It’s not always easy to understand the complex world of local government finance, especially when involves local debt that spreads out across municipalities, counties and school districts.
In the Lone Star State, the Texas Tribune has assembled a helpful tool to explore the local debt landscape across the entire state, built upon data from Texas Bond Review Board that’s current as of August 2013.
Using a simple ZIP code search, you can get a better sense of all the debt obligations a particular locality has.
For instance, in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, population 82,480, the city has $213,225,000 in outstanding debt. Breaking that down, that debt snapshot includes $108,232,234 in interest, $321,457,234 in debt service and breaks down to $2,585 per resident—and that doesn’t include debt from Fort Bend County and the county school system.
To launch its local debt explorer tool, the Texas Tribune featured Jarrell, a small city north of Austin that has one of the highest local debt loads in the entire state—$10.3 million in total that works out to $9,928 per resident. In most Texas cities, the debt load works out to less than $1,000 per resident, according to the Tribune.
Why is Jarrell’s debt load so high? As the Tribune explains, it has to do with a wastewater treatment system and bad timing. But many Texas localities are facing severe debt situations as they try to keep up with increasing populations and the local services they need:
Jarrell’s story is an extreme example of the way hundreds of Texas communities are relying more on borrowing to handle basic public services. Over the last decade, local government debt has grown around the country, but Texas, with an economic performance in recent years that has outpaced the rest of the country, is a special case. Of the 10 largest states, Texas has the second-highest local debt per capita as cities and school districts have gone on a borrowing spree to maintain or expand amenities while not raising taxes.
Click around to explore local debt in Texas here.