With 15 days until the budget filing deadline, county commissioners finally chose a direction Thursday, voting to proceed with Judge Mark Riley’s proposed general fund budget as a working document, with the exception of employee health care benefits, which are still in flux.
The $35.6 million proposed general fund budget — up from $34.8 million last year — operates with a tax rate of 26 cents per $100 property valuation, up from 24 cents this year. The rate is the effective rate, which means it will generate the same amount of revenue for the county as last year when applied to this year’s lower property valuations.
Judge Mark Riley, Precinct 1 Commissioner George Conley and Precinct 2 Commissioner Craig Peacock voted in favor of the proposed budget. Precinct 3 Commissioner John Roth and Precinct 4 Commissioner Dusty Renfro voted against it.
The 3-2 vote puts an end to the discussion of budget cuts, which has consumed the court for the past two weeks. About $2 million in cuts were needed to maintain the current tax rate, Riley said.
Commissioners voted Tuesday to eliminate the plat office and its one employee, but stopped short of dismissing 30 to 40 more, the number needed to raise $2 million.
Thursday, facing a room filled with representatives from organizations that receive county support, commissioners opted 4-1 to continue to provide $225,650 in funds to local libraries, the Senior Center, Freedom House and others.
Roth cast the dissenting vote, saying he personally supported all of them, but could only see the county supporting Mental Health-Mental Retardation, Child Protective Services, statutory burial expenses and the Abandoned Cemetery Association.
“What is the taxpayers’ ability to fund these items,” he asked. “Where do you stop? We are struggling in a tight budget year.”
The proposed budget, which could change on adoption night Monday, Sept. 26, is $840,000 more than last year’s, with about $300,000 set aside for reserves, Riley said. Additional funds will pay down cost increases in health insurance and contractual services.
On the plus side, the county has reclaimed $200,000 by reducing its retirement contribution for employees from $2.40 to $2, he said.
He said the proposed budget has no new positions.
The biggest increases by department are in Building and Grounds, proposed to increase by $180,000, and in the Sheriff’s Department, slated to increase by $146,000, Riley said, with $126,000 additional for the jail. Information Technology will grow by $145,000 and the Auditor’s Office by about $55,000.
The proposed budget will transfer $95,000 more out of the general fund than last year — for a total of $910,000 — shifting $90,000 in insurance proceeds to Precinct 4 to recoup costs from rebuilding after a fire. The balance will go to budgets for juvenile and adult probation, he said.
Before the vote to approve the budget, as commissioners struggled with ideas for cuts, Conley, who rarely sees eye to eye with Roth, moved that the court shut down Precinct 3, Roth’s precinct.
“That would save the county about $3 million,” he joked.
On a more serious note, Elections Administrator Robert Parten offered commissioners $30,000 in cuts from his budget.
And Attorney John Forrest, whose $1.7 million budget will remain much the same under the proposed budget, suggested all elected officials take a $5,000 pay cut, saying they would absorb it better than other county employees. Forrest told the court he has directed funds received through the Professional Prosecutors’ Act to his employees instead of adding them to his salary.
“I’ve tried to raise salaries with the supplement,” he said, “so my assistants can have a better pay grade, and we can keep their expertise and experience here.”
“It sound good,” Roth said, “but what is it, $120,000? It’s not going to solve our problem.”
“But it will add to the solution,” Forrest countered.
Forrest also suggested the court consider furloughs instead of cutting employees altogether.
Roth protested — as he has on several occasions — that the judge’s tight budget schedule didn’t give commissioners enough time to fend off a tax increase, drawing a sharp retort from Riley, who told him to take his job more seriously.
“I challenge you to visit this office,” he said. “You’ve finally asked some questions this year. Do your homework.”
“Ask Elvira, Mike ... to say I don’t ask questions, that’s nuts,” Roth said, referring to county staff.
Renfro also protested the judge’s timing, referencing an article that said Tarrant County commissioners met with department heads in March to try to reduce operational costs.
“We can sit and do nothing for months because we don’t have the data,” Riley said. “I don’t know what [chief appraiser] Larry Hammonds can tell me [at that point.]”