Commissioners face budget questions during hearing
A packed house turned out for a public hearing on the 2017 proposed budget for Stephens County during a special-called county commissioners meeting on Monday morning.
During the meeting, which started with County Treasurer Sharon Trigg giving an overview of the proposed budget and going over a few of the budget’s highlights, several people asked the commissioners and the county judge a wide array of questions, which sometimes became testy.
Trigg said the proposed 2017 budget is $5,384.721, compared to $5,894,057 in 2016, a cut of $509,336 between 2016 and 2017. In 2016, the commissioners cut the budget by $1,121,490 for a total cut of 1,681,434 over two years.
There was also a drop in the adjusted tax base between 2015 and 2016 because of the decline in the price of oil. In 2015, there was an adjusted tax base of $545,496,746, compared to just $464,753,138 in 2016, a drop of $80,743,608 in taxable value over the past year. The county tax rate remained at 0.8000 per $100 value, the same rate as last year.-
Trigg said that in the proposed budget, they cut three employees but had to add two employees back to the jail staff to ensure sure the jail stays compliant.“Basically we lost one employee,” she said.
County Judge Gary Fuller pointed out that nobody had been laid off, and that the cuts had been made through attrition, such as retirements.
Lisa Echols, a citizen attending the meeting, asked if since the county maintenance fund was cut in half under the proposed budget, did that mean the county maintenance would be cut in half, too?
“Does this mean there’s going to be less work done by those machines, or is repairs and maintenance going to be put off, if they’re going to do it for about half of what they did it for last year?” she said.
“It’s just an estimate,” Trigg said. “I don’t think it means they’ll do less work. We just have less money, so we have to take away from some of the line items. If they need it, they can move money from other line items.”
Echols then wanted to know why elected officials were getting longevity pay.
“I thought this was for hourly wage earners to keep them working for the county,” she said. “Why are elected officials drawing that if they are elected to stay in the positions?”
Trigg said when the county originally set up longevity pay, they agreed that everybody would get it.
One of the more contentious topics discussed in the meeting was the travel allowance paid to the county commissioners and county judge.
During a discussion with Fuller, Graham Reaugh said that IRS standard reimbursement is 54 cents a mile, which means Fuller would have to drive 26,656 miles per year or about 102 miles per day to equal the amount of his travel pay. He then asked Fuller what in his job description requires him to drive so many miles.
Fuller, who said he averages about 500 miles a week, told Reaugh that he has served for two years as the president of the council of governments and was currently the president of the City and Rural Rides (CARR) board. He said that in addition to having meetings all over the place, he also drives out and checks county roads himself. He said if anybody calls in a complaint he drives out and checks it out because he is held accountable, too.
Bruce Curry suggested to Fuller that maybe if they kept records on their mileage it would solve a lot of problems because it would be a matter of record.
“I’m not saying that you do drive those miles (or) you don’t drive the miles, I’m just saying why not keep a record of what you use on county business,” Curry said. “Would that be asking too much? It might be good start.”
Fuller answered that it would not be.
Precinct 2 Commissioner D.C. “Button” Sikes told Curry that a lot of counties buy their commissioners a pickup to use, furnish the fuel and their insurance.
Curry told Sikes he wasn’t complaining, he was just saying it would stop a lot of questions if they kept a record of it. He said if the county wants to buy the vehicles then that would be a matter of record, too, and would lead to more transparency.
Fuller then had a discussion with Melinda Lane about what expenses were covered by their travel allowance and if it would be cheaper to pay a flat rate or keep up with mileage. Fuller said they had put the pencil to it many times and determined it would be cheaper to pay a flat rate.
Fuller said he just doesn’t understand what the big deal is about, and Echols pointed out that their travel allowances are 14 times more than that in some of the nearby counties.
Fuller said a lot those counties furnish their elected officials with vehicles.
Reaugh then told Fuller that the travel payments in Stephens County were the eighth highest in the state, not just a few counties.
“All those that are higher, are bigger and more populated. A lot wealthier counties than ours,” Reaugh said. “It looks excessive.”
Someone in the crowd then said it’s become a concern because the taxpayers are seeing less services, such as a woman who had complained earlier about the lack of maintenance on her county road and that there was not $8,000 in the budget for the Breckenridge Fine Arts Center.
“But the five of you are sitting around getting $72,200 in travel,” the speaker said. “Can you not come up with $8,000 out of that for the Fine Arts Center to keep its doors open? It gets concerning to the taxpayer, the ones paying the check.”
Local businessman Eddie Medford asked if the auto allowance is automatically paid. He asked if, for example, one of the commissioners was in the hospital for two weeks and then was put on light duty and couldn’t do much work when he go out, would he still receive the auto allowance even if they didn’t hardly drive anywhere.
Trigg said that because the auto allowance is paid as a salary, they would continue to get the money.
Someone from the crowd then said if it’s considered salary, then it should not be separated out as $55,000 plus $14,400. It just needs to show the total as part of their salary.
Trigg also said since the travel allowance was treated as salary, the County matches retirement benefits to it, just like regular salary.
The meeting ended with no action being taken by the commissioners on adopting the budget. They will hold another special meeting to adopt the budget at 9 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 26, following their regular meeting. Following that meeting they will hold another special meeting to set the county tax rate.
A copy of the proposed budget can be found online at: http://tools.cira.state.tx.us/users/0145/docs/Budget/2017%20Budget.pdf on the county’s website.