The Parker County commissioners responded to information released last week about County Judge Pat Deen’s proposed budget and tax rate at Monday’s regular meeting.

In a press release that was issued on Aug. 8 and in an interview with the Weatherford Democrat, Deen said there was a structural deficit of the county’s financial position that needs to be resolved where the current adopted budget draws $5.6 million from the general fund to balance the budget. Deen said there will be some challenges in tackling the deficit and with recommendations in lowering non-essential expenditures, there will still be about a $1.3 million deficit that will need to be addressed.

“What has been identified as a possible structural deficit in our budget, referring I guess to a proposed $5.6 million to cover our current budget last year, I didn’t see that as a deficit of a structure of any kind. When we voted and approved that budget, what I took was the recommendation of our internal auditor and the advice of our outside auditor of our financial standing,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Steve Dugan said. “There was money in reserves to give back to the taxpayers rather than increase taxes, and I was very glad to take that opportunity. We’re still in good shape financially and there’s no reason to hold the taxpayers’ money hostage when we have an opportunity to give it back to them, and that’s what we did.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner George Conley said he took offense to comments made by Deen in a previous article published in the Weatherford Democrat.

“There was an article put in the paper about this and I take offense to it. It made it sound like we’re in some deep, dark hole that we’re not. We’re not about to lose our AA+ rating for our bonds,” Conley said. “We’re above our 90-day reserves, we’re not going under our 90-day reserves. When I became commissioner, we only had 20-day reserves, so I just want to tell the folks that we’re not in a deep, dark hole. We may have some stuff we need to tweak, which we will, but the county is in good shape, we just need to tweak some stuff.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Larry Walden said he wanted to make it clear that the commissioners were not included in the budget workshops that were held before the information was released on the proposed budget and tax rate.

“Just to clarify, there have been no budget workshops that have included commissioners and we did agree to take some money out of fund balance, but the numbers I see, or that our audit shows, is we have $17 million in fund balance at the end of last fiscal year. Our auditor shows with the end of this fiscal year we anticipate something over $15 million,” Walden said. “I fail to see the crisis or catastrophe that was outlined. We’ve added to the fund balance every year for six years. We’ve added to the fund balance to the point where at the end of this last fiscal year, the fund balance was in excess of $17 million — significantly above the 90-day operating amount that we’ve discussed.”

In the press release, Deen said immediate action needed to be taken in order to ensure the financial health of the county, which includes freezing raises in salaries, delaying capital projects and working with departments to significantly reduce budget requests, which would still leave the approximate $1.3 million deficit. Deen said it is not acceptable to balance a budget by reducing the general fund balance, but said the sky is not falling and the county is still in a good financial position.

Dugan said there are a lot of areas that need to be reviewed through budget workshops.

“I think we have a lot of budget workshops to do. There are a lot of areas that need to be reviewed and reduced on our spending,” Dugan said. “We’re a long ways from a budget I’d like to see. Some of these budgets are of $6,000 or $7,000 for travel, and Judge I think you put $10,000 in yours this time, that’s a lot of travel and seminars to go to and we need to review every one of those. Those little nickels and dimes add up and in a year where we’re talking about how we’re tight, we need to tighten the belt up.”

As for the tax rate, the current rate is $0.38 and the commissioners unanimously approved the proposed $0.37 tax rate, but said they will be holding discussions and public hearings to get feedback since the effective rate will be coming in at about $0.34.

“That 1-cent reduction in tax rate equates to a 7.99 [percent] increase in property tax over the effective rate. Just because we voted today to approve that rate does not mean we are in favor of that tax rate and it does not mean it is set in stone. We are prepared to hear from the public in the two public hearings about what their thoughts are regarding their tax rate,” Walden said. “Personally, I’m opposed to bigger government and I’m opposed to tax increases unless they are absolutely necessary, and I’m mad. The press release was, in my opinion, to deceive taxpayers into thinking that we decreased the tax rate. These are people who have had their appraised values of their properties increase as high as 150 percent and they don’t want more taxes.”

Walden said their first request will be to ask departments to look at their budgets and see where they can decrease.

According to a document on the county’s website, the proposed budget will raise more revenue from property tax than last year’s budget by an amount of $6,582,195.

“I was shocked to see in a year when we had 6,000 to 7,000 people complaining about their property tax evaluations going up, that we’re going to consider adding taxes on top of that to cover increased spending,” Dugan said.

Conley told Deen he has four years to get the county where he thinks it should be.

“You’ve got four years to get to a point where you think we ought to be. We don’t have to do it in one year — the first year you’re here,” Conley said. “You’ve got four years to get this where you think it should be.”

Deen responded saying it’s clear that the deficit will not be able to be solved in one year.

“We have a structural deficit in the budget that we’re currently in and a structural deficit in the budget we’re proposing. It’s clear that we’re not going to solve and reverse these things in one year and it’s not my intent to do that,” Deen said. “What my intent is, is to set, in cooperation as a team, policies and procedures to build and continue to grow fund balance. It needed to grow because it was at a point back years ago where it was extremely low, so the court has done a great job continuing to grow that.”

For details about the public hearing dates and adoption dates on the proposed budget and tax rate, visit the county’s website at parkercountytx.com.