Transportation, taxes on county radar this session
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
With the Texas Legislature set to open session next week, local officials are watching closely as the Texas House and Senate take up issues and bills that could have a local impact.
For Pct. 2 Commissioner Cynthia Long, potential changes in the property tax system are important to track, even though the county is a small portion of the local property tax pie.
“Obviously there are the things that statewide elected officials and state representatives and various folks ran on talking about property taxes,” she said. “We’re a very small piece of that property tax pie, and the school district is over 60 percent. That’s really where I hope the Legislature focuses on and I think that’s what they’re going to be wrestling with, is how do they provide (that education) in a way that doesn’t push more and more on local property taxpayers.”
Possible tax-related debates may include replacing the current property tax system – which has been discussed before but made little progress – and setting a growth cap on local property taxes.
Long said such a cap would not impact Williamson County like it might many smaller counties.
“The challenges for Williamson County are very different than say Milam County,” she said. “An appraisal cap or revenue cap or whatever that might be would crush Milam County. These smaller counties have much more volatile budgets. One big company could make or break these smaller counties.”
Williamson County’s budgeting history shows there have not been any huge jumps in the budget from one year to the next, but a cap would have a greater impact over time.
“The 4 percent or 5 percent cap that they talk about, we’ve never gone over that, so what they’re talking about wouldn’t impact us now,” Long said. “I’m worried about what that might do in the future because we’re going to continue to grow for the foreseeable future. If there are caps put on we’re going to have to figure out what the impacts are and deal with it.”
If a cap were imposed, Long said the most likely part of the county budget to suffer would be transportation first.
“The thing I think about first and foremost that would have to be curtailed is our transportation program,” she said. “At that point you have to ask if you have the capacity to maintain what you’ve got and what does it look like if we add new capacity.”
With growth continuing in the county, Long said losing transportation funding from the state, or having to curtail the county’s own investment would be a problem.
“We want to make sure from a transportation perspective that we are able to continue to fund necessary transportation projects,” she said. “I firmly believe after the 2020 Census, we will once again be the fastest-growing precinct in the county. Continuing to work with TxDOT and making sure they get proper funding. I’d love to see more funding, but given what’s going on with the whole public school funding thing I don’t see a lot of increases in transportation funding, but we want to see more of the pie directed here.”
Changes could come for toll road projects, with bills that could require voter approval of any new toll road, caps on toll charges and the future of public-private partnerships for financing new toll roads.
“The approach I have is I want all tools on the table,” Long said of toll roads as a transportation funding option. “User pays is one of those tools, meaning toll roads or managed lanes like you have on MOPAC. The direction of the state, and my personal philosophy is we should never take a non-tolled facility and convert it to a tolled facility. I never want to reduce non-tolled options.”
In its budget process in August, Williamson County wrestled with addressing funding for mental health needs, and Long said she hopes that renewed focus on mental health at all levels will help bring funding and solutions from this legislative session.
“One thing that is really common between the county and the school districts is mental health,” Long said. “Given the things that have happened in the state and the nation, I know that is sort of on everybody’s radar. The county has had some great sessions together with the school districts across the county, including Liberty Hill, to see how we can, as a united team, go forward in this next session.”
She said meetings have been held between state, county and school district officials on the issue already. And the schools is where she believes the greatest focus should be.
“It’s a multi-pronged approach, and yes, we absolutely need to improve school safety, but we also need to make sure that we really focus on getting the correct funding to the schools for counseling and for early intervention and things like that,” she said. “The whole behavioral health issue is one that has multiple reasons why we are where we are with lots of theories on how we got there. Just being able to have the right resources in the schools is important, because that’s where, for the most part, we first interact with these kids.”
While increased funding from the state is important, Long would like to see increased local control on how those funds are used.
“Getting appropriate funding, but to where it is not locked down, so that you can have the local school boards or whoever figure out where the best place to spend it is because it is not a one size fits all issue,” she said. “What makes sense for Houston Independent School District is not necessarily what makes sense for Liberty Hill.”