Hays County Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe, left, signs off on the new budget, while Commissioner Jeff Barton, right, checks his lunch. Barton’s assistant, Kara Bishop, looks on. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
Hays County commissioners voted 4-1 Wednesday to set the county ad valorem tax rate at 46.92 cents per $100 of taxable valuation and approve a Fiscal Year 2010 total budget of approximately $162 million.
County Accountant Vicki Wilhelm said the construction fund, operating fund, and debt fund figures for FY 2010 are approximations because the Auditor’s Office is still inputting all changes made by the Hays County Commissioners Court during its nine-hour deliberation on Wednesday.
Last year’s budget totaled $116.6 million, with $33.3 allocated to construction. Construction funds in this year’s budget come to $77.5 million, accounting for most of the $46 million increase. Hays County voters approved a $207 million bond for road projects last November.
Debt service payments in the new budget total $10.5 million. FY 2009 debt funds totaled $7.3 million. Operating funds in the new budget total $75 million, just under the $75.9 million on the FY 2009 budget.
The new budget and tax rate represents an increase of $26.54, or 3.66 percent, on the average homeowner. The average home value in Hays County is $160,345, according to county officials.
The new tax rate is 1.42 cents higher than the 45.5-cent rate in FY 2009. The county said the new budget will raise 9.5 percent more in total property taxes than last year’s budget. Of the $4.4 million increase in property tax revenue, $3.3 million will be raised from new property added to the tax roll this year.
Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) cast the lone vote against the budget, saying the county should leave the tax rate at 45.5 cents. Conley also opposed what his colleagues called an “employee retention program,” by which most county employees may be issued one-time payments in November for one percent of their base salaries. Elected officials, sheriff deputies and constable deputies would be ineligible for the payments.
If commissioners see by November that sales tax revenue is not meeting the county’s projections, they will postpone the payments and examine sales tax revenue at three-month intervals thereafter until it is sufficient.
The county projects it will raise $9.35 million in sales taxes on the FY 2010 budget. Wilhelm said the employee retention payments will cost will cost approximately $250,000.
“I was opposed to the Christmas bonus,” Conley said after the Wednesday meeting, during which the court approved the budget. “The court calls it ’employee retention.’ It’s a Christmas bonus. We’re in a down economy. I don’t think we need to worry about, this year, retention of county employees. I think we’ve been taking care of county employees very well. And once again, like we do every year, we take the increase in health insurance costs and don’t pass that on to our employees. We provide wonderful benefits, we have given raises over the last five years, and even beyond that, we have re-evaluated all our employees to bring them up to speed with the region. So, we’ve done a lot. And our employees are great people. They work hard. But I don’t know many small businesses giving out bonuses this year. I don’t know many people who are in that situation. The reality is, managers have cut back on their salaries. A few people have been let go. Some people are not getting the promotion they were promised 24 months ago. And that’s just the reality of the times, and I think the county government, and all governments, should reflect that.”
Conley was alone last September in voting against paying six percent more for elected officials’ salaries in the FY 2009 budget, though he accepted his pay increase after a citizens committee advocated they be increased 26 percent in the FY 2010 budget. The budget the court approved on Wednesday does not include a 26 percent salary increase for elected officials. Commissioners court members also opted not to fund any pay raises, cost of living raises or merit raises for county employees who aren’t in the law enforcement step plan.
The law enforcement step plan included in the approved budget amounts to a four-percent salary increase for sheriff and constable deputies. Conley supported County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) opposed that measure before commissioners decided to implement the increased in January, rather than October. Conley opposed the change. The step plan increase will cost $115,955.
Commissioners added 10 emergency service dispatcher positions to the budget. The dispatcher positions will cost $244,417, including fringe benefits. Five positions will be added in January and five in May, though it will probably take six months to train the new hires.
Commissioners unanimously supported adding the positions after Buda Fire Chief Clay Huckaby requested them Tuesday at a commissioners court meeting packed with EMS and Fire personnel in uniform. Huckaby told court members that some 9/11 callers are being placed on hold due to a dearth of dispatchers.
About an hour before the court voted on the budget, Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) proposed removing $600,000 from the tax rate by borrowing money and/or using reserve funds to pay for anticipated road improvements, such as the building of a bridge at the low water crossing where McGregor Lane crosses Barton Creek in Dripping Springs. Sumter and Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) objected to borrowing money for McGregor Bridge, which Ford anticipates will cost about $1.2 million.
“It is an important project, and I think there have been requests for some (road) improvement there for many, many years,” Ford said to her colleagues on Wednesday. “And I do not believe that it is a project that needs to be financed right now … I don’t think it’s fiscally responsible to borrow money for this size a project at this time and end up actually the project costing $1.5 (million), $1.6 (million) … We have the money here today to do this.”
Barton replied that the court should not forgo an opportunity to set the tax rate lower than what residents had expected.
“I thought we agreed that a goal today was maybe get to 46.5 (cents),” Barton said.
Ford said Thursday that a blind curve, lack of guardrails, and presence of another road intersecting McGregor Lane near the low water crossing at Barton Creek has resulted in 12 accidents there since 2006. Ford said four accidents occurred there this year – more than any other year.
Sumter said Barton’s idea of trimming $600,000 – what she called “half a penny of voter-approved debt” – from the tax rate by borrowing for road projects “doesn’t make any sense,” and she said the increase in taxes by almost 1.5 cents has been caused by voter-approved debt, not Ford’s road project.
“We know that 1.5 voter-approved debt is going to be there whether we finance $600,000 this year, when we would have to find a way to cut your costs next year so you can continue not to charge that half a penny that’s voter-approved debt,” Sumter said. “Eventually, it’s going to hit you, you’re going to have to pay for it.”
Conley asked the county’s public information officer, Laureen Chernow, to avoid crafting her press release to ascribe, implicitly or explicitly, the tax increase to definite causes.
“We all have different ways to come up with different numbers, different priorities,” Conley said.
Conley had offered ways he said the budget could be trimmed by about $1.5 million to allow the tax rate to remain at 45.5 cents. Conley said one way to keep the tax rate flat was to increase the portion of the tax rate allocated to county building construction and improvement projects by one cent instead of the 2.5 cents called for in the new budget.
The commissioners court four years ago began the allocation, which was recently used to build a Precinct 4 County Commissioner Office in Dripping Springs. A portion of the fund may also be used to build new offices in Precinct 2 and Precinct 3. The allocation was at three cents of the tax rate. Sumter’s proposed budget put the allocation at 4.5 percent, and the final budget allocates 5.5 cents – about $5.5 million. Conley guessed that the 5.5-cent tax rate allocation may be enough to build a government center that costs between $75 million and $80 million.
The commissioners court and the government center project manager Broaddus and Associates are in the process of choosing a team of firms to design and construct the building, which is currently sized at 233,000 square feet and may house most county offices. Conley expressed support for a project scenario that called for a $59.6 million, 181,300-square-foot government center. The originally proposed 4.5-cent tax rate allocation would have financed a $65 million government center.
When it came time for the court to vote on the budget, Ford, Sumter and Conley cast their votes quickly, though Barton and Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) hesitated before voting. Barton cast his vote after about thirty seconds of silence, before Ingalsbe followed suit after about a ten-second pause, during which she said she wished the court had done more to decrease the tax rate.
“When we first started the budget workshop today, we had set a goal to try to get the tax rate down to about 46.5 (cents), and even though I think we accomplished a lot of good things and have a lot of good programs … we didn’t accomplish that goal,” Ingalsbe said after the meeting. “I was really trying to get there, to get it down.”Email | Print