The Cost of County Government

 Unfunded Mandates Survey Reveals Eye-Opening Cost of County Government

 

​TAC released the results of its first unfunded mandates survey online earlier this spring. This first-of-its-kind study details the growing financial impact of unfunded and underfunded mandates on county budgets and the property tax payers that fund those budgets.

Unfunded and underfunded mandates are laws or regulations passed by the state or federal government, requiring counties to undertake specific actions or provide certain services, but without any state or federal funds.

“New laws and rules come down all the time, but the funding rarely follows. And these mandates are significant cost-drivers for counties,” said Paul Sugg, TAC’s Legislative Director. “They increase the stress on county budgets, and in turn, on property tax payers. And what’s really concerning is, what happens when you combine this upward pressure on county budgets with the Legislature’s proposed ratcheting down with revenue caps.”

Among the eye-opening findings was a more than 20 percent increase in the cost of the overall judicial system in Texas from approximately $1.2 billion in 2011 to almost $1.6 billion in 2016. The survey showed increasing costs in almost all mandated services. In total, the survey covered 31 separate unfunded and underfunded mandates.

The full report can be found at www.county.org/unfundedmandates.

The study, which looked at five years of data gathered from 98 counties, was conducted by the Texas Association of Counties in cooperation with the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, the Texas Conference of Urban Counties and the Texas Association of County Auditors.

It collected information on the costs of certain unfunded and partially funded mandates and then extrapolated to estimate the annual statewide expenditures by counties for those mandates. The report focuses on the statewide extrapolations to give readers a better grasp of statewide costs incurred by property tax payers.Judicial.png

COUNTIES COULD FEEL THE SQUEEZE

County officials are concerned that proposed revenue caps, like those in Senate Bill 2 (SB 2) will force them to reduce or even eliminate essential services that are not mandated by the state in order to pay for the ever-increasing cost of unfunded mandates like those detailed in the survey.

Among the essential but not mandated services that could be threatened by a revenue cap are law enforcement patrols, economic development incentives, EMS and VFD funding, and road and infrastructure investments.

“When you shift more of the cost to the county, it’s going to get to the point where, because we have to spend what the state says to, now we’ll have to start cutting essential services,” Floyd County Judge Marty Lucke told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “Now we’ll start cutting road service. Now we’re going to have to start cutting law enforcement. In smaller counties where we help senior citizens, that’ll go away.”

Revenue caps are based on the assumption that the need for the basic services counties provide is relatively uniform across the state, and steady from year to year. The reality is, local revenue needs often spike above or below proposed revenue limits.

According to Sugg, these spikes are caused by numerous factors like local growth spurts, declining local or regional economies, receipts of — or reductions in — federal grants, new or modified state and federal mandates, and natural disasters or homeland security breaches.Pages-from-Unfunded-Mandates-Complete-Book-4.png

ENDING UNFUNDED MANDATES

Early in the 85th legislative session, Rep. DeWayne Burns (R-Cleburne) filed House Joint Resolution 73 (HJR 73), protecting counties and cities from unfunded mandates by restricting the legislature’s power to mandate any new requirements of cities and counties without including some sort of funding.

“HJR 73, unlike a revenue cap, actually goes to the root of the problem. It would put an end to the practice at the Legislature of cost-shifting its responsibilities to downstream local governing entities,” Sugg.

On May 11, the Texas House of Representatives decisively passed the bill 127 to 18, sending it to the Senate. It was hailed as a major victory for the idea of pay-as-you-go government. No similar measure has fared this well in the Legislature.

Burns’ bill is not a novel development, and much of the optimism surrounding the bill is tempered by history. In recent memory, Sen. John Carona and representatives Burt Solomons and Garnet Coleman have all filed similar legislation. In all cases, counties signaled strong support for the bills, journalists wrote up stories and commissioners courts passed resolutions in favor of the bills, but despite the groundswell of good press and bipartisan support, the measures all failed.

“The time is right for this,” said Sugg, “The conversation about how the Legislature can do its part to help lower property taxes is happening now, and putting an end to unfunded mandates is part of the solution.”

 

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