While lawmakers in Austin were continuing to debate how best to wrestle control from local residents and those they elected to serve them, cities across the state began their annual budget deliberations.
Arlington’s new budget offers an inside view of where the money comes from to fund the services people rely on and goes beyond the rhetoric of simplistic and illegitimate claims of how the state is going to cut taxes.
For the second straight year, it’s the city and not the state that is reducing the tax rate and actually lowering property tax bills for some residents.
None of the measures pushed by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to further limit local decision making would have resulted in the reduction of anyone’s property tax bill.
If legislators really wanted to do something within their control, they could have reduced some or all of the money cities are required to send to Austin.
In Arlington’s case, that will come to more than $7 million in the coming year with the state taking a big chunk of the city’s court fines, more than $2 million in sales tax service fees, and payments to other state agencies.
As in previous years, the budget allows for the full menu of property tax reductions including the 20 percent homestead exemption, the 65-and-over tax ceiling, disability and veterans’ exemptions.
When all is said and done, the city’s tax bill accounts for only about 20 percent of residents’ total property tax burden.
That favorable result is largely due to the city’s other principal source of income — the local sales tax, most of which is paid by people who don’t live in Arlington.
A growth of 4 percent in this revenue source is projected for 2018, producing a record flow into the city’s treasury of close to $63 million.
Since the police department alone commands more than the total revenues from available property taxes, that’s a very good outcome. Together with fire department expenditures, public safety again requires two-thirds of the general fund.
Another priority residents say they want addressed is street maintenance. Continuing the record five-year commitment of repairs and construction across the city, almost $26 million of new street work is scheduled in the new budget.
Of particular interest to other wrong-headed ideas pushed by some legislators that would seriously damage local economies are two big commercial assets in the city where the tax breaks provided to help make them happen are ending.
The Parks Mall and the Arlington Highlands will pump some $1.6 million in new property taxes into city coffers. These retail behemoths are also where much of the sales tax revenue is generated, including millions from those outside the city.
Budgets like Arlington’s across the state offer compelling evidence of why legislators and statist organizations such as Empower Texans that heavily fund many of their campaigns should leave local controls where they belong — in the hands of citizens.
Opportunities abound in the coming days and weeks for residents to fully engage in budget decisions. There will be town hall meetings, public hearings, and easy access to mayors and city council members.
If the past is prologue, few will show up to participate. It’s always up to people to decide for themselves if they want to engage with their local officials.
If they don’t, that’s their choice. But failing to do so will and should raise a legitimate question of why not. Complaining later about something the city is or isn’t doing is not as good a practice as proactive engagement at decision time.
Now is your turn. It shouldn’t be missed.
Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor and served as an appointee of President George W. Bush as regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.