Opposition to county's 2015 budget emerges among commissioners

Published on Wednesday, 20 August 2014 10:46 - Written by

BY Adam Russell, arussell@tylerpaper.com

A vote on the county’s 2015 budget is expected next week but opposition among commissioners emerged Tuesday. Three votes are needed among the five-member court to approve the property tax rate and budget for the county’s fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Most of the early budget discussions have been back-and-forth public or behind-the-scenes exchanges between County Judge Joel Baker, the county’s budget officer, and various department heads and elected officials.

Baker proposed an $83 million budget that includes a property tax rate increase, a $2 million transfer from the county’s fund balance (for road projects), an increase to the county’s employee retirement and more than a dozen new positions.

The property tax rate would 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 $2,118,985 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, 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.

Commissioners have said county roads are their No. 1 priority. A majority of court members have said the $2 million transfer would help the county transition out of “maintenance only” mode, which has meant deferring major rebuilds since 2010. Baker has said the revenue created by the property tax rate increase would be dedicated to major road projects.

But commissioners differ on the rate increase and other expenditures.

County Commissioner Terry Phillips and Cary Nix said they would not vote for a tax increase and expressed opposition to increasing employee retirement. Phillips said county saved $5.5 million since reducing the benefit he says is still better than most.

Baker said the benefit increase helps the county compete with other employers and retain staff.

Commissioner Jeff Warr said the retirement should be lower but that he would not vote to lower it.

Phillips also balked at creating a “general counsel” position for commissioners, or an attorney who could advise court members only, regarding policy, real estate and civil matters.

Baker said the position is needed because conflicts of interest arise when a single attorney is available to assist the court and other elected officials and department heads. The various duties of the county attorney can also make it difficult for timely counsel on items with deadlines, he said.

Phillips proposed requesting the District Attorney (the county attorney’s direct supervisor) would relinquish a prosecutor position that could be transitioned into a general counsel position for the court. He moved to strike the general counsel position from the budget but two court members and Baker voted to keep it.

“The budget is tight and there are needs, equipment for the sheriff’s office and need for roads,” Phillips said. “When I look at it, I don’t see a need to raise the retirement and add the general counsel position.”

Former county commissioner Sharon Emmert was cut off from further comment after her time for public comment expired. Public comment is limited to three minutes.

Mrs. Emmert was critical of Baker’s budget process, which is to build a budget based on requests from department heads and elected officials and with the help of the auditor’s office, then propose it by July 31 and have commissioners digest and “partially disassemble what you (and the auditor) have built.

“I understand the process,” she said after court. “Commissioners need to be engaged and I don’t think (Baker’s budget process) allows that.”

Resident Karen Boldt spoke against the tax increase. She said the county should return some responsibilities, including mowing right-of-ways, to landowners to cut costs and avoid a tax increase.

“Raising property taxes just increases the burden, even if it is just $30 to $40,” she said.