Hays County residents opposed to a property tax increase gathered outside the Hays County Courthouse Tuesday morning. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
With two days to spare, and in a standing room only courtroom, Hays County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to keep the current tax rate for next fiscal year and pass a total budget of $243 million.
Commissioners also unanimously decided to refrain from giving raises to county elected officials and cost of living raises to staff — increases that were included in the budget proposed weeks ago.
Commissioners set the county property tax rate at 46.92 cents per $100 of taxable valuation. According to county figures, the average homeowner will realize a decrease in his or her tax bill of about $14, due, in part, to slightly lower property appraisals in parts of Hays County. The 46.92-cent tax rate includes 29.85 cents for general maintenance and operating expenses (M&O), 12.63 cents for general debt, and 4.44 cents for road and bridge expenses.
By state statute, the county is required to set its budget and tax rate by the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.
Due to last minute amendments commissioners made to the proposed fiscal year (FY) 2011 budget before their vote, specific data regarding fund balances, expenditures, and revenues is not yet available. Once the county finalizes the changes, the adopted budget will be available online at www.co.hays.tx.us.
As budget deliberations began, county officials planned a tax rate increase to 48.3 cents. In August, commissioners reduced the proposed tax rate to 47.39 cents and published that figure as the maximum tax rate for the FY 2011 budget.
Tuesday, commissioners opted to shave about $488,000 from the proposed budget to keep the FY 2011 property tax rate at the current 46.92 cents.
The court’s unanimous vote on the tax rate and FY 2011 budget occurred less than an hour after dozens of residents gathered on the courthouse lawn to oppose elected official salary increases and a tax rate increase. San Marcos resident Rob Roark read a statement from county judge candidate Bert Cobb (R-San Marcos), who, Roark said, could not attend due to a medical appointment. Cobb opposed the proposed elected officials salary increases and tax rate increase. Cobb’s opponent in the county judge race, Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle), supported the 0.47-cent property tax rate increase proposed by commissioners a few weeks ago, though he did not oppose keeping the current tax rate.
Of the 14 residents who spoke during the public hearing on the budget, only one did not oppose a tax rate increase. Some residents opposed cost of living raises for county employees that commissioners had proposed weeks ago.
Some of the people gathered on the courthouse lawn before the vote did not oppose the county’s proposed tax rate increase. A few people distributed leaflets opposing Cobb’s candidacy.
Weeks ago, Hays County Auditor Bill Herzog said the property tax rate of 47.39 cents earlier proposed would have resulted in the average homeowner paying $6.83 less taxes because property values declined.
During Tuesday’s public hearing on the budget, Woodcreek resident Frank Wood complimented county staff, expressed his appreciation for county services, and thanked commissioners for announcing their intention to keep the current tax rate and “hold the line,” as he put it.
“You’ve got a lot of people who live here in Hays County that are on very limited income,” Wood said. “I, myself, and my wife are both on social security. We did not get a COLA (cost of living adjustment) last year. We’re not getting a COLA this year. Lord knows when we’re going to get one. Hopefully, we can hold our line and live comfortably and provide a benefit to the community where we live in. That’s our hope and that’s why we’re here, and I thank you for your time.”
Commissioners budgeted merit-based salary increases of just less than two percent for county staff. A collective bargaining agreement yet to be negotiated between commissioners and law enforcement officers will likely result in salary increases for corrections officers, sheriff’s deputies, and deputy constables.
Hays County Treasurer Michele Tuttle, Tax Assessor-Collector Luanne Caraway, Constable James H. Kohler, and all the justices of the peace filed grievances requesting higher salaries. A salary grievance committee, chaired by Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley), was formed to examine the grievances and make recommendations to commissioners as to whether the officials should receive higher salaries. The committee was composed of elected officials and members of the public, the latter randomly selected from the jury pool.
The grievance committee did not issue unanimous recommendations for any salary increases, and, therefore, commissioners were not statutorily obligated to increase anyone’s pay.
Tuttle and Caraway were one vote away from getting raises. Hays County Clerk and salary grievance committee member Linda Fritsche cast the deciding vote in those cases.
Caraway was on the grievance committee that heard Tuttle’s case, and Tuttle was on the grievance committee that heard Caraway’s case. Caraway recommended that Tuttle receive what she asked for — $65,280. Tuttle recommended that Caraway received what she asked for — $70,000.
All committee members except Fritsche recommended $65,280 for Tuttle. Fritsche recommended Tuttle’s current salary of $64,000. All committee members except Fritsche recommended $70,000 for Caraway. Fritsche recommended Caraway’s current salary of $66,679.
Tuttle expressed frustration that commissioners have not embarked on a plan to gradually increase elected official pay to the point recommended by a citizen committee in 2008. Even after budgeting a six-percent increase for elected officials in October 2008, Hays County still considerably underpays them, according to a study conducted by Ray Associates and a citizen panel. In January 2009, a Ray Associates representative told commissioners the county lags 20.6 percent behind comparable counties in elected officials salaries.
Commissioners gave no pay increases to elected officials in FY 2010. Besides law enforcement officers, county employees did not receive raises in FY 2010, even merit-based raises. Sheriff and constable deputies received four percent salary increases beginning in January 2010, which cost $115,955.
According to county figures, not increasing elected officials’ pay amounted to a savings of about $29,645, and eliminating the COLA for county staff saved about $54,320. Commissioners said they budgeted no salary increases for elected officials as an acknowledgment of the economic hardships currently being endured by many residents.
Barton said county property owners will collectively pay $1.5 million less in taxes in the FY 2011 budget.
“Last time that our maintenance and operating budget was this low as a percentage of the tax rate was fiscal year 1997,” Barton said. “So, our tax rate back in the 1990s was over 46 cents. In 2005, it was still 46-plus cents. We have passed a bond election for parks and roads, in which we told people to expect a five cent increase, they voted a five cent increase on themselves, that’s what the literature said — you should expect 4.1 cents on roads and about a penny on parks. At that time, our tax rate was 45.74. So, if we had not tightened out belts, if we had not gotten partially lucky with the economy and our road projects … the tax rate, as voted by the populace would be 51.84. And instead, it is 46.92.”
Among other items, commissioners cut $95,000 from the budget for road maintenance to remain at the current tax rate. Hays County Engineer Jerry Borcherding assured commissioners that the quality of services with respect to roads would not decrease as a result.
Sumter did not cast a vote on the budget and tax rate. Sumter said she had to leave the meeting early due to a family-related emergency.