Personnel needs dominate County budget talks

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

GEORGETOWN — A growing population means a growing demand for services. A growing demand for services leaves county government looking for ways to meet those needs on a limited budget.

As more than 15 representatives of a variety of county offices and departments took their turn April 6 briefly sharing their needs for the upcoming 2019-2020 budget, there were a few capital requests, but many personnel needs.

The meeting last week was a chance early on in the process for departments to gather and hear one another’s budget needs.

“This is a chance for us to hear what your highlights are and the biggest part of your budget,” said County Judge Dan Gattis as he opened the meeting.

The bulk of the personnel requests came from the law enforcement and emergency services offices in the county, but County Budget Officer Ashlie Koenig shared some overall numbers so everyone could see what the county is facing.

“To put some things in context, we have right now 136 new positions requested for next year, totaling about $13.4 million,” she said. “That’s a big number.”

Chief Deputy Tim Ryle from the Sheriff’s Office said the department is requesting a total of 32 positions on the law enforcement side – 16 of those patrol officer positions – and 25 on the jail side.

John Sneed, representing the various emergency services departments, said they had about $6 million in equipment requests, including $1 million for new EKG machines for EMS vehicles, but that personnel was also his big need.

“Our biggest request is really going to be for employees,” he said, adding that future budgetary needs would be similar. “I think we are going to be adding new dispatchers and new EMS stations every year until the growth slows down, and nobody anticipates that any time in the near future.”

He said they are requesting 22 new positions, broken down by 16 in dispatch, two more mental health specialists, and the rest in various staff positions.

He highlighted the growth in the county, arguing that while official estimates may be lower, the population of Williamson County is now close to 600,000. He said the emergency services call volumes support that number.

“With multiple families living in single family residences, which all of us who work out in the field see on a daily basis, I’m going to tell you it is 600,000,” he said. “Then you add the several hundred thousand who drive up and down I-35 and 183 every day and public safety is dealing with probably 800,000 people per day.”

District Attorney Shawn Dick said his office needed additional staffing due to increased workload and to catch up from previous years when upgrading staffing was not an issue.

“When I say the budget in the DA’s office has been neglected for years, I don’t mean that as a reflection on the commissioners court at all, I think it’s actually a function of the two previous district attorneys that were there,” he said.

The office is requesting three new prosecutors, as well as three other staff members.

A number of offices did not ask for additional staffing, but said that addressing the staffing needs seen in other departments would help relieve the workload on their own departments and others.

“It’s not that there aren’t needs, but there are other needs across the board,” said County Attorney Dee Hobbs. “From my perspective in our office, two needs that I’d like the court to consider are the sheriff’s office and (district attorney’s) office, because filling those needs will help us tremendously in our office with what we do.”

Bob Daigh, senior director for Infrastructure, which includes the road and bridge department, said the request had originally been for 27 new employees, but he cut back to 15, for road and bridge and facilities.

Sneed summarized the concerns of many when talking about staffing and compensation issues.

“The biggest issue I see countywide is we are all behind when it comes to employees and compensation,” he said. “We’re still running like we are at 450,000 people and I’m convinced that we’re at 600,000-plus and it’s only going to get worse and I think we have to address those issues now.”

The message was not lost on Gattis, who said he also has concerns about providing the necessary level of service and keeping quality employees.

“I hear you very well. Personnel is what we are. We are a service organization. How we service the public is through our people. That’s the real challenge for us here,” he said. “With the economy where it is, and unemployment where it is, salaries are going to be a real concern. I’m not just talking about adding people, I’m talking about how we keep up with being able to keep good, quality people, which is what I think we have in the county.”

Salary issues
In the discussion of how to handle raises and reclassifications, multiple departments mentioned the need for more flexibility in the use of what was referred to as unallocated salary monies.

In previous years, departments felt they had more flexibility to use unallocated salaries on the budget. Previously, if a new employee was hired at less than the allotted salary for that position, the remaining funds became discretionary salary funds for department heads looking to reclassify or reorganize positions throughout the year and that amount would carry over year to year.

Now, that salary savings can only be used for reclassification or reorganization Oct. 1 to Feb. 15.

“We’re continuing to see some significant impact from the decision last year to take all the money away from the salary savings,” Ryle said. “That’s probably a decision that needs to be looked at again. It is always good to evaluate those after the fact to see what kind of impact they really have and see if it is a good choice or not.”

The simple solution for the departments was to return to the old rules for how those funds were handled.

“I agree with Chief (Tim) Ryle, the recruitment, retention and promotion dollars have got to be put back in to allow for senior directors to address those issues,” Sneed said. “We need to be able to go back and have the rules that we all had before, because right now I see us heading in the wrong direction.”

The change in salary management did not leave departments without the ability to give raises throughout the year. Discretionary raises are handled through a merit system, established in 2012.

In each budget cycle, the commissioners court decides how much, if any, merit funds should be provided to departments to be used by department heads. The current year amount is three percent. Those funds come in a lump sum on the budget for department heads to use as they see fit throughout the year, with a maximum allowed per employee of five percent. Not all employees are guaranteed a percentage of the merit funds.

JP challenges
Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Bill Gravell said that increased jury trial expenses are on the horizon.

“We are seeing triple or quadruple the juries we have in the past,” he said. “It’s not that we are seeing more cases, but it’s because of the change in the indigence law, where defendants who fail to appear are then set automatically for a jury trial. We believe that our demand for juries and meals for jurors will triple.”

Pct. 4 Justice of the Peace Judy Hobbs said the Legislature is expected to raise the cap on civil court filings from $10,000 to probably $20,000 or even $25,000.

“Our association is not going to fight it this next time,” Hobbs said. “We have managed to keep it at $10,000 for the past few legislative sessions.”

Gravell said it is anticipated that change would bring a 38-42 percent increase in caseload.

Hobbs said bringing investigators on board to relieve some of the burden when it comes to handling coroner duties in the county is also important.

“I am still very much in need of an investigator,” Hobbs said. “My last weekend on call, I had 15 deaths. We can’t keep that up. An investigator would be the answer to keep us from having to look at an immediate medical examiner. We can’t go out and work all night, or all weekend, then come back and be on the bench at 8:30 the next morning.”

She added that a medical examiner’s office was in the county’s future, but with an investigator, it would remain more cost-effective to keep the responsibility with the courts.

“We’re better off right now letting the JPs do it,” she said. “It is not something I want to do, but cost wise it is the best thing to leave it with us right now and start working toward having a medical examiner.”

Paper trails
The electronic voting equipment used in Williamson County is 11 to 12 years old, said County Elections Administrator Chris Davis, but he said there is not an immediate need to replace it.

“These are machines that are still reliable, but a lot of counties with similar equipment are looking at the next generation of equipment,” he said. “Whatever we decide to buy, we’re going to need more warehouse space for it.”

He said the projected cost for new equipment is $5 million and would be focused on moving away from pure electronic voting in favor of a paper-based audit trail system, an effort being pushed by the federal and state governments.

Current numbers
By April 30, a certified estimate of taxable value will be sent to the county from the appraisal district.

The 2018 budget was $327 million, with $191 million of that falling under the general fund, $33 million for road and bridge and $102 million for debt service.

Revenue projections for the current year budget were $315 million, up $21 million from the previous year. New property added to the tax rolls made up $9.7 million of that increase, with higher property values making up the rest.

Increased property values have allowed county officials to reduce the tax rate even as revenues have increased. While the tax levy in 2004 was just over $100 million, and has increased to nearly $250 million in 2016, the tax rate is the lowest it has been in that time. The highest tax rate in that span was $0.499657 per $100 valuation in 2005 and 2006. It has steadily decreased since then, to the current rate of $0.466529 per $100 valuation.

According to Koenig, the certified tax rolls are presented to the county from the appraisal district on July 25, telling officials exactly how much revenue there will be for the new budget. She said budget work in Williamson County is structured as need-based budget proposals, so once revenues are known, the commissioners court will have decisions based on whether the need surpasses revenues or is less than revenues.

Mike@LHIndependent.com

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