Left to right, Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley, County Judge Liz Sumter and Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford at a commissioners court meeting last week. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
Hays County Commissioners are considering ad valorem tax rate of 46.92 cents per $100 of taxable valuation the county’s proposed 2010 budget, increasing the rate by 1.42 cents from the present rate of 45.5 cents.
The county will allow the public to view the proposed budget sometime this week, as the auditor’s office is still incorporating changes made last week by commissioners. Public hearings on the proposed budget will take place at the County Courthouse on Sept. 2 at 9 a.m.,, and on Sept. 9 at 6 p.m. Hays county commissioners plan to vote on the final version of the budget after another 9 a.m. public hearing on Sept. 16.
“This is a ceiling,” said Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) just after court members last week voted unanimously to support the proposed tax rate. “Let it be known that this is a ceiling that many of us hope will go down.”
County Judge Liz Sumter’s (D-Wimberley) original proposed budget stipulated an ad valorem tax rate of 47 cents.
One of the longest tax-related discussions among court members took place at the Aug. 12 transportation budget meeting, where commissioners discussed, in Sumter’s absence, strategies for setting the tax rate. Most of that discussion took place between Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) and Conley, the latter of whom proposed a rate of 46 cents.
“Does anybody have any interest, if we can find a way to make it work, make some sacrifices, (of) going below the tax rate which the Judge has proposed?” asked Conley at the Aug. 12 meeting.
In reply, Barton warned that the court would set itself up for a greater increase next year if it doesn’t begin generating more revenue to to pay off the $207 million in debt for road construction approved by voters last November.
“I feel the same way,” said Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos). “I’m always willing to lower the tax rate, but we don’t want to hurt ourselves.”
Barton said he would “feel comfortable” at 47.25 cents, but said he anticipated the final rate to be anywhere from 46.25 to 46.75 cents.
“I don’t think 47 is unreasonable,” Barton said. “Because I think 47 really is, essentially, the effective rate plus the voter-approved debt.”
Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) said her goal was to get the tax rate below 47 cents. Ford proposed the court publish an initial rate of 47 cents, along with a commitment to arrive at a lower number.
“I have a high degree of confidence that we can get it under 47 cents,” Barton said. “I’m just not positive. And once we publish that number, we are royally screwed if we can’t meet it.”
Responded Conley: “But it’s not like we’re married to it completely. We’re just in a different public relations situation.”
At the same meeting, Conley said he opposes yearly fluctuations in property taxes of more than four or five cents. Conley proposed absorbing the debt issuance cost and leaving the tax rate at 45.5 cents. Then, said Conley, the tax rate could be raised three cents the following year if the economy doesn’t improve and there’s no other way to pay down bond debt.
“Instead of being halfway this year, I’d rather keep money in pockets this year and say, ‘Hey, look this is coming,'” Conley said. “It’s really just a preference. You could argue it out a million different ways.”
Barton disagreed, supporting an incremental change in the tax rate.
“My experience is that, no matter how many times you explain that to people, they will never understand it,” Barton said. “This is the year that everybody really remembers, ‘Oh, yeah, last November I approved those taxes.’ If we artificially defer it this year and then try to put it in next year, that’s what I’m afraid (of). They’ll say, ‘Wait a minute, that was a long time ago that we voted on the bond.'”
Included in the proposed county budget are one-percent, one-time cash bonuses of between $250 and $500 to be disbursed on Nov. 30 to all county employees except assistant district attorneys, sanitarians, elected officials and law enforcement that’s in a step plan. The bonuses and step plan increases for sheriff and constable deputies were included in one motion, which all commissioners court members except Conley favored.
“I’m just trying to stay consistent,” said Conley after voting against the motion.
Conley had argued against funding any county employee pay increases except step pay for deputies. He also voted against the motion because it stipulates that deputies would not receive a pay increase until January, three months later than he preferred.
Commissioners at the Aug. 6 budget meeting discussed funding the law enforcement step plan by sacrificing four new deputy positions requested by Sheriff Tommy Ratliff. The court later decided not to fund the new positions. Nine Hays County Buda Patrol officers may be absorbed into the regular force within eight months if the Buda City Council moves forward with its plan to cancel the city’s contract with the county.
Sumter said at the Aug. 6 meeting that funding the step program at the expense of the new officer positions would decrease safety.
“I think those employees understand (that) in tough economic times – I don’t think you’re going to have mass exodus of the Sheriff’s Department because they didn’t get a four-percent step,” Sumter said.
Said Conley in response: “I think they’d lose all faith in the Commissioners Court that within a 10-month period, (it) reneged on…a 5-0 vote on a resolution and an action to the budget in less than a year’s time period.”
Sumter replied that court members may not have voted for the resolution had they known how bad the economy would get.
“I don’t in general like step plans,” said Barton after the court’s Aug. 18 meeting. “I prefer a merit-based plan where there’s no set increase that’s going to come every year.”
However, Barton said, an exception should be made for deputies because the step program keeps the department adequately staffed.
“The program has worked,” Conley said after the Aug. 18 meeting. “The Sheriff’s Office, for the first time in a long time, has finally filled the vacancies that we had.”
Conley said he does not support step programs for jobs other than law enforcement.
“I see law enforcement very differently, based on the traditions in the way they are paid in our society,” Conley said. “Plus, they are the only ones putting their lives on the line on a day-to-day basis out of the almost 900-something employees in the county.”
Another item included in the current version of the proposed budget is a $20,000 expenditure for a one-day event in June 2010. The South Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association chose Hays County as the location for next year’s Host Court Night, which will draw 500-600 visitors from outside the county for dinner and entertainment. The visitors will include county judges and county commissioners from 67 counties, and their families.
Ingalsbe said last week that more than 50 percent of the cost of Host Court Night may be paid by contributions from private entities, such as vendors.
(Editor’s note: The above has been revised to say law enforcement that’s in a step plan is ineligible for the Nov. 30 bonuses. Also, the above changes “sanitation workers” to “sanitarians” to reflect the county’s categorical proclivities.)