Weatherford Democrat

September 27, 2011

Commissioners raise tax rate

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Weatherford Democrat

WEATHERFORD — Despite a packed courtroom and the protests of more than 20 residents, Parker County commissioners gave final approval Monday night to a $35,692,247 general fund budget for fiscal 2012 that bumps the current tax rate up two cents — from 24 cents/$100 assessed valuation to 26 cents per $100 valuation — while preserving generous health care benefits for county employees.

The budget is up from last year’s $34,518,166, a 3.4 percent increase.

The new rate — called the effective rate because it will generate the same amount of county revenue — will add $20 to the tax bill of the owner of a $100,000 home if his or her valuation is the same as last year’s, less if the valuation has dropped.

No change was made in the tax rate fueling the $10,423,438 revenue stream for the roads and bridges fund, the parent fund for the individual precinct budgets; it will stay at 8.3 cents per $100 valuation.

The tax rate for debt service will decrease from 6.6 cents to 6.4 cents.

Commissioners approved the general fund budget 3-2, with Judge Mark Riley, Precinct 1 Commissioner George Conley and Precinct 2 Commissioner Craig Peacock voting in favor, and Precinct 3 Commissioner John Roth and Precinct 4 Commissioner Dusty Renfro voting against.

Commissioners approved the road and bridges fund 4-1, with all in favor but Riley, who said later he thought the budget should be reduced and the tax rate lowered a penny, for a savings of about $850,000.

Most of the residents who spoke were against the tax increase.

Cary McKay, a former candidate for county judge, said the county had over hired four or five years ago when oil and gas revenues were high, and was now unwilling to let employees go.

“You’ll be tapping me again next year,” he said.

Jack Cavenaugh labeled the budget process “crisis management” and told the court that budget decisions should be made in March and April.

Wanda Scarborough told the court it was time they tightened their belts.

“Find places to cut like I find places to cut,” she reprimanded.

Dawn King asked where the tax revenue from the county’s growth was going, echoing the comments of another resident. “Our home values have dropped like a rock,” she said, “plus you want to add a tax on top of it. We’re taxed enough already.”

County employees defended the new budget, some by telling residents about the services their departments provided. Russ Authier, Mark Arnett, Jim Nichols and Mike Morgan spoke for the sheriff’s department.

Paying employees less and reducing their benefits will reduce services, Nichols warned, saying some county employees were already eligible for food stamps.

“You’re going to get what you pay for,” he said.

Riley told the crowd the county, as an arm of state government, had to line up with state mandates over which it had no control.

“The $2 million difference [between the current tax rate and the proposed tax rate] is primarily judicial and law enforcement,” he said. “When you talk about cutting, that’s what you’re talking about.”

Roth criticized the short time frame for the budget process, calling it “almost impossible.”

Riley, who prepares the budget, said commissioners had a responsibility to visit with department heads and come up with cuts.

Arriving at budget’s end, after only three weeks of probing and debate, has been difficult at best, with commissioners beginning the process Sept. 6, headed for a Sept. 30 deadline.

As late as Wednesday, commissioners, supporting a motion made by Renfro 4-1, mandated a 2 percent across the board decrease for county departments — to be determined by department heads — in order to cut $600,000 from the judge’s proposed budget.

The cuts were needed to balance the budget while maintaining employees’ dependent health care benefits at an 84 percent county/16 percent employee cost split, another decision made Wednesday.

Conley voted against the cuts, saying later that the county should address rising health insurance costs, in line with recommendations from auditor Mike Rhoten.

By Monday, most, but not all, of the departments had made the 2 percent reductions, Riley reported, for a savings of $385,000. Some made no reductions, others partial ones.

The cuts were enough to balance the 600,000 deficit when combined with employees picking up their portion of the difference between the 10 percent health care cost increase proposed in the judge’s proposed budget and the actual increase of 12 percent, Rhoten said.

A list of cuts was unavailable by press time, but county clerk Jeanne Brunson said her department was able to meet the 2 percent requirement by cutting supplies and having her employees take furlough days.

The sheriff’s department, with a budget of $7 million, not counting the jail, cut $10,000, Riley told the court in regular session Monday morning. The cut is .1 percent.

In an earlier budget session, Roth asked Sheriff Larry Fowler to apply a portion of his $350,000 in forfeiture funds toward the general fund.

The cost of providing health care benefits rose almost 12 percent this year, Riley has said, costing the county between $2.5 million and $3 million.

In the budget approved Monday, the cost share for health care will remain at 16 percent for employees’ dependents, Rhoten said, but employees will pick up a bigger portion of their premiums.

Commissioners Roth and Renfro talked about budget cuts during the court’s first session Sept. 6, initially to avoid the 2-cent tax increase built into the judge’s budget, then to balance the proposed budget — with the increase — in the face of rising health care costs.

Seeking $2 million in cuts to maintain the current 24-cent tax rate, Roth moved to eliminate the $74,000 plat office and its one employee, gaining support from Riley and Renfro to make the change.  

The cut was the only one made, however, before the court voted 3-2 to proceed with Riley’s proposed budget, with Riley, Peacock and Conley voting to accept the 2-cent increase.

One of the last cuts made to the new budget was a cut made to social services Monday morning.

The court reversed a previous decision to continue to pay $225,650 to a number of social services agencies, opting to cut the agencies across the board by 2 percent, the same amount most county departments were cut.

The motion passed 4-1 with Roth voting against the measure, saying the cuts were “not enough.”