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, among other routes. Early estimates suggest the system would see 121,900 boardings per day across nine new routes, easily taking tens of thousands of cars off the road and providing better service to many who need it — all laudable goals.

The price tag could come in considerably lower than $10.5 billion, if officials opt for buses instead of rail, among other things. But this system would take new tax dollars nonetheless. As early as 2020, Cap Metro could ask voters to open their wallets for the first phase.

By then, taxpayers will notice their bills rising from the $720 million “go big” transportation bond approved in 2016 (a tax increase of $56 to $108 a year, depending on various factors), as well as the $1 billion Austin schools bond (officials never gave a clear number on the cost to homeowners) and the $185 million Travis County road, parks and drainage bonds passed last year (costing up to $24 a year for the typical homeowner). Again, all worthy projects. All adding to your tax bill.

Meanwhile, the city of Austin is crafting its big ask of voters for this fall. Council Members Greg Casar, Delia Garza and Sabino “Pio” Renteria, whose districts are home to many of Austin’s poorest residents, are calling for a $250 million to $300 million affordable housing bond. All three have touted the plan as one that won’t raise taxes — meaning, the tax rate. But remember your rising home values? For the owner of the median value home, keeping the same debt service tax rate could add roughly $24 to the tax bill, city officials told me.

Yes, I could absorb that $2 a month, especially to help my neighbors. But the ask will likely be more than that.

Garza, whose District 2 in southeast Austin has some of the city’s worst flooding issues, wants another bond to support flood buyouts, drainage improvements and land buys of open space to prevent future flooding problems. She hasn’t settled on a number yet.

And the numbers could get bigger still. Working groups with the city’s bond advisory task force have drawn up proposals totaling $851 million in bond funding, to cover everything from parkland and some pool repairs to new fire stations and about half of the affordable housing that Casar, Garza and Renteria are pushing for. The task force may revise its numbers before making its formal pitch to City Council members next week. The council will hammer out a package to its liking over the next few months before asking voters to decide in November.

It’s not a simple calculation at this point to determine what an $851 million bond, for the sake of discussion, might cost the typical homeowner. The city does the borrowing in pieces over several years, while at the same time earlier bonds are getting paid off, making a bottom line calculation challenging.

But you can bet it’s more money than what you’re paying today, and that’s not even counting the main tax rate you pay to support day-to-day operations at the city,  including salaries for police officers, firefighters and other city staffers. Those taxes have also climbed in recent years, and at a budget forecast presentation to council members this week, the question wasn’t whether to raise taxes even more, but by how much.

I tugged on Garza’s elbow at this week’s Fair Housing Summit, not only about the proposed affordable housing bond, but about the big picture. A few years ago she championed the creation of a regional affordability committee, made up of representatives from various taxing entities, after recognizing the cumulative effect on taxpayers when $50 is added here, $75 there, another $100 over there. She told me the coordination among taxing entities isn’t as far along as she’d hoped — “it’s still very siloed,” she said — but added the discussions have been worthwhile.

She acknowledged “it is a delicate balancing act” between raising taxes to provide more affordable housing and adding to the tax burden that’s making Austin increasingly unaffordable. “Even if this bond were approved,” she said, “the impact on your average homeowner would not be significant.”

It’s just one bite. Voters will decide in November if they have the appetite for it.