Commissioners wrestle tax rate, staffing needs



GEORGETOWN — After digesting a proposed budget of just over $329 million, the Williamson County Commissioners Court Tuesday began fielding requests from various departments for additional funding, primarily for personnel.

The recommended budget, which included the general, road and bridge, and debt service funds was $23 million less than requested by department heads, but was a 9 percent increase for road and bridge and 6.7 percent increase in the general fund over the current fiscal year.

In a pair of meetings Aug. 16 and 21, commissioners heard additional department requests totaling more than $15 million, but not before Pct. 2 Commissioner Cynthia Long addressed the mounting frustration over this year’s budget.

A number of public comments from county departments, primarily through social media, have created a new public tension surrounding the budget this year. The process, which began back in spring, has been strained by the comments, but commissioners have emphasized their desire to look for a way to lower the tax rate while weighing that against the needs of the county.

“This is the job that the state constitution and our Legislature has given the commissioners court,” Long said. “We are the appropriators, so if you look at it, commissioners court appropriates 100 percent of the budget, not 69 percent, not 50 percent, but 100 percent of the budget. I appreciate the healthy dialogue and discussion of ideas and one of the things I think is very important that we remember that these are topics and ideas being discussed and they are very important. When we diverge and really get into the slamming people, that is wholly inappropriate and I’m very disappointed.”

The financial cost of the budget tensions is $100,000 being added to the budget to help cover lawsuits and legal services.

“We’re going to have to have it,” said County Judge Dan Gattis. “We’re going to run out of money, there’s no doubt, because we’ve got lawsuits already filed that are going to use this money.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Valerie Covey emphasized that this funding makes it difficult in a tight budget discussion to meet other personnel requests.

“I’m sad that we’re going to spend $100,000 to increase the budget for a lawsuit, primarily an internal lawsuit, and then we’re talking about $130,000 for other positions needed for other offices,” Covey said.

Through the two meetings, the court approved $8.2 million in budget additions, half of which was appropriated for new voting machines.

The original request was for $6 million, but after discussing the issue, commissioners chose to provide $4.5 million with the plan to streamline the need.

County Elections Administrator Chris Davis said the current machines are extremely reliable, but are becoming difficult to maintain and find support for because they are about 12 years old, and cost $200,000 annually for maintenance.

“I believe in the machine that we have,” he said. “We have paperless electronic machines now and they flat out work. They are secure, they’re not connected to the Internet, they’re efficient, but they are getting old.”

The nationwide push for a paper trail in elections has led to a new system that provides that paper ballot at the end. The system would have machines for filling out a ballot, which would then produce a paper ballot the voter would take to a scanner-tabulator that would record the vote and place the ballot in a secure box.

Today, there is no paper trail, only the electronic record.

“If a candidate lost by a small amount now and demanded a recount, they can come into our office and pay the fee and we will hit the same button we hit on election day and there will be no change in a recount. This kind of option would instill peace of mind in some voters who want to know their voting record is recorded on a piece of paper that has been tabulated.”

The fact that the two parties — Republicans and Democrats — have traditionally wanted to have separate elections on the primary election day also forces the county to purchase more machines than would be necessary otherwise.

“I have to order as many machines as I need on the most demanding kind of election,” Davis said. “And currently the most demanding kind of election I have are party primaries, and the reason is, parties insist on having separate elections. They don’t want to have a joint primary where they share their machines.”

The parties do use the same machines throughout early voting and in general elections. Commissioners said they would work with the two parties to overcome that issue.

The machines would likely be first used in the 2019 state constitutional election due to lower voter numbers. Davis said he would not want to introduce new machines for the first time in a presidential election year like 2020.

The second big-ticket item was patrol deputies for the Sheriff’s Office. Commissioners had haggled with Sheriff Robert Chody through a number of meetings over the large number of employees he requested for both the county jail and sheriff’s office budgets.

The proposed budget added seven new employees to the jail, but none in law enforcement. Chody came back with a request for 16 deputies, and Tuesday, Long made a motion that the Sheriff get eight of those positions, at about $1.3 million.

The recommended budget for the jail was $26 million, just over $2 million more than last year’s approved budget. The Sheriff’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year now stands at about $27 million, more than $3 million over the current year’s adopted budget.

The county added $500,000 to the current budget of $800,000 for janitorial services throughout the county in an attempt to keep up with the growing needs.

The additional funds did not come without commissioners voicing their displeasure with the quality of work currently being done in county buildings.

“I think we have to have clear expectations, we need to express our expectations, and we need to hold them accountable for that,” Covey said. “And if they don’t do it, we don’t pay them.”

Commissioners allocated $730,000 for new personnel in 911 Communications, but pending more information on salaries, the number of new hires was not specified. Even without all the details, the court believed funds were needed for the upcoming fiscal year.

“I am thoroughly convinced we need eight more positions to move forward as fast as we possibly can and we can’t wait until next year,” Gattis said. “I don’t think you have another year.”

A consultant put together a report after reviewing the Emergency Communications Department, prompting the request for eight call takers and two reclassifications.

Also likely being funded as a capital expense is $750,000 for radios and training lab expansion for the department.

A number of other positions were added to the budget, totaling $480,327 in allocated funds across six departments. The positions include two part-time to full-time positions, one each for Veteran Services and the District Clerk, an IT systems support specialist, a wireless communications programming specialist, an environmental sanitation employee, and two for the District Attorney’s office – a victim assistance coordinator and child abuse intake prosecutor.

Pending the final budget approval next week, commissioners have also allocated $4 million for the long-range transportation plan which funds right of way acquisition throughout the county for road projects.

The budget currently has $10 million earmarked for capital expenses, but those funds come from the cash-ending balance and are not covered by the new tax levy.

Tax rate decrease?
Long and Covey have both insisted they intend to push for a tax rate reduction in the upcoming budget, and reminded the court of that focus throughout both budget meetings as new items were added to the recommended budget.

“My goal is to reduce the tax rate, and I’m looking at half a cent,” Covey said.

Long said she believes the court can still reduce the tax rate for next year, while adequately funding county services.

“As I am looking at this budget, I am looking at it with the eye of lowering it from the current rate,” she said. “I am not prepared for and will not vote for enough spending that will sustain our current rate.”

The county saw a taxable value increase of $6.98 billion over last year to $63.9 billion.

Commissioners voted Aug. 14 to propose the same tax rate as the current year, $0.466529 per $100 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 in to a rate equal to or lower than the current rate, and can’t go higher.

The effective rate is .446403 and the rollback rate is .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.

Gattis also said he believes the rate could be lower when everything is finalized.

Commissioners will vote on a final budget and tax rate at their next meeting, Aug. 28.