Commissioners Rule Out Tax Increase
By ADAM RUSSELL
Most Smith County Commissioners Court members have ruled out a tax increase while considering funding roads, staff, equipment and technology requests, and possible employee pay increases amid a flat fiscal budget.
County Auditor Ann Wilson projects revenues to be around $72.8 million. The county budgeted $72.8 million last year to cover operating, capital and debt service expenditures. The county's property tax rate is 32.39 cents per $100 valuation.
The court is weighing its options at this point, County Judge Joel Baker said. Because revenues are expected to remain flat, decisions will come down to shifting funding from one area of the budget to another, Ms. Wilson said.
On Tuesday, during the court's second budget workshop, a $3.3 million budget increase request from the Road and Bridge department to address around 20 miles of planned road projects -- from complete rebuilds to surface treatments to prolong road-life -- was officially whittled down to $1.1 million. Road Administrator Doug Nicholson said the full request was based on fulfilling capital project plans but that the court's action makes it apparent the "maintenance only" road program will continue for a third straight year.
The department has been hit especially hard since the economy went south. The department's budget was cut 37 percent, including several employee positions, during a tough 2010 budget process.
Other departments are asking for additional positions due to increased workloads. Equipment needs for elected officials and departments are another consideration for the court. Baker said it will come down to prioritizing and deciding if necessities will be better met through leases or purchases.
Baker said considerations for employee pay increases will be made later when other expenditures are set, but did say there has been discussion about "performance based" raises. Employees have not received raises in three years.
Public service funding for agencies such as the Andrews Center, a mental health provider; the Smith County Historical Society and Northeast Texas Public Health District was either slightly increased or decreased. Baker said the additions and subtractions were based on how those dollars served the community.
Commissioner Jeff Warr said he had "strange philosophical views" of taxpayer funding going to public service agencies "even Meals on Wheels," which provides meals to senior citizens and disabled residents. Warr said each provides a needed service but that deciding how much taxpayer money funds each is outside the scope of government. The county budgeted around $1.5 million to public service expenditures last year, down about $180,000 among a dozen recipients from FY2011.
The next budget workshop is scheduled to follow the court's July 24 regular meeting.
Baker proposed a July 27 special meeting to allow the court to focus solely on its budget. Tuesday's workshop was cut short by regularly scheduled 1:30 p.m. probate hearings after a lengthy regular commissioners meeting ended around noon.
More will be known after the court receives the Appraisal District's certified rolls around July 25 and can better estimate its revenues, Baker said.
Public hearings, which will be necessary only if a property tax increase is considered, are scheduled for Aug. 14 and Aug. 21. Adoption of the property tax rate and budget are scheduled for Aug. 28.
The budget must be approved before the fiscal year begins Oct. 1.