County looks to Legislature over busy courts

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN
County leaders are keeping one eye on the Texas Legislature as it enters its first full month of the 87th Session, hoping for action in some areas and no action in others.

One area the Commissioners Court is asking directly for assistance is in the local judiciary.

“With the continuing growth in the county, we are probably at a place where we need to add another County Court at Law as well as another District Court,” Pct. 2 Commissioner Cynthia Long said. “The case volume is monitored by the office of court administration and they have concurred with what the judges surmised in that we really do need to add one more in each of those court systems and that requires legislative action.”

The Commissioners Court resolution in support of creating the two new courts is submitted to State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, for the legislative process that Williamson County hopes will result in the addition of the two courts.

The anticipated future cost to the County is between $1 million and $2 million annually to fund and operate the courts.

“It’s all in the caseload the courts take on,” Long said. “The most conservative approach would be on the low end about $1 million-plus per year, and this doesn’t include the start up cost, but just in ongoing personnel and that sort of thing. It depends on whether it is a civil docket or criminal docket. It takes personnel from both the District Attorney and County Attorney offices to have prosecutors, then it also takes personnel from the County Clerk and District Clerk offices. The judges have worked closely with all those parties to figure out the most financially conservative way to do it.”

The bulk of District Judge salaries are paid by the state, but all judicial staff is paid for by the County. County Court at Law Judges are funded at about 40 percent by the state.

Long said the County has spent many years making the current courts work effectively, but the growth is dictating needed expansion.

“We’ve gone almost 15 years without adding a court on either side and they have rearranged dockets and added associate judges to handle some things, we’ve used magistrates to do some things,” she said. “We’re at that point where there’s really not a lot more efficiencies they can squeeze out of it.”

An area Long said the County hopes the Legislature stays out of is renewed diversions from the gas tax fund which is earmarked for transportation projects and maintenance. The state has stepped away from diverting from those funds for other areas in need, but with what is expected to be a tighter budget cycle there are concerns.

“We worked really hard over many legislative sessions to stop the diversions from the dedicated gas tax and my hope is in this year of potential revenue shortfalls the Legislature doesn’t go back on their word and start diverting from that again,” she said. “That is already a diminished fund. The state and federal gas tax hasn’t changed since the early 90s, and hasn’t been adjusted for inflation. The dollar you brought in then is probably worth about 20 cents now and construction price index has gone up more than the consumer price index. (Texas Department of Transportation) is barely able to maintain the roads they have.”

The revenue cap instituted previously by the Legislature is something Williamson County has managed well, according to Long, but seeing some struggle to meet the requirements leads to concern it could come up again.

“We actually complied with the revenue cap number a year early and unfortunately there were some communities that not only didn’t do it early, but used the pandemic as an excuse to bust the revenue cap, so we’re hoping that behavior doesn’t reflect negatively on those of us who complied with the legislative directive,” Long said. “Williamson County did the right thing.”

Long is comfortable with the revenue situation in the county, but with the pandemic and unknowns about long-term economic impacts of it, it is being watched closely.

“I am fearful that a lot of the business closures we’ve seen across the county, means we may see a downturn in some of the commercial property tax revenue,” she said. “We have to just wait and see if people are able to pay their property taxes.”

Then there is the flip side of mandating that tax rates be capped or dialed back and that is how the Legislature addresses – or doesn’t address – appraisals.

“If you think about it, the County tax rate has gone down over four cents over the last 14 years, but little has been done to really address the appraisal side,” Long said. “We still don’t require commercial transaction disclosures in Texas so it’s still hard to know if the appraised value truly is the market value.

“On one hand the Legislature is capping revenue and saying you can’t take in more revenue, but they’re not dealing with the real problem. It’s a challenging system and while they’ve tried to address the revenue side of things they haven’t addressed the appraisal side,” she said.

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