Federal Dollars into Travis County – Fiscal Responsibility Pays Off

Travis County again received a Triple A Bond Rating from both Moody’s Investor Service and S&P Global Ratings. We are one of only seven counties to have this rating among the 254 counties in Texas. Travis County rates high because of our large and diverse property-tax base amidst a strong economy that’s grounded in state government, The University of Texas and other institutions, tech companies like Dell Technologies and Samsung, expansions with Amazon, Apple and Google and newcomers Oracle, Tesla, and more. Both Moody’s and S&P complement the county’s strong historical budgetary performance attributed to the economy and to prudent financial policies and management practices, and now our handling of the pandemic and our strong reserves. The 2020 budget was managed well, and despite revenue shortfalls, we ended 2020 with a decent surplus, making way for another strong, yet more modest showing in 2021. Working under a legislatively-imposed budget cap allowing for a mere 3.5% increase over last year for most local taxing entities — so low that even our own former Republican Commissioner Gerald Dougherty testified in 2019 against the fiscal  cap — Travis County continues to operate “lean and mean.” Thus, the anticipated $247 million federal dollars coming to Travis County from the American Recovery Plan Act, and other federal funds becoming available can and should address unmet local needs exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and that would otherwise be beyond reach for our typically and purposefully thrifty County budget.

A longer version of this blog appeared in the Westlake Picayune. As your County Commissioner for Precinct 3, which stretches from downtown Austin to Jonestown, Briarcliff, Lakeway, Westlake and San Leanna, I’ll have one of five votes on how we wisely invest these Federal dollars in Travis County. (Together with other jurisdictions including the City of Austin, our region will see nearly half a billion dollars to invest over the next 3+ years.) Spending this much new, one-time money in just a few years is unchartered territory, but what we know is that, year after year, we manage our money well and better than most. I’ll look to our County budget team for guidance as I vote to take bold steps towards making things better — for all of us.

I’m particularly interested in strengthening community resiliency thru emergency preparedness, job training and land conservation, and in addressing homelessness by expanding access to affordable housing, rental assistance and mental, physical and behavioral healthcare. The COVID-19 pandemic and Storm Uri have shown us our community’s vulnerabilities in these areas, and we should take action now. While we will need to grow county staff in some areas to accomplish this work, I envision investing with community-based partners to scale proven strategies to accomplish these goals. I’m eager to collaborate with our small cities, with Austin, and the private sector so we can make sustainable, transformational change to promote fiscal responsibility.

Real transformation in Travis County requires that we collaborate and coordinate with our regional governmental partners — who also have access to federal dollars — and with private funders who can help us 1) make wise community investments in conjunction with their philanthropy, and 2) prepare for the federal funding cliff after 2024 when this money will no longer exist. Many partners, public and private, participate with us already on building our county and other community plans (like childcare, workforce development, re-entry of the formerly incarcerated, homelessness). These partners use community data and academic research to analyze program outcomes, housing needs, funding gaps and opportunities, and they engage clients, patients, providers and consumers on what’s working and what’s not. For years, Travis County folks requesting County dollars have been required to identify where their programs fit in community plans and collaborations. But our community lacks the overarching community planning that’s needed to impact fiscal decisions. We should 1) use this surge of federal funding collaboratively to model and achieve transformational change and 2) use the next three years to build with our partners solid plans to sustain what’s needed beyond 2024.

So, as we continue to discuss our process for making wise investments, I suggest we reference already developed community plans and move forward with the following:

1. Strengthen our workforce
2. Build resiliency to climate change
3. Address homelessness

In addition to moving this work forward, we should concurrently explore with our partners a process to engage community stakeholders on system-level priorities and strategies for addressing other community needs caused, impacted and revealed by COVID. I’d like this work to include an equity-focused incubator strategy that funds grassroot initiatives. While keeping with our prudent and sound fiscal policies, I would like this to include organizations whose proposals don’t yet qualify for federal funding and that may need mentoring to advance to the point that they can meet county purchasing requirements.

If you would like to visit further regarding federal dollars in Travis County, please visit my contact page.