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Here comes Harris County’s budget

It’s as bad as you’d expect.

A budget on its way to Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday would cut $138 million from current spending on roads, inoculating against disease, promoting economic development, constables’ patrols and performing other services.

The county must bring its spending down to $1.2 billion for the year that begins March 1 because the biggest source of its income — property taxes – is expected to plummet in the wake of a recession that has eroded the taxable value of local homes and businesses.

The cuts make this year’s budget the starkest in decades.

[…]

County Judge Ed Emmett had spoken of the fiscal crisis throughout last fall as an opportunity to limit county government to necessities and to shed nonessential functions. He also called for zero-based budgeting, in which each department would start without money and justify each expense as it built a new spending plan.

None of that happened.

“It’s a delayed opportunity,” Emmett said of the proposed budget. “I do think we need to be looking at what county government should be doing instead of just saying, ‘Well, we’re going to do less of what we’ve always been doing.’ ”

[…]

Commissioners Court has not raised the overall property tax rate in 15 years and, in fact, lowered it in 2007. In September, Commissioners Court cut the county government tax rate, forgoing $19 million in the process, to offset an increase in the tax rate for the Port of Houston Authority, to expand the Bayport Container Terminal.

It seems to me that one could just as easily argue that the county has never done all of the things it should be doing. I’ve no doubt that Judge Emmett would agree that there is a great unmet need for mental health services in Harris County. That is sure to continue, even though providing MHMRA with sufficient funding would allow for greater savings elsewhere, specifically in the jails. And given our long-term aversion to any increases in the property tax rate, perhaps the problem isn’t just spending money on stuff we could do without, but not providing enough revenue to adequately spend on the stuff we can’t do without.

But let’s grant Judge Emmett’s wish and say we go with a budget that only provides for the absolute necessities. What then happens when property values recover and the county starts taking in more revenue? My fear is that we’ll just cut the tax rate again, thus ensuring we will be right back in this position again the next time there’s a downturn, having to define “necessity” down. That doesn’t sound like a sustainable path. What kind of long-term vision do we have, and how do we expect to pay for it?

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  1. […] plenty of detail, so click over and see what’s being said. One point to note, in that recent story about Harris County’s budget for the upcoming year, there was this tidbit: Because three-quarters of the budget is spent on […]