BY JUDY SHERIDAN
Parker County commissioners voted 4-1 Sept. 23 to approve the county’s FY 2013-14 budget and tax rate.
The rate of 41 cents per $100 assessed valuation is the same as last year’s, with 26.5 cents fueling the general fund, 8.3 cents collecting revenue for the lateral road fund and 6.4 cents paying down debt.
Voting in favor of the 9 percent larger general fund budget and identical tax rate were Judge Mark Riley, Precinct No. 1 Commissioner George Conley, Precinct No. 2 Commissioner Craig Peacock and Precinct No. 3 Commissioner Larry Walden.
Precinct No. 4 Commissioner Dusty Renfro, who voiced concerns about inadequate funding for the road & bridge fund Friday, voted against adopting both the budget and the tax rate.
The motions to approve the general fund and lateral road fund budgets did not specify official figures, but referenced a printout dated Friday afternoon, which followed a morning of funding shifts related to the road & bridge fund.
After court Monday, Riley hand calculated the new general fund budget (balanced by law) for the Democrat at about $41.3 million — up from the current $37.8 million general fund budget and up $2.3 million from Riley’s $39 million proposed budget.
With property tax revenues projected to remain almost unchanged, the 2013-14 budget’s revenue increases come mainly from housing more federal inmates at the Parker County Jail, growth in auto registration and increased sales taxes.
The county intends to spend $675,000 on salary hikes, pay roll costs and insurance benefits, with 67 percent earmarked for the sheriff’s department, according to Riley. Patrol deputies get a 6 percent increase and investigators’ pay is up 5 percent.
Thirty-three percent of the salary increases will go to other general fund employees, Riley said, with an increase for tax assessor collector employees, a 6 percent hike for custodians and hefty boosts for the benefits director and project coordinator posts.
Other rank-and-file (non-elected) employees will receive a 3 percent increase.
Included are higher salaries for court reporters, the auditor and the assistant auditor, which are not set by commissioners.
No other raises were approved, Riley said, and no new employees were hired.
In addition to salaries, funds go toward new software, attorney fees, and certification pay for investigators, Riley said, with about $800,000 dedicated to reserves and contingencies.
Lateral Road Fund (Road & Bridge)
While the general fund has overage to support raises and subsidize insurance increases for employees, the lateral road fund, which collects and distributes tax revenues to maintain and repair county roads, is significantly overspent.
Last Tuesday, commissioners voted 5-0 to give up their individual fund balances — and individual authority — to create a joint fund to be dispersed according to countywide priorities set by engineering firm Freese & Nichols.
The fund balance was $968,000 in Precinct No. 2, $426,00 in Precinct No. 3, $328,000 in Precinct No. 4 and $80,000 in Precinct No. 1, adding up to $1.8 million.
Instead of being set aside for projects, however, the money was used to offset a $1.3 million road & bridge fund deficit, up from a $157,000 deficit at the beginning of the fiscal year.
After the court opted to return $100,000 to Precinct No. 4 and $200,000 to Precinct No. 1, the remainder in the joint fund was only about $200,000.
On Friday Renfro said he didn’t understand that the earlier court action meant he could no longer draw from his precinct fund balance to balance this year’s budget.
“We talked about this grand plan of having a special projects fund and that we were going to be able to balance our budgets and then put the rest of it in that fund,” he said.
“What we did not discuss was the $1.3 million in deficit in the road & bridge fund. That was a bombshell that probably should have been brought up in July.”
“It’s there. It’s on every piece of paper,” Riley said. “Everybody has to communicate with the auditor.”
Renfro said it didn’t look like the money would ever be used for special projects and criticized downplaying the problem.
“It’s going to be used to balance the precinct budgets, which will still come up short,” he said. “The way this has all happened doesn’t sit right with me. It is what it is, and we all need to address it.”
Renfro brought up the 2010-11 county budget, when Riley, George Conley, Joe Brinkley and Jim Webster, working to mitigate a tax increase, voted to reduce the lateral road fund tax rate — and precinct allocations — instead of making cuts to the general fund.
“In a year when the general fund needed it, we did it,” Renfro said. “Now we’re in a year where the road & bridge fund needs it back. We’re responsible for both funds.”
Renfro said the lateral road fund rate reduction, which cut revenues by $500,000 the first year — as well as the decision to move $366,000 in commissioners’ salaries into the fund — triggered the deficit.
He later moved that the court decrease the general fund tax rate by one-half cent and increase the road & bridge tax rate by one-half cent, but the motion died for lack of a second.
Riley said he didn’t think the county could meet its statutory requirements for the court system if the action was reversed. He said reducing the $6 million general fund balance would jeopardize the county’s credit rating.
Renfro then asked how much money the auditor was asking each commissioner to cut from next year’s precinct budget, a sum that totalled about $1.5 million.
“We’ve been spending more than what our income allows us to do and relying on the fund balance in roads & bridge to fund the overage,” Walden said. “But if the money’s not there we don’t have much choice.”
After some discussion the court agreed to return commissioner salaries to the general fund.
Walden also proposed a one-year $120,000 transfer from the general fund fund balance to each precinct, which passed 4-1.
Renfro voted against, calling the infusion inadequate.
“The longterm solution is paying the road and bridge fund back half of what was taken from it by the general fund,” he said. “That’s the balance we need between them.”
Saying the strategy wouldn’t solve the problem and would instead pull the general fund fund balance down, Riley advised commissioners to “bite the bullet and make it work.”
“Maintaining our roadways is a major function of this county,” Renfro persisted, saying growth and sales taxes would fill in the general fund. “It’s just as important as the general fund.”
In addition to Monday’s court action approving the budget and tax rate, the court also approved the FY 2013-14 road and bridge fund.
Figures, again, were unofficial and not stated in the motion, but Riley later reported them as $2.7 million for Precinct No. 1, $2.9 million for Precinct No. 2, $3 million for Precinct No. 3 and $2.8 million for Precinct No. 4, for a total of about $11.4 million.