’15 budget passes with close vote

Published on Tuesday, 26 August 2014 23:43 - Written by ADAM RUSSELL arussell@tylerpaper.com

A divided commissioners court approved Smith County’s 2015 budget and tax rate on Tuesday after members’ and public comment.

County commissioners voted 3 to 2 in favor of adopting an $84.9 million budget that raised taxes slightly, taps $2 million from county reserves for road projects, adds 19 positions, including 12 jailers, and increases employee retirement benefits and pay.

County Judge Joel Baker and Commissioners JoAnn Hampton and Jeff Warr voted “for,” while Commissioners Terry Phillips and Cary Nix voted “against.”

Commissioners voted the same to adopt a property tax rate increase to 33 cents from 32.3564 cents per $100 valuation, or about six-tenths of 1 cent.

The rate increase represents more than $940,000 in additional revenue. A tax bill on a $100,000 home would go up $6.44 to $330 compared to $323.56 per year.

Court members have stated agreement about adopting policy to dedicate revenues generated by the increase to county road projects.

The budget included an across-the-board 1.8 percent cost-of-living pay increase for employees and increased the county’s employee retirement match up to175 percent from 125 percent.

Phillips and Nix said they agreed with parts of the budget, including putting an additional $3 million toward roads, but disagreed with several items and policy decisions.

Both disagreed with increasing employee benefits. Phillips cited $5.5 million in savings since the court reduced retirement benefits in 2010.

“That’s real money that was spent elsewhere,” he said.

Nix said he would have rather increased employee pay now than raise the retirement match.

Both also disagreed with the property tax rate increase. Nix said the reserve balance for the county would be more than $23 million, representing more than 22 percent of general expenditures, when the court’s policy is to maintain 17 percent.

“I would like to have seen more money come from the reserve to go toward roads than raising taxes,” he said. “It’s a tough sell to tell John Q taxpayer we’re raising taxes when we’re keeping more to begin with.”

Auditor Ann Wilson and Warr have advocated a 25 percent reserve. They call it the standard balance that helps avoid payroll lag, financial or natural disasters and that it would improve the county’s financial standing in the eyes of lenders.

Phillips stuck with his pledge to vote against any tax increase.

Former Tyler City Manager Ernie Clark spoke against adoption of the proposed budget on behalf of Grassroots America — We the People before the vote.

Clark was critical of the tax rate increase when Smith County’s reserves were above the policy minimum. He also pointed to the fact the county would still be dedicating fewer dollars to Road and Bridge than in 2009.

He said increasing the retirement contribution was not the county’s most pressing need. Instead, he said the county should increase Sheriff’s Department pay to reduce turnover due to the dangers and demands within law enforcement.

Baker pointed to the positives of past years, including addressing more than 90 percent of identified facilities needs via “pay-go” projects, the relatively conservative property tax rate that funds county government (the county ranks 26 among 254 counties for lowest tax rate) and the relatively low pay and benefit packages for employees, which makes it difficult to attract and keep staff.

Baker called the additional $3 million from the reserve and tax rate increase “seed money” to transition from maintenance only to major road rebuilds.

“With the filing of the 2015 budget, we are not only addressing the needs identified for a new budget year,” he said. “We are positioning Smith County government as it moves forward to support the needs of our growing and economically stable community.”