Williamson County sets new budget
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
GEORGETOWN — This is no longer your grandparents’ Williamson County. With population estimates nearing 600,000, County Commissioners found themselves passing a budget just shy of $400 million for the upcoming fiscal year.
“It is certainly a big number,” said Pct. 2 Commissioner Cynthia Long. “We continue to try to keep the budget growth at or below the same curve as the population growth. Bottom line is county government, as is city government, is a public service business and the more customers you have the greater the demand.”
The actual budget number – including the general fund, road and bridge and debt service – was $393.8 million, with a tax rate of $0.458719 per $100 valuation, down slightly from the current year’s rate of $0.459029.
At the new tax rate, a property owner with a home valued at $250,000 would pay about $1,146 in property taxes before exemptions.
The tax rate is broken down to $0.251529 for the general fund, $0.04 for road and bridge and $0.16719 for debt service, which was a decrease from last year.
Included in the budget is $42 million to pay off current debt, something Long said is critical to continuing to be able to fund future road projects.
“Any kind of debt we are able to pay off early we are, because at higher interest rates it saves a lot of dollars, but even the lower interest rate debt saves a lot on interest,” she said. “Every opportunity we have we’re going to pay that down early and by being proactive like that it allowed us to lower that debt rate this year.”
The rate remains at a number that will not be impacted next year should voters approve the the two November bond propositions, the first a $412 million road projects package and the second a proposal to spend $35 million on park improvements.
“If the voters should choose to pass the bond in the election in November, we still won’t need to increase that debt portion of the tax rate next year,” Long said.
The general fund budget increased just under $9 million from last year to $221 million as 41 positions were added including 15 in public safety positions. In total, 156 new full-time position requests were submitted by County departments.
“We had to evaluate every request,” Long said of the process. “I think the request for new personnel was close to 150 and so that’s where you have to go and look, and say ‘no’ to some of them. Every single person making a request is making an important request for their department. Unfortunately with budgets, much of the budget maker’s job is to say no.”
The process is long, but one that Long believes is thorough between the work by the County Budget Office and meetings between Commissioners and department heads.
“That’s the part that (Budget Officer) Ashley (Koenig) does throughout the year,” Long said. “My look at the budget doesn’t start in July, it starts with seeing and meeting with department heads and other elected officials that want to about what their requests and what their needs are. I think it’s important. I certainly don’t want to micromanage, but I need to know enough about what they do to put all the pieces together as I look at the big picture.”
In addition to the new public safety personnel, six were added to the Parks Department and seven to Information Technology, something that was a priority for Long.
“One of my real focuses this year was trying to get our technology services folks where we could expand their hours to provide greater IT support for our emergency workers,” she said. “They work 24 hours a day, and if they have something go wrong with their mobile computer out in the field they need help right away, so that was a priority to me.”
Keeping a tight leash on budget growth has been an annual focus for Commissioners, but with the newly-mandated 3.5 percent revenue cap passed by the Texas Legislature that will go into effect next year, Long said it was even more of a focus through the process this year.
“Our goal this year in the budget was also to make sure that even though the legislative revenue cap doesn’t kick in until next year, that we wanted to go ahead and put that discipline on ourselves this year.”
The cap is not a clear-cut 3.5 percent, but will certainly restrict taxing entities going forward.
“It’s not super straightforward in how it’s calculated, but it considers what revenue you’re bringing in based upon the same properties you had last year,” Long said. “It doesn’t take into consideration new value.
“We were not one of those governmental entities out there hitting eight percent every year,” Long said. “I don’t think Williamson County was the target of the Legislature when they passed the revenue caps. We had ranged anywhere from two to four percent. From a budgeting going forward perspective, the bar’s been set.”
Williamson County will end the current fiscal year with $97.3 million in uncommitted general fund reserves and another $21.2 in road and bridge reserves. Long wants to see some of those reserve funds committed to county facilities.
“What I’ve been trying to do is increase gradually the amount in our budget for maintenance and operations of our facilities,” Long said. “When I first took office we really had zero in our budget for maintenance and operations of our facilities. Over the years we’ve tried to take a more proactive approach because if you’re doing preventive maintenance on your facilities you’re able to avoid more expensive and longer-term bills. Some of those capital dollars we’ve used for things like replacing antiquated chillers in buildings and some of it has been to put up new radio towers to provide better coverage for our emergency communications.”