San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

January 13th, 2010
Commissioners discuss slowing debt issues

011310wegmilleraHays County’s bond advisor, Dan Wegmiller of Specialized Public Finance, discusses the county’s debt position with commissioners. Photo by Sean Batura.

By SEAN BATURA
News Reporter

Amidst news of a projected tax increase next fiscal year and fears of a decline in county-wide property appraisals, Hays County Commissioners talked this week about slowing their dash towards massive capital improvement expenditures planned for the near future.

As commissioners wait on more precise revenue projections for the coming year, projects on the drawing board could wait in limbo, including a $73 million government center, a $50-60 million jail, $48 million in road work and $10 million in parks and open space allocations.

County consultant firm Specialized Public Finance Inc (SPF) recently projected an increase of 3.76 cents per $100 more than the current rate by next year, taking into account scheduled bond sales and other expenses. The county raised the property tax rate 1.42 cents for the present fiscal year, bringing it to 46.92 cents.

Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) expressed concern this week about a possible decline in property values this year, urging her colleagues to hold off initiating the required 30-day public notice period for the sale up to $74 million in certificates of obligation (COs).

The court has to sell the COs before construction firm Balfour Beatty will turn dirt on the county’s most ambitious project to date: a 233,600-square-foot county government building near Wonder World Drive and Stagecoach Trail. Courts and most county offices are planned for relocation to the new government center, which is being designed by architectural firm HDR.

On top of costs related to the government center — now estimated at approximately $73.1 million — county officials are looking at the possibility of spending another $64 million in capital improvements in the near future. Commissioners voted unanimously this week to negotiate a design-build contract with a stipulated “not to exceed” amount of $1.45 million to expand a Resource Protection, Transportation and Planning Department (RPTP) building.

The court recently committed $2.2 million to bring the county jail up to state standards and to study options such as expanding the present jail or building a new one. Sumter and Hays County Sheriff Tommy Ratliff have advocated constructing a new jail, which, Ratliff recently estimated, would cost $50-60 million.

The county jail failed the last three inspections conducted by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS), which ordered the county to close the jail’s kitchen. The commissioners court requested a rehearing with TCJS, effectively abating the order until February. The county jail is overcrowded, necessitating the relocation of prisoners to other counties, costing the county $264,900 last fiscal year.

After some discussion, commissioners consented to pulling the CO-related agenda item, which Sumter had sponsored. Sumter asked her colleagues to speak to chief appraisers in other jurisdictions and study relevant data for the next two weeks. Sumter said that she may arrange an informative workshop on the topic for the court in two weeks.

Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) and Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) mildly chided Sumter for proposing the relevant agenda item only to pull it, and criticized her for what they said was advocating “speculation” in the absence of adequate information. Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) did not openly take a side during the debate, but Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) did.

“I think we are facing some capital improvement expenditures here that are unprecedented, and not just for the government center,” Ford said. “Now we’re looking at jail numbers … as well as RPTP and other precinct offices that are kind of out on the edge of that capital improvement discussion, too … We’re making decisions now that are beyond the government center. Everyone’s ready to move there, but … I appreciate a little bit of a hold on this and to look at it in a more holistic way … ”

At the same meeting, an SPF representative and an individual from government center project management firm Broaddus and Associates warned of a need to publish notice of the CO sale by the end of February and sell on March 30 in order to stay on schedule and have a better chance of benefiting from lower construction costs and debt interest.

“I don’t think that there’s any doubt that the government center needs to be built in this county,” Sumter said in court Tuesday. “We know the conditions of these facilities. It needed to be built a long time ago, that’s a good way to put it. So I don’t think anyone on this court is looking to get out of building a government center. I think what we’re doing here is being really conservative and diligent about where we’re going to move in the budget as we begin to know what those numbers are.”

Proponents of the government center say it is needed because current county offices and courts are overcrowded and otherwise ill-suited to the needs of staff and residents. Some officials in recent months have gone so far as to call the Hays County Justice Center on Guadalupe Street “a dump” and “a disgrace.” Hays County District Attorney Sherri Tibbe’s (D-Buda) office is in the justice center, which was an H-E-B more than ten years ago.

SPF projected an increase in county property taxes of 4.35 cents per $100 of valuation by 2012 over the current rate. SPF projected an increase of 3.76 cents per $100 more than the current rate by 2020. If the county had not recently built 4.5 cents into the tax rate for capital improvements, the rate projected by SPF would be 55.77 cents per $100 by 2012 and 55.18 cents per $100 in 2020.

“I think one of the biggest benefits, hopefully, going forward this year, is, the appraisal district getting your values out in April,” said SPF’s Dan Wegmiller, the county’s bond advisor. “Historically, you’re wrestling until June, July, to even know what those numbers are going to be through the budget process. I think, at this point, it really sets you up well to have a workshop, maybe in March, April, whenever the certified estimate comes out, when you have real numbers so we can truly zero in on what is the actual number going to be this year, and then plan on that.”

The commissioners court set its ad valorem tax rate at 46.92 cents per $100 this fiscal year, an increase of 1.42 cents from the previous year. The FY2010 total budget is approximately $167,025,731, with $80,250,888 allocated for construction purposes. Last year’s budget was $116.6 million, with $33.3 allocated to construction.

Debt service payments in the present budget total $10,449,685. FY 2009 debt payments totaled $7.3 million. Operating funds in the new budget total $76,325,158, more than the $75.9 million in the FY 2009 budget.

Hays County voters approved $207 million in a November 2008 road bond election, with $48,885,000 remaining to be sold. A sale of those remaining road bonds is planned this year and next year.

County voters approved $30 million in a May 2007 bond election for parks and open spaces, with $10,015,000 remaining to be issued. A sale of those remaining parks bonds is planned this year.

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