By Alton Porter
The Houston County Commissioners Court considered a third version of a proposed budget and proposed tax rate for the upcoming fiscal year (FY) 2017 at its third budget workshop of the year on Friday, Aug. 19.
Under the latest version, called Version 3, the tax rate would be set at 52.40 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. That's a two percent increase over the county's current tax rate of 50.4 cents per $100 of assessed valuation and would bring in an increase of $244,000 in additional revenue into the county's coffers to be budgeted. After considering other factors, net addition revenue in the FY 2017 budget would be $39,537.89.
In the first version, called the proposed budget, presented by County Judge Erin Ford and County Auditor Melissa Mosley at the first workshop on Tuesday, Aug. 9, the proposed rate was set at 54.19 cents per $100 of assessed valuation which would – after adjustments – bring in $269,537.89 in new revenue.
In the second version, called the alternate recommendations, presented by Ford and Mosley at the second workshop on Monday, Aug. 15, the rate for the next FY, which begins on Oct. 1, would be kept at the current rate of 50.4 cents per $100 of assessed value. After adjustments, that rate would result in a reduction of $204,462.11 in revenue in the next FY's budget, which would mean the county would have that much less in the budget to spend next year than it has this year.
On the expenditures side in last Friday's Version 3, increase in total expenses is held in line to equal revenue at $39,537.89 and produce a balanced budget. In the Aug. 9 proposed budget, total increase in expenses is held to the new revenue amount of $269,537.89, to produce a balanced budget.
In the Aug. 15 alternate recommendations, deep cuts in expenses yield a total reduction of $351,462.11 in expenditures. After considering the $204,462.11 in reduced revenue under this version, $147,000 is left to be allocated in the alternate budget.
In presenting a summary of "the most recent changes that have happened since the (Aug. 15) budget workshop" to the commissioners court at the workshop last Friday, Mosley began by saying, "There's been a change of a new proposed tax rate of 52.4 (cents per $100 of assessed valuation). That increases the tax collections by $244,000."
"The change includes putting the full-time (employee) equivalent back in the County Clerk's Office, taking away a part-time and putting back the extra copier" at increased cost of $26,000, Mosley said, shifting to the expense side of the budget. The Aug. 15 alternate recommendations had called for removing the full-time employee and copier in the office at a reduction of $41,500 in expenses. The Aug. 9 proposed budget had done just the opposite, calling for an increase of $41,500 for a full-time employee in the office.
The non-departmental Contingency Fund is increased by $100,000 to $200,000 in last Friday's version of the budget "for any unknowns throughout the year", Mosley said. That item wasn't addressed in either of the two prior budget proposals.
Last Friday's version put back into the budget costs for a full-time (employee) equivalent while reducing costs for a part-time (employee) equivalent at the total expense of $11,000 in the District Clerk's Office, Mosley said. The Aug. 15 alternate recommendations had called for removing a full-time employee in the office at a reduction of $18,000, while the Aug. 9 proposal had done just the opposite, increasing expenses by $18,000 for a full-time employee and reducing a part-time employee in the office.
For the District Attorney's Office, in last Friday's version, "an additional $10,000" was put in for a part-time employee salary, Mosley said. In the Aug. 9 proposed budget, $23,000 had been added for capital outlay for vehicles/required state supplements. However, in the Aug. 15 alternate recommendations, $20,000 was reduced for capital outlay and $24,000 was reduced for a part-time employee and benefits for a full-time employee in the office.
For the County Treasurer's Office, $8,000 was increased in expenses for a part-time employee in last Friday's Version 3. In the Aug. 15 alternate recommendations that amount was reduced for that position.
For the County Tax Assessor-Collector's Office, expenses were increased $38,500 for a full-time employee's position in last Friday's Version 3. Expenses for that position had been reduced $41,000 in the Aug. 15 alternate recommendations.
Expenses in the courthouse maintenance budget were increased $10,000 in last Friday's Version 3, according to Mosley. Projected courthouse expenses were reduced by $30,000 in the Aug. 15 alternate recommendations. The total courthouse maintenance expense was projected to increase $18,000 in the Aug. 9 proposed budget.
According to Mosley, an increase of $28,500 in expenses was added to last Friday's Version 3 for one part-time deputy emergency management coordinator (EMC) for 30 hours of work a week. The Aug. 15 alternate recommendations had removed $53,000 in deputy EMC funding from the budget. A total of $70,500 had been included in additional EMC funding in the original Aug. 9 proposed budget.
In the Road and Bridge Department, $50,000 in additional expenses were added back in last Friday's version of the budget. That amount had been included in the original Aug. 9 proposed budget, but removed in the Aug. 15 alternate recommendations.
Mosley said an additional $124,000 was included in last Friday's Version 3 for expected non-departmental retiree medical costs. Just $15,000 was projected for this item in the Aug. 9 proposed budget and it was not addressed in the Aug. 15 alternate recommendations. Mosley said county officials are anticipating incoming funding that will "offset that liability."
After Mosley's presentation, Clyde Black, Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace, Emergency Management Coordinator Roger Dickey and Sheriff Darrel Bobbitt addressed the court.
"I have a few things I'd just like to express if it's okay with the court," Black said. ... "Primarily, I'd like to thank the court and the auditor for the effort put into this. I know it's been tough. Last year was a tough year with a lot of unexpected issues. And there were a lot of trials and tribulations. I really do have the utmost respect for the court and our auditor for the efforts to get us through last year....
"With regard to the raise issue – and I say this because of the morale issue, what I feel is a morale issue with the county employees. If we're not going to have any raises, can we not have any raises. It's been my experience in the past that when we think everybody's going to get three percent, there have been people that have in fact received more than that, either through a change in job description or something came up later in the year – extra duties were found."
Black continued, "But, I found over the years that creates a really hard feeling for other employees. When an employee sees other employees ... working a deal, cutting another hustle, or 'if I'm able to come over here and sell a plan to get my employees raises for additional duties,' other employees hear about that and it causes hard feelings because every clerk in this county works hard.
"And I know every elected official wants to take care of their people. It's what we're to do. We're also charged with taking care of the county. But, we all want to see that our people are successful and have opportunities. And I just feel that if we're going to say, 'no raises,' could we really work hard to not do any raises? If there's going to be a pay freeze, let's have a pay freeze."
Black said he is in favor of freezing raises in salaries and hiring, and that he favored the nearly four cents (per $100 of assessed valuation) increase in the tax rate that was included in the Aug. 9 proposed budget because he believes the county needs the tax increase for infrastructure work.
In addition, Black said he feels the county's Human Resources Committee/Department should be done away with because he doesn't believe the human resources function is very important in today's world, and it's the "root for a lot of liability."
"And I think it's unfair for these elected officials and employees to be forced into a position of making salary judgments and personnel judgments over their co-workers," he said.
Also, Black said the salaries of the county's two constables – Morris Luker (Precinct 1) and Kenneth "Red" Smith (Precinct 2) – should be raised to the level of other county elected officials because of the long hours they work and the effort they put into supporting the county. He said the constables are "great public servants" and "valuable parts" of the county's law enforcement community, and they need to be rewarded.
Dickey told the commissioners, "I appreciate you all's abilities. And I appreciate you all's consideration and getting my (deputy EMC's) position back up to a part-time position. I certainly would like to consider in the future when he can get back to full-time, but I appreciate the efforts you all are making. I thank you."
Bobbitt said, "I want to say first, thank you for what you do – each of you commissioners. I understand and know that you're faced with some difficult decisions this year. It's hard to stretch money. And it seems like the economy is – it changes. It's even getting harder. So, I can appreciate the condition, or situation, you're in.
"I would also like to say, though, having said that, you're the persons charged with the responsibility of making good decisions for our county. Not decisions just on what we might think the voters might think of right now, but the future of our county, as well."
"I know you all have watched the news," Bobbitt said. "You've seen these things that are happening all across our country. There's a lot of unrest, a lot of division. And we're one mistake away from the potential of some of those things happening right here in our county.
"We've got a lot of good people who cooperate and work together. I'm so appreciative of that. But, you and I both know, the facts are real. It could happen here. We're going to need to educate our officers. We're going to need to train our officers. We're going to need to pay our people a rate that we can keep professional people. Not only hire and attract the applicants that would work and do well for our county, but we've got to have these salaries at a rate that we can retain those good people, as well."
Bobbitt added, "I understand you're the ones in a very hard position that have to make that decision, and I appreciate what you do."
He said, "I see where some of the changes (in the budget) have been made. As you know, I've got one position down there at my office that involves one of my investigators that's been a grant position.
"His fuel is being paid out of the grant. The majority of his salary has been paid out of the grant. And we're hoping to keep that position. The particular deputy, Deputy Bill Ruland, that you know – he leads the investigators at the department. He brings to Houston County a very extensive history of knowledge and experience that is very hard for us to obtain here in Houston County at the salary levels that we offer compared to law enforcement around the area.
"So, it's a difficult situation. So, we're wanting that money that would offset that grant that's no longer funded anymore to help make up the difference. The county's already providing a portion of that salary. And we're hoping that you can find that amount to continue that position."
"We think it's a very vital position in the county," said Bobbitt. "We think he's been making some real inroads into improving investigations, improving the cooperation between our office and the courts. He's got that kind of experience, and we feel like he's very valuable to our county and to our office.
"That's probably one of the main things we're asking for at the Sheriff's Office. Thank you again for your time. I ask for your consideration in this matter. And I appreciate it."
Ford said, in wrapping up the workshop, "I just want to say that it's been a particularly difficult year from a number of standpoints. I want to thank the commissioners and the court for a really serious, mature look at the budget that we're faced with this year.
"In addition, Melissa and her staff have worked extremely hard to put together these budgets and the proposed revisions. I wish we had more money. We don't. And we're going to make do with what we've got this year. So, thank you for all your service. Thank you for everything you do. We're very appreciative of it."