Austin’s reputation for big government spending took a bit of a hit in a new report showing it has the lowest taxpayer debt of any large Texas city.
Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, El Paso and San Antonio all carry proportionately higher debt loads, according to Truth in Accounting, a nonpartisan think tank that analyzes public-sector financials.
Among America’s 20 largest cities, Austin had the fourth-lowest taxpayer burden.
Though Austin looks weirdly good by comparison, TIA says the city is no model of fiscal restraint.
Factoring in all pledged liabilities, TIA found that Austin has not fully funded $1.3 billion in city pension payments and has no funding earmarked for $1.4 billion in retiree health-care benefits.
“The amount of Austin’s unfunded liabilities is troubling and I encourage Mayor Steve Adler and his administration to address the situation,” said TIA founder and CEO Sheila Weinberg. “If action isn’t taken, future taxpayers will have to pay for these obligations without receiving any corresponding benefits.”
When all unfunded liabilities are included, Austin’s total debt amounts to $789.3 million after available assets are deducted. The debt works out to $3,000 for each household in Texas’ capital city.
Residents in other Texas cities are on the hook for even more, according to TIA’s net debt computations:
San Antonio — $1.2 billion, or $3,300 per taxpayer.
El Paso — $722 million, or $3,700 per taxpayer.
Fort Worth — $2.3 billion, or $9,700 per taxpayer.
Houston — $7.6 billion, or $11,700 per taxpayer.
Dallas — $6.2 billion, or $16,900 per taxpayer.
Dallas’ taxpayer burden – which TIA called “staggering” – was the nation’s fourth highest. The three worst were New York ($61,000 debt per taxpayer), Chicago ($44,000) and Philadelphia ($27,500).
Dallas, Houston and El Paso — like Austin — set aside no money for retiree health care. Fort Worth’s health-care program is funded at just 7 percent; San Antonio at 40 percent.
The TIA debt calculations are conservative, as they do not include municipal bond debt that is tied to fixed assets.
“Considering that there are balanced-budget requirements, these [debt] numbers should be zero,” Weinberg told Watchdog.org in an interview.
Austin officials did not respond to Watchdog.org’s request for comment.
Weinberg noted that municipal budgets are “convoluted and hard to follow. It’s a huge shell game,” she said.
“Municipal accountants need to clean up their accounting methods and acknowledge the true city debt,” Weinberg advised.
TIA said taxpayer burden is “more than just a number.”
“It can be linked to a lower quality of life, poor highway systems and slow home price recovery,” the study concluded.
Kenric Ward reports for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @Kenricward