Commissioners “cut to the bone” to avoid a steep tax hike

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As the deadline to finalize the County’s 2013-2014 budget approaches, the Robertson County Commissioners have been scrambling to find hundreds of thousands of dollars more to cut from an already lean (compared to budgets of the past few years) budget.  This particular need came from a recent decision—or at least a hope—to minimize a necessary tax increase to two cents on every $100 valuation.  That hope dimmed on Monday, despite some determined efforts to cut spending.

After two budget workshops—a morning and an afternoon session--along with a regular meeting, commissioners still fell short of the 1.4 million in cuts necessary to prevent a tax hike.  They had, however, agreed to cut over a quarter of a million from Road and Bridge line items and shift between $300 and $400 thousand in capital spending—mostly big road maintenance equipment—from the 2013-14 budget to the 2012-2013 budget using the county’s left over contingency funds, some reserves, and some funds left in commissioners’ budgets.

An almost full courtroom greeted County Judge Jan Roe and the County’s four commissioners as they sat down to begin Monday’s budget review.  Roe thanked residents for their interest in County government and explained that projected tax revenue would fall 1.4 million short of covering budgeted needs without changes either to spending or the tax rate.  Mineral values had dropped and power plant values along with them, resulting in a $380 million decrease in county property values or $1.4 million less in tax revenues if both spending and the tax rate remained the same.  Though a 4 cent tax increase would cover the shortfall, the Court hoped to “split the difference” by making severe cuts and increasing taxes by 2 cents on every $100 valuation.  

First Roe pointed out that the construction of a new election center was necessary.  The current temporary structure sits on land belonging to First Baptist Church of Franklin and they need it back, she said.  The County has purchased property on Center Street and construction will begin in January or February, after construction of the Historical Courthouse and jail is completed. Funds used to build the Election Center will come from the County’s reserves, not out of the budget, she explained.  

The 2,800 square foot building will cost the County about 92 cents a square foot to build—72 cents in actual construction costs—and provide better access to voters in wheelchairs and with other disabilities and give Election Administrator Trudy Hancock the storage space she desperately needs.  The court agreed to retain historic courthouse construction manage Jim Hanks to manage construction of the election center.  The proposed budget for Election Center construction stands at $286,810.  Roe and Commissioner Donald Threadgill pointed out that all the County’s construction projects had come in under budget.

The County also needs several new vehicles: two for the DA’s office (investigator vehicles), three for the Sheriff’s Department, and two for the constables.  With trade-ins, funds from the current year’s budget should cover the purchase of all seven.

Next, Roe addressed the problem of “transparency,” or residents’ feeling that County government was operating without it. She asked if the County needed to hire an IT person to maintain a web page and get more County information out to the public.  The cost of adding a salary—probably at least $60,000—seemed a little daunting given the current budget crisis.

Roe recognized resident Cathy Lazarus who suggested hiring an IT person might not solve the problem since some are trained in hardware maintenance rather than communications.  She suggested the county upload its budgets, minutes, agendas and other critical documents to the State-maintained web siteTexasTransparency.org at no cost to the County. Commissioner Keith Petitt agreed with Lazarus, and Roe said she would look into that option.

The panel turned its attention to other capital expenditure requests that could be handled in this year’s budget.  Road equipment expenditures of $301,000 could be covered by $200,000 in Road and Bridge contingency funds, reserve funds used to finish off the year before 2014 taxes come in, and funds left in the Road and Bridge precinct budgets.  Other purchases that need to be made in September include a copier/scanner/printer/fax all-in-one machine for the Elections Office and computers for the County Agent’s office.  The Sheriff’s Office will purchase a shedder with its current budgeted and vehicles can be purchased within the current year as well but departments must conclude all purchases by September 30, 2013.

With all those purchases moved out of the 2013-2014 budget, the County was still looking at a tax hike of 3.5 cents or more, said Roe.  But she asked Auditor Candy Anderson to re-figure the budget with those cuts figured in and return to Court for the second budget workshop of the day, following the 2 pm regular Commissioners’ Court session.

Melissa Freeman / Robertson County News

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