County commissioners, looking for $2 million in cuts to the 2011-12 budget, abolished the platting office in a 3-2 vote Tuesday, recovering the $74,000 salary of the office’s one employee as a first step.
Judge Mark Riley and commissioners John Roth and Dusty Renfro voted in favor of the cut; commissioners George Conley and Craig Peacock voted against it.
“[The number of] plats is minimal,” Precinct 3 Commissioner John Roth said, before making the motion. “They have one employee. We used to do this through the precincts, through our office managers, who dealt with the county attorney’s office.
“We’ve gone the last two years funding this department thinking the plats will go up, but they’re not.”
“If development starts again, we can bring it back,” Renfro added. “But if we’ve got to cut 20 to 40 positions and we can’t cut one, we’re going to have a tough time.”
“I think it’s an important office,” Conley countered, “She [Plat Coordinator Leslie Coufal] does a good job, and you can go to one office and get it done.”
Peacock protested that the employees in his office would object to the increase in workload.
“Last year, a motion was made to eliminate this department, and I voted for it,” Riley, who included the position in his proposed budget, said. “Its biggest asset is uniformity. But the workload is down. We might ultimately consider consolidating plats and 911 addressing.”
Possible budget cuts drew lots of discussion Tuesday as commissioners wrestled with paying for a hefty 11 percent increase in employee health insurance and considered reducing health care benefits.
Options presented by Employee Benefits Coordinator Jennie Gentry ranged from not increasing the employee cost share — the county currently pays 97 percent for employees, 84 percent for spouses and dependents — to plans where employees would pay differing shares of their own costs and/or those of their dependents.
The cost to the county would be an additional $390,000 in the most expensive scenario, she said, or could go as low as about $207,000.
Roth said the county would undermine morale and lose people if employees are the first ones asked for cuts that really amount to pay reductions. Employees are being asked to go without raises for the fourth year in a row, he said.
“I don’t know where they’re going to go,” Renfro responded.
“Dependent coverage is not the responsibility of this county,” Riley said. “There are other options out there ...”
Renfro said the county needed to focus on no increase in taxes for the general fund.
“We need to be digging down deep, making do with what we have,” he said. “And we need to find the money to pay for the increases.”
“With the 24 cents per $100, you’re $2 million short, and you’re talking about reducing law enforcement,” Riley said, suggesting commissioners look for money in the road and bridge fund instead.
“Roads and bridges has money because it’s been over budgeted,” he said. “The taxpayer looks at the tax bill, the bottom line, and roads and bridges is a part of it.
“If it needs to be lowered a penny, damn it, it needs to be lowered a penny.”
Officials also discussed laying off some 30 to 40 employees and cutting funds to non-profits, including the library, MHMR, Freedom House and the Senior Center.
“In this economic environment, increasing taxes is unacceptable. We need to work together to find a way not to increase taxes,” Renfro said.
The judge’s proposed budget is fueled by the effective tax rate, meaning the rate that would generate the same amount of revenue for the county as last year. The rate is 2 cents higher than last year’s and compensates for reduced property appraisals.
Justices of the peace who brought their requests to the court Tuesday afternoon drew pointed questions from Roth, but emerged unscathed — so far — in terms of proposed budgets and staff.
“I’ve gone back over our financials and pulled the last 10 years of revenues and expenditures,” Roth said. “Please double check these, but 10 years ago we had $630,000 of revenues over expenditures. In the last few years we’ve been $300,000 to the negative. That’s a swing of over $900,000.
“I don’t believe that every office needs to pay for itself, but wow, that’s amazing. I don’t know what the answer is.”
Justice Suzie Merkley pointed to higher court costs and state fees and said DPS officers are writing fewer tickets.
People are having a hard time paying their tickets, she said, and when they can only pay a portion, the state has priority over the county.
Many are opting for a payment plan or sitting the fines out in jail, Merkley said.
She also pointed to unfunded state mandates, saying a new collections office for paid fines in 2007 required one of her clerks.
Justice Lynn Johnson said the legislature has given J.P.’s responsibilities that don’t generate money. In addition to civil cases, she said, magistrates have been given administrative hearing tasks.
“We’re not a collection company for DPS,” she said, “ We have more of a judicial function.”
Democrat reporter Christin Coyne contributed to this report.