County holds first budget hearing, sets budgetary initiatives

Published on Tuesday, 13 June 2017 20:18 - Written by FAITH HARPER, fharper@tylerpaper.com

Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran started a full workday of budget discussions with sports references.

Knowing it would be at least six hours of various department heads discussing their budget requests, he told the commissioners to hold their hands up and call for a timeout if they needed a break.

He then said he had a batting lineup of officials ready to make presentations.

The county held its first of two lengthy budget hearings on Tuesday, with discussions expected to continue most of the day Wednesday. These will not be the only budget hearings held on the working budget before a proposed budget is voted on by the body.

Before the games began, Moran set the budget’s four main organizational objectives.

The first is to hire a fleet manager to oversee all of the county’s 336 vehicles, which are spread among 20 different officials and department heads.

No department got replacement vehicles this budget year, though 31 vehicles were requested initially. Instead, the county allocated $150,000 for all vehicle purchases, which will be at the discretion of the new fleet manager.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that all the department offices are operating under potentially different policies and there isn’t a unified person to oversee the fleet management of vehicles,” Moran said. “I think we need standardized policies. This position would report directly to the commissioners court.”

The fleet manager would be responsible for all fleet purchases, and look at a long-term maintenance and replacement schedule.

The second initiative is to create a budget analyst position.

Moran said by 2021, the county will be required by statute to redefine the budget officer duties because of its increase in population, which is anticipated following the next census. County Judge Moran currently is the chief budgetary officer for the county.

He said 2021 isn’t that far away, and the county should start to look at separating that position.

“As the county budget officer, it’s my responsibly to serve the chief financial officer of the county, but anyone that has sat in that chair knows there are a number of hats the county judge wears,” Moran said. “There’s no way for the county judge to get into the weeds with all the lines in budgets to see if we are being as effective as we can.”

Moran also hears probate and mental health cases.

The judge said he is hopeful the budget analyst would be able to find savings.

“I believe the money we would pay for that position we will get back if we can get our offices more efficient and get good data analysis,” he said.

Moran said he sees the position reporting directly to him, since he is statutorily the chief financial officer, and having five bosses (the entire court) could be daunting for a newcomer in the first year.

Commissioner Terry Phillips said he was concerned that he and other commissioners would not be able to work directly with the new position-holder.

“I’m an independent,” Phillips said. “I don’t work for you (Moran); I work for my constituents.”

Moran assured Phillips all commissioners would have access.

Commissioner Jeff Warr said the person would have to work with all of the commissioners by the nature of the job. To get a budget passed, it has to get a majority vote.

The third initiative is to take animal control out from under the fire marshal’s office and make it a stand-alone department.

The department will get a new animal control officer but no more.

Fire Marshal Connie McCoy-Wasson requested new properly fitted animal cages to be purchased for the trucks. The current ones were retrofitted to fit new trucks, and commissioners directed Ms. McCoy-Wasson to seek a second opinion on whether those could be better retrofitted or welded together.

Commissioners said they would be looking at ways to curb the cost of animal control over the next fiscal year.

The final key initiative is to create a misdemeanor mental health court program.

The program is a joint effort between the Andrews Center, pre-trial, adult probation, the sheriff’s office, the district attorney’s office and others, with the goal of reducing the number of people with mental health issues in the jail, and providing correct treatment for participants.

The county has applied for a grant to help fund the program, which would be housed in the County Court at Law under Judge Jason Ellis.

The court would come with a match for the grant, plus a proposed $1,000 stipend for probation officers who participate in working with people in the program.

 

COUNTY BUDGET AT A GLANCE

The Smith County draft budget includes seven new positions. It’s actually eight, but the district clerk gave up a position, for a net increase of seven.

Those include the county budget analyst, fleet manager and animal control officer. Other requests include a person in the information technology department, another in the physical plant, a new deputy in the sheriff’s office, a tax office employee to work in the Noonday branch office and a judicial compliance position.

If all remain in the final draft, the additions would bring the county’s payroll to 840 positions.

The budget also includes:

• Proposed pay increases: The budget includes a 1 to 3 percent pay increase for employees, including elected officials except for the county judge position.

• Decreases to road and bridge for special projects: This year, roughly $2 million will be brought in from reserve for those projects, compared to $4 million that was added this fiscal year. The department is proposed to have a nearly $8 million budget, including $1.5 million for the purchase of asphalt. Moran said the expenditure would give the county time to work on a long-range road plan.

“I’m certain this next year we will have a strategic plan in place to deal with road and bridge long-term,” Moran said. “As a result of that, I want to slow down the growth in that department and get a full scale plan in place before we continue to spend as much money as we did last year.”

• Election equipment: The working budget also proposes pulling $750,000 out of reserves to begin replacing election equipment. Moran said he wants a phased approach to replacing the equipment over several years and estimates it will cost $2.5 million to update all of it.

“It’s not that our equipment is to the point where we have significant failure - that is not the case - but we don’t want to get to that point because the integrity of our election system is too important,” Moran said. “It’s kind of like a hot water heater - if you wait until it’s out to replace it, you’ll have more problems.”

• Tax rate: The tax rate is projected to remain the same at 33 cents per $100 property valuation, but data has not been released on if that rate is above the effective rate, which is the tax rate the county would need to charge to receive the same amount of funding as the previous year. Anything above the effective rate is considered a tax increase.

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