Comptroller seeks to educate Texans about debt

03/29/2014 3:54 PM

03/30/2014 4:39 PM

Want to know how much a city or school district is in debt before going to the polls?

It used to be too hard to find out, according to Texas Comptroller Susan Combs.

So her office launched a website last week to lay out the facts so that voters would be better-informed when they go to the polls May 10, Combs said.

The website, Tell the Truth Texas: Debt at a Glance, includes debt definitions, downloadable data sets, interactive maps and a brief look at each municipality’s debt, including debt per capita, and tax- and revenue-supported debt.

It also includes tax rates and how each government compares with others of its size. It includes cities, school districts, counties and special utility districts.

Texas has the second-highest municipal debt of the 10 most-populous states, owing $195.81 billion at the end of fiscal 2012.

The data was not easy to collect, Combs said, because some governments did not respond or send information.

“If it is really, really hard for us to find out, then it is five times harder for the average citizen and that is hard because the average citizen is the one paying for it,” she said.

Being open

Combs got the idea for the website after holding 40 town hall meetings statewide in 2012 and discovering that residents could not tell her how much their local governments owed.

Legislation was proposed to make that easier to find out — House Bill 14, which would have required tougher debt reporting requirements for local governments — but it died in the 83rd Legislature.

“We were concerned that the effort by schools, counties and cities is that they didn’t want this reported,” Combs said of the bill. “What struck me is that the underlying themes seemed to be that most taxpayers aren’t smart enough to figure this out, but of course they are smart enough to pay.”

After the bill died, Combs’ office started in June to gather information on municipal debt itself, filing open-records request and gathering information for every municipality in Texas.

“From my perspective as chief financial officer of the state, if the city gets in trouble, that means its citizens are being faced with a tough situation and I want the citizens of the state of Texas to be in good financial health,” she said.

Fort Worth: debt at a glance

Fort Worth’s tax-supported debt per capita has grown 26.5 percent from 2003 to 2012, according to data on the website. The total tax-supported debt, excluding interest, was $760 million as of August, according to the website.

But Aaron Bovos, the city’s chief financial officer, said that number is misleading because it includes bonds sold by Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, which Fort Worth is not liable for.

“That website, while I think it is great and it shows transparency, it shows that we have more debt than we actually have because of the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport,” Bovos said. “We are not legally obligated to any of that.”

Excluding the airport debt, as of October, the city’s outstanding principal for property-tax-supported debt was $703.395 million, and the city owed $254.81 million in outstanding interest.

The $292 million bond package on the May 10 ballot will not require a tax increase, and Bovos said the city is careful not to carry full debt capacity in case of market changes or other unexpected situations.

Fort Worth has lower tax-supported debt than similar cities, with Austin at $1.255 billion, Dallas at $1.69 billion and El Paso at $892 million, according to the website.

Local governments are not required to report data for debt that is either not considered a public security as defined by state law or does not require approval by the office of the state attorney general, including short-term notes and certificates of obligation delivered to contractors, according to the website.

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