County enters final budget push

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

GEORGETOWN — Following months of planning and number crunching, the Williamson County Budget Office and Tax Assessor Collector’s Office presented the proposed budget for next year, along with tax rate information Aug. 7 to commissioners.

On the revenue side, there was no sign of slowing growth due to the continued climb of property values. The county saw a taxable value increase of $6.98 billion over last year to $63.9 billion.

Commissioners voted to propose the same tax rate as the current year, $0.466529 per $100 property value, for the upcoming year, but said it was possible for that number to shrink some before final budget and tax rate adoption Aug. 28. By adopting the proposed rate, the court has locked itself into a rate equal to or lower than the current rate, and can’t go higher.

“There’s a good chance that when we end up adopting it, it will be a little bit less,” said County Judge Dan Gattis. “We’re doing the same thing we’ve done for several years.”

The effective rate is $0.446403 and the rollback rate is $0.475819. At the proposed rate, the county tax on a home valued at $300,000 would be $1,399.59. The effective rate would reduce that total tax by $60 annually.

The revenues generated by the county will fund a proposed budget that comes in at just over $329 million combined, including the general, road and bridge and debt service funds. The recommended total was $23 million less than requested by department heads through the general fund and road and bridge, but was a 9 percent increase for road and bridge and 6.7 percent increase in the general fund over the current fiscal year.

While the budget planning filtered through many department requests that are still under consideration by commissioners, some mandated increases upped the total immediately, in areas such as retirement and insurance.

“You will see a retirement rate increase,” said County Budget Officer Ashlie Koenig. “Every year, if you have salaries of $1 million countywide, there’s a percentage increase that the county must fund to sustain that plan. That rate is currently 13.94 percent, and there is an increase to 14.03 percent. This will cost the county $84,000.”

The employee insurance increase is an additional $279,580.

In the general fund, there are 113 new full-time employees requested through the various departments at an estimated cost of just over $10 million, but the recommended budget included only 15 of those at $1.1 million.

Recommended facilities and infrastructure work includes $250,000 for shower redesign at the Central Texas Treatment Center.

“We are being very aggressive with our maintenance program,” Koenig said. “We have repaired and remodeled so many times I can’t count, so hopefully this money will do a complete overhaul.”

Another $435,000 is included for parking lot and HVAC work at the Jester Annex in Round Rock, as well as funds for fire system upgrades at the justice center.

“The Justice Center Addressable Fire System, we have the original panel in place which tells us there is a fire, but it does not tell us where that fire is,” Koenig said. “We would like to upgrade that. That would cost $170,000.”

On the technology side, the county is in year two of a three-year project to purchase body cameras and replace in-car cameras, funded at $920,000 in the upcoming budget. A similar program to replace Toughbook computers is budgeted for $302,000 in its first year.

Discussions on how the four Justices of the Peace can better manage the growing case load as well as other duties to include death investigations have led to a newly funded pilot program in Precinct 1.

“I’m very excited to talk about JP 1,” Koenig said. “We included $55,000 in the professional services budget to basically contract with the Travis County Medical Examiners Office to go out on death investigations. Judge (Dain) Johnson has been working with Travis County and he will be our Guinea pig to say the least, so we will monitor that program and see how that works out.”

Public assistance contracts were recommended to increase a total of $530,000, with the bulk of that going to Bluebonnet Trails.

“This will be the first full year of funding $513,000 to increase the bed capacity from four to 12 for mental health beds,” Koenig said.

The Road and Bridge Department, which has its own fund, requested nine new employees with four recommended at $185,632.

The proposed budget includes $1 million for long-range transportation planning, and $5.1 million for bridge and road repair, including projects at San Gabriel River Ranch, on Chandler Road, Teravista Parkway, Sonterra Commercial and Walburg Heights.

Debt service, which is locked in, is $107,366,640 for the next fiscal year.

Seven departments made their case for additional funding and resources at a budget workshop Aug. 7, including Sheriff Robert Chody who said his department needed a sizable bump in staffing.

“On the law enforcement side we’re asking for an additional 16 deputies,” Chody said. “I just want to remind the court that we have 1,100 square miles of coverage and remind you about the national average of response times for law enforcement. We’re talking about nine minutes as the national average and you’ll see there that the priority calls we are responding to now is at 24 minutes.”

Chody added that lagging growth in past years has caused the need for so many new hires now.

“It is a big ask, it’s a huge ask, it’s an expensive ask,” he said. “I hate that I have to ask for that, but I have that duty if I feel like the response time is too large and the safety of my deputies is at issue.”

Commissioners pledged to make the Sheriff’s Department budget issues the focus of the Aug. 16 budget meeting.

“One of these issues, obviously, is that in requesting 64 people, you got seven, and none on law enforcement,” Pct. 3 Commissioner Valerie Covey said. “That’s the elephant in the room, really. I’m trying to get there, but let me just say, I don’t make decisions from emotion, and PowerPoints are not impressive to me other than factual information. So I am just wanting to know facts so we can defend you and give you the help that you need that will really matter.”

Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed tax rate Aug. 21 and will adopt a tax rate on Aug. 28, the same day they adopt the new budget.

Mike@LHIndependent.com

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