County OKs budget

Published on Tuesday, 27 August 2013 19:48 - Written by ADAM RUSSELL

County commissioners Tuesday unanimously approved its 2014 budget and maintained the property tax rate following a final budget hearing.

County spending would rise around 5 percent to $69.6 million compared to $66.2 million last year for operating expenses. County revenues are expected to be almost $75 million, while expenditures, including the jail expansion, are expected to be $86.4 million.

The property tax rate remained 32.2 cents per $100 valuation, which will raise more than $1 million in additional revenue. About $580,000 of that total would come from new property.

There was consensus among commissioners that the budget represented a product of compromise.

“The budget process is difficult,” County Judge Joel Baker said. “You have to make sure the budget takes care of the core functions of government, but there are always more wants and needs.”

In the end, the budget puts about $600,000 more toward the Road and Bridge Department compared to last year. Smith County sheriff’s office received about $800,000 more than last year to pay for 10 new jail employees and equipment.

Employees received a 1.5 percent raise and retirement matches were raised to 125 percent rather than 100 percent after being cut from 200 percent in 2010.

All elected officials, except for members of the commissioners court, will receive pay increases of up to 10 percent.

Two residents spoke against the pay increases, though they directed their opposition at commissioners who were not eligible for the increases.

Grassroots America – We the People Executive Director JoAnn Fleming said her group opposed the budget because the county did not have a comprehensive long-range plan in place. She said the property tax levy has grown 95.4 percent since 2003 and 314 percent since 1993 and that the lack of planning, with regard to basic costs such as road maintenance and employee pay and benefits, county officials have no idea what services will cost a decade from now.

“They might have little plans scattered here and there, but they aren’t following other counties’ models that would help them prioritize spending over the long-term,” she said.

Mrs. Fleming said the county has done a poor job identifying long-term costs associated with maintaining roads, its vehicle fleet and other areas. Failure to establish long-term expectations for costs in every aspect of government leads to reactive governing, she said.

Baker said he has done more planning in the past seven years than in the past few decades. He said the court is not only planning, with regard to facility improvements, and other long-term goals, but also following through on projects.

Mrs. Fleming said her group suggests five- and 10-year plans would help improve decision-making and ensure taxpayer dollars are prioritized efficiently.

During a later agenda item, commissioners rejected a $3,500 budget transfer to pay outstanding billings by non-contract attorneys. Baker said attorneys and 321st District Court Judge Carole Clark were notified commissioners would not pay noncontract attorney bills beyond July 18.

The 321st District Court's approved fiscal year 2013 budget for attorney fees is $732,000. Commissioners have approved two transfers totaling $350,000 since May 28, pushing the court's revised budget to $1,082,000.

“Given our past actions I am assuming (the attorneys) meant (their work) to be pro bono,” Warr said.