Preliminary budget raises taxes, adds19 positions

Published on Wednesday, 30 July 2014 22:27 - Written by ADAM RUSSELL arussell@tylerpaper.com

The preliminary Smith County budget includes new employee positions, cost-of-living and benefit increases for employees, raiding county reserves and raising property taxes slightly.

County Judge Joel Baker went over highlights of his $83 million budget during a budget workshop Wednesday, which must be filed by 5 p.m. today.

Baker’s budget would add 19 new positions, including 12 jailers to prepare for phased entry into the downtown jail expansion. It also would give employees an across-the-board 1.8 percent cost-of-living increase and move the county’s retirement rate to up to a 175 percent match from 125 percent. The county had matched 200 percent prior to 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 also is suggesting the property tax rate be raised 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 increase, about $940,000 in revenue, would be dedicated each year to the county road project fund, Baker said, giving the county road and bridge about $3 million to begin major rebuild projects rather than continue its maintenance-only program.

“That would give us some seed money to start moving in the right direction toward a long-term solution,” Baker said. “I want to see us get back to a pay-go basis on roads.”

Baker expects a road analysis by a consulting firm to be completed during the next several months. The analysis would identify priorities and needs to be addressed during the next five and 10 years.

Commissioner Jeff Warr said dedicating money directly to roads is smart. But he wants to look at the employee benefit increases closer. Losing employees to other entities with better retirement packages is a factor but he feels county benefits are reflective of the community.

The 1.8 percent pay increase represents about $465,000 and the benefit increase represents another $500,000, Baker said.

“The court has said for a while now that roads are going to be the priority,” he said. “The plan will help but it takes money and I think there is room to work in this budget.”

Commissioners Terry Phillips said he was opposed to increasing the benefits to Baker’s proposed maximum and increasing the property tax rate.

“I signed a pledge that I wouldn’t support a tax increase, and even though it’s only slight, I’m not going back on my word,” he said. “I think there is room to take care of everything without the increase.”

Phillips said he likes the premise of dedicating portions of the property tax rate to county roads. Commissioner Cary Nix was unavailable for comment. Commissioner JoAnn Hampton was out of town during the presentation.

There were a few changes to the budget to accommodate Sheriff Larry Smith’s July 1 requests but very minimal. Smith had requested pay increases, 58 additional employees (mostly to bring the jail expansion online), vehicles and other equipment Auditor Ann Wilson said would cost about $7 million in the first year and “much more” in following years.

Baker added four more jailers above eight already budgeted to give Smith 12 employees to phase in the jail. Vehicles with 200,000 miles or more would be replaced by Baker’s budget, but Smith worries about his fleet of more than 100 vehicles, especially those used for patrolling.

“My greatest concern beyond getting the pay increases for my staff, is vehicles,” he said. “You can’t have a fleet of 102 vehicles and replace seven a year. You can’t maintain a fleet like that.”

Smith was at a conference during the meeting and said by phone Wednesday afternoon he would be able to comment further after viewing Baker’s proposed funding for the sheriff’s office today.

Smith said his office would work with what is allotted, but he wanted commissioners to be aware of the turnover related to pay and benefits, the vehicles and possible staff shortages at the jail.

Commissioners and Smith said they would take long looks at the budget once it is officially proposed.

“I like where (the budget) is, but I think there’s a lot of discussion left to be done,” Warr said.