Judge Mark Riley’s fiscal year 2011-12 proposed county budget was filed in the clerk’s office July 29, three days ahead of the Aug. 1 deadline, according to County Spokesman Joel Kertok. It was posted online Aug. 2.
But interpreting that budget for county commissioners and discussing it in a public forum are long overdue, according to Precinct 3 Commissioner John Roth.
“We have one month before we have to approve our tax rate,” he told the Democrat. “We have new guys who have no experience. This limits our ability to be flexible and make changes.”
According to the law, the budget must be approved by Sept. 30.
So far, commissioners have not been included in the budget process at all, Roth said, and the process seems to be moving ahead more slowly than those in other counties.
Several years ago, commissioners worked on the budget as a group, he said, but the process has evolved to where the judge is now the only one meeting with department heads and elected officials.
“We’re not aware of any special needs they might have,” Roth said. “It’s a whole lot easier to plan when you have more time to plan.”
Court efforts to retrieve written information from county departments and officials — in order to make informed choices at budget time — have been only partly successful, Roth said.
In March, the court approved a quarterly questionnaire, requiring department heads and requesting all general fund elected officials to file reports on revenues, expenditures and staffing needs.
“The first quarter report was presented in the middle of April, but the second one was overlooked,” he said.
In a county meeting June 14, Roth asked Riley to set a calendar for budget discussions and proposed the court meet every other Monday during July and August, piggybacking budget discussions on other meetings.
But as of Monday morning, Roth said, commissioners had received no schedule and still had no information about the new budget other than what had been posted online.
In the judge’s mind, the budget process is status quo and Roth is trying to “create an issue.”
“I find it interesting that he would talk to a reporter and not to me,” Riley said.
“[The schedule] is not any different from any other year,” he said. “The bulk of our meetings will be in September. We’ll get them set around the first of September, but the court will set some of them.”
Riley said he knew some of the commissioners would be gone in August, and so avoided scheduling budget sessions.
Another reason to wait is the county has yet to receive information about health insurance costs, a significant expense.
“Then we’ll have everything tied down,” he said.
The county’s low fund balance will be a topic in this year’s budget discussions, Riley said.
Financial advisors have recommended the court triple the county’s low fund balance to $4 million, either by raising the tax rate, employing more conservative budgeting practices or redirecting funds from individual precinct fund balances, the road and bridge fund or the debt service fund.
How to boost that balance — which everyone agrees should increase, he said — will be up to the court.
“I am going to suggest some ideas, but I will keep those for public discussion,” Riley said.
Riley said he did not expect to see commissioners increase the tax rate 1.3 cents each year for two years, as suggested by First Southwest Company.
And, in his opinion, he said more conservative budgeting could not be done. Departments were “cut to the bare bones last year,” he said. This year, none have asked for additional employees “at this point.”
A cover letter posted online for the FY 2011-12 budget states the tax rate for the proposed budget is the “effective tax rate,” the rate that will generate the same amount of revenue for the county as last year on property of comparable value as set by the appraisal district.
The letter states the new budget will raise $1.3 million more property taxes than last year, with $348,000 of them coming from new properties added to the tax roll.
Staying within the effective tax rate means only one public hearing on the budget will be required, Roth said, though special budget agendas will be posted in the coming weeks, according to Kertok.
The number of agendas, Riley said, will be determined by the court.
“It could be a few or multiple,” he said. “Historically it’s four or five.”
Precinct 4 Commissioner Dusty Renfro, new this year, said it “would be nice to involve the court in the process early on.”
“It’s really different from the private sector, where you have monthly and quarterly meetings and are always abreast of it,” he said. “It couldn’t hurt to have quarterly budget meetings.”
”This is the first time I’ve ever had to vote on it, and I want to understand it,” he said.
Roth, who has served on the court for multiple terms, said he understands the process fully, but wants the judge to explain it to the court in enough time for commissioners to make informed decisions.
“I think the general public would agree — [and say] why haven’t you talked about this in May or June,” he said.
“It’s building up anxiety in the workforce and causing taxpayers to question whether we know what we’re doing.”