Baker ‘massages’ property tax increase in proposed budget

Published on Tuesday, 19 August 2014 14:28 - Written by arussell@tylerpaper.com

Adam Russell

County Judge Joel Baker said he continues to “massage” Smith County’s budget, making small changes to a proposed budget that has gone largely unchanged since late July.

Baker and County Auditor Ann Wilson visited the Tyler Morning Telegraph Monday morning to discuss Smith County’s 2015 budget with its Editorial Board.

Baker’s $83 million budget includes a property tax rate increase to 33 cents from 32.3564 cents per $100 valuation, or about six-tenths of 1 cent.

A tax bill on a $100,000 home would go up $6.44 to $330 compared to $323.56 per year.

The proposed budget would raise $2.12 million more revenue from property taxes than last year, a 4.7 percent increase. More than $822,000 of that increase is from new property on tax rolls.

It also would add 19 new positions, including 12 jailers in preparation for phased entry into the downtown jail expansion.

It alsowould add an attorney position. The attorney would act as “general counsel” to the commissioners court. The budget also creates a “county administrator” who would actively manage several departments at the pleasure of the court and act similarly to a city manager.

Baker has also proposed an across-the-board 1.8 percent cost-of-living increase for employees and move the county s retirement rate to up to a 175 percent match from 125 percent. The county had matched 200 percent before 2010, when it was cut back to 100 percent due to the poor economy.

The budget also calls for a one-time transfer of $2 million to a fund dedicated to major county road projects.

Baker said the court would dedicate the tax increase to the county road project fund. It represents about $940,000 in revenue. The transfer and property tax increase would give the Road and Bridge Department about $3 million in additional funding compared to last year, more than $11 million total.

There is hope that a county road plan will be ready for implementation by spring and that major projects can begin in the summer, Baker said. Baker expects the consulting firm’s inventory of county roads and cost estimate to improve them would be more than $20 million.

Baker said he wants to get underway by bidding out major, prioritized projects and then open dialogue with the public regarding how to address county roads over the long-term, whether “pay-go” or by issuing bonds.

There was discussion regarding a policy change that would allow Sheriff Larry Smith to hire new staff at pay levels their experience warrants.

Ms. Wilson said there was no rule preventing Smith from hiring qualified employees at certain levels but that “moves up the ladder” must be quantified within the budget because they could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. They could also create problems with regard to discrimination and favoritism, she added.

Baker said the court would have to implement some sort of “controls” that allow the sheriff and other departments to manage their staff within their respective budgets.

Baker said he is looking for more money within the budget to fund more vehicles for the sheriff’s office.

Baker said he didn’t know how court members might vote on the proposed budget. Three votes are necessary to approve a budget and property tax rate.

The court will vote on the budget and property tax rate Aug. 26. A budget workshop is scheduled today after commissioners consider regular agenda items. The meeting begins at 9:30 a.m. inside the Courthouse Annex Building, 200 E. Ferguson St. in Tyler.

“These are the things I think will help the county decades down the road,” he said. “They’re hard to demonstrate but I think they will improve the way we operate.”