WilCo Commissioners approve proposed maximum tax rate

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By ANTHONY FLORES

GEORGETOWN — The Williamson County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday on a proposed maximum tax rate not to exceed $0.458719 per $100 valuation. This rate matched the current tax rate that comprises the General Fund, Road and Bridge Fund, and Debt Service Fund tax rates.

“We, by law, have to post and advertise a maximum tax rate, and we always say that this is not necessarily the rate that will be adopted. It’s just the highest that you might expect,” said Pct. 2 Commissioner Cynthia Long.

The court also voted on and unanimously accepted recommended budgets for the General Fund at $218,940,100, the Road and Bridge Fund at $44,576,568, and the Debt Service Fund at $126,845,915.

The overall recommended 2021 budget sits at $390,362,583 — almost $3.5 million less than the current adopted budget.

“The budget that was put together and proposed money wise is very close to last year’s budget on the maintenance and operations side of things,” said Long. “Obviously, with the debt service, you can’t tweak that. It is what it is based on voter-approved debt.”

The General and the Road and Bridge funds are about 1 percent less than the previous year, and the Debt Service Fund includes $25 million for debt defeasance.

The similarities seen in the proposed budget compared to the current budget are in response to many of the uncertainties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If our budget office has done their job correctly, then nobody on the commissioners court is surprised, and I wasn’t surprised,” said Long.

“We had given direction to the budget office back in late April. We expected a flat budget from last year simply because we don’t know what we don’t know. There’s going to be a lot of unknowns in terms of revenue to the county next year, and we felt it was the conservative approach to proceed cautiously.”

One of the most important things to pay attention to in the proposed budget is the absence of pay increases for civilians and no new added positions. These are also in response to COVID-19.

“I think what stands out, for the most part, would be no compensation increases for civilians, meaning non-law enforcement and no new positions,” said county budget officer Ashlie Koenig. “So, we are not increasing our (full time employee) count. That’s one of the reasons you saw we were able to recommend a decrease. Because of those two things.”

Koenig believes that without COVID-19 the budget could be quite different.

“I do think there would be an increase primarily because of being in a county experiencing such high growth,” she said. “I think we would have seen people added or positions added. We’re primarily a service organization, and I think it’s roughly 54 percent of our budget attributed to personnel. As the demands rise, we have to respond and add people. As a county, all of our departments touch every taxpayer at some point in time.”

Koenig stressed the importance of taking a conservative approach because while it may not affect the county in 2020, it will affect 2021.

“What people need to know is that the court has final say over the tax rate and the budget and they’re very cognizant of the climate of the impact from COVID and individuals who have lost jobs or lost healthcare,” she said. “I think people should know that the court is sensitive to this and we want to prepare and be conservative. It’s not this year that we’ll be impacted, it’s next year. With that said, we lowered the budget.”

During the Tuesday budget modification workshop the court debated ways to provide increased compensation for county employees. County Judge Bill Gravell suggested merit raises be provided to civilian employees.

“I make the motion that we provide a merit increase for all Williamson County civilian employees,” he said. “My motion is that we give a 2 percent merit increase to all Williamson County civilian employees. To make it available to the department heads or elected officials to award if they so choose. The number I was given was $1.5 million.”

Gravell’s motion came from seeing the work employees have done during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was of the opinion that we wouldn’t be able to do it this year, and I saw the motion for hazard pay for EMS and MOT, and I believe in that,” he said. “What I saw those folks do during COVID’s early stages was phenomenal, and what HR has done is worth hazard pay. I know that 2 percent is a lot, and it’s the taxpayers’ funds. I wasn’t in favor of a merit increase until I saw that one item.”

The motion met some resistance from some on the commissioners court, citing the current landscape of the job market for residents of the county.

“The only problem I have, and it’s not that I don’t appreciate every individual that works for us, but there are people that don’t have jobs right now,” said Pct. 3 Commissioner Valerie Covey. “We’re going to have a hard time reducing our tax rate because it boxes us in, even more, the next few years.”

Commissioner Long proposed a one-time 2 percent lump-sum merit increase to not impact next year’s budget.

“I think this accomplishes what you want and what we all want, and it puts less of long-term uncertainty,” said Long.

The one-time lump sum merit increase would be based solely on performance and discretion by department heads and elected officials. The motion passed 5-0.

A public hearing is set for 10 a.m. Aug. 25, where members of the community can voice their opinions.

Leading up to the public hearing, people can sign up and publicly comment at weekly Commissioners Court meetings every Tuesday.

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