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August 13, 2012

Court votes 3-2 for sheriff's staff salary increase

PARKER COUNTY — Responding to a request from the Parker County Sheriff’s Office for more money to boost the salaries of county peace officers, or “guns and badges,” as they are categorized by Judge Mark Riley, Parker County commissioners voted 3-2 Friday to authorize an additional 2 percent cost of living increase for all certified officers of the sheriff’s office and the four deputy constables.

They also voted to set a public hearing on the FY 2012-13 budget and tax rate for 9:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 24, at the courthouse on the square in Weatherford. After the hearing, the court will vote on the budget and rate.

The proposed $37.3 million budget is $1.6 million larger than last year. The tax rate, at 41 cents per $100 assessed valuation, is unchanged.

The sheriff’s department increase is on top of the 3 percent cost of living increase unanimously approved by the court Wednesday for all rank and file employees.

The motion for the additional 2 percent increase, which will help fund about half of the sheriff’s $550,000 requested increase, according to Riley, notes that the sheriff intends to use his asset forfeiture fund to close the gap.

“We don’t have the money to give them what they’re asking for,” Riley said. “We don’t approve what he does with his forfeiture fund. That’s his deal.”

Riley and commissioners George Conley and Craig Peacock voted in favor of the motion. Commissioners John Roth and Dusty Renfro voted against.

Renfro said the biggest reason he voted against the increase was because he needs more clarity about where the county’s new revenues — estimated by auditor Mike Rhoten at about $1.5 million, with about $1 million from sales tax and another $500,000 from fees — are going.

He also proposed that the court consider returning money to taxpayers in the years that the county receives additional revenues, like this year.

Renfro asked the judge how much money was going toward the 3 percent employee salary increase, and Riley said about $500,000.

“So after that, there’s about $1 million [left],” Renfro asked.

“We’ve got it primarily within the judicial system and some in the sheriff’s department; that’s where the bulk of it’s going,” Riley responded.

“I wanted to remind the court of a concept where if you have additional revenue, you keep expenses the same and actually give the taxpayers back the money that we took from them in previous years due to tax increases,” Renfro said. “Just an idea.”

Riley said that more than $500,000 would go toward salary increases once final numbers were calculated. He said judicial costs were increasing.

“The difference is in the judicial system. We’ve got two courts alone with increases of over $200,000 just in attorney fees,” he said.

Prior to the vote, Renfro and Roth discussed aspects of the sheriff’s budget.

Roth asked how the combined increases of 3 percent plus 2 percent compared with the sheriff’s request.

“It’s about half of what he was asking for,” Riley said.

Renfro wanted to know the total amount of the sheriff’s budget, and Riley told him it was $7.6 million, including salaries.

“It’s kind of confusing,” Renfro said. “I wish the sheriff had his own section with all his budgets listed and then a total. Last year, I had a hard time deciphering what was controlled by [the] sheriff and what wasn’t.”

“There’s no way historically to look at it, because they move people from department to department. It’s a maze,” Roth agreed.

Renfro asked for the number of the department’s total employees; the consensus seemed to be 114.

“If you’ve got 114 employees, why are there not enough boots on the ground?” he asked, referring to a comment from Sheriff Larry Fowler during a budget session Monday.

“We hear this a lot from them — we don’t have enough — well what is,” Roth asked. “Just for planning purposes in the future, what’s the key? Is it based on population? What is enough?”

“I think it’s like any emergency service,” the judge responded. “It’s kind of like the defense budget. If nothing’s going on, it’s like nobody’s doing anything, but if something happens, you can never have enough.”

Riley called Fowler to address the questions, but he was unavailable.

The county’s online budget, posted July 31, shows significant increases in the judicial budgets: $114,000 in the 43rd district court, $130,000 in the 415th district court and $78,000 in the county attorney’s budget.

The sheriff’s administration budget has increased from $7.2 million to $7.6 million, with $170,000 more in the salaries and wages line, $32,000 more in the benefits line and $164,000 more in miscellaneous, the result of an accounting change, Rhoten told the court Monday.

Changes for the Road and Bridge Fund ahead?

No action was taken regarding the Road and Bridge Fund, but commissioners talked about having a work session to discuss restructuring it, perhaps privatizing certain tasks or combining assets from different precincts for county road resurfacing.

Roth said he would like to see money that was shifted from the Road and Bridge Fund to the General Fund shifted back.

“If you look at our budgets,” he said, “we’re operating on less money every year.”

Roth said if the county had leftover money this year, it should go to Road and Bridge, because last year commissioners took part of the road and bridge tax rate and moved it to the general fund.

“Five years ago, the road and bridge fund had $8 million in property tax revenue, this year we’re proposing $7.7 million, so it’s gone down $300,000 in five years, plus our salaries have all gone into there, so that’s another $400,000.”

He said there were no additional revenues to set off higher oil prices or salary increases, making less money available for roads.

Riley said it was about working smarter and changing the culture.

“When I was a commissioner I privatized paving, and it saved money,” he said.

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