Athens Review, Athens, Texas

August 24, 2012

Commissioners get serious about slicing a lean budget

Rich Flowers
The Athens Review

Athens — The Henderson County Commissioners Court is no longer coming at the budget with a paring knife. These days it’s more like a meat cleaver.

If there’s any fat in there, it’s got to go. You want a new desk or a comfy chair for your office — forget it. Just be glad your position is still there.

There’s a simple reason Scrooge is now in charge of the county purse-strings. More money is going out than is coming in. The court wants to nip that trend in the bud.

There are a couple of ways to achieve that. One is to decrease expenditures. The other is to raise the property tax.

For years, appraised values of Henderson County properties rose steadily. Revenues increased, without having to touch the tax rate.

Property owners would get their tax statements, and find they were paying a bigger bill, but not because of an increased tax rate. When that appraised value goes up, the tax bill goes up.

I notice someone wrote a letter to the editor this week asking why the county has raised her  property taxes. I assure you, the county hasn’t done that. Not yet anyway.

The tax rate will be set sometime in September.  They will propose a rate, then hold a couple of public hearings before it becomes etched on the tablets.

I have covered the Commissioners meetings for years, and I don’t recall too many people coming to one of the hearings to sound off about the proposed tax.  I often hear complaints about the tax afterward, but seldom at the time set aside by the Texas Constitution to have our say.

Here are a few facts. In 2011, the county imposed a tax rate of .472658  per $100 valuation which is equal to the effective tax rate. The effective rate is the percentage that will impose the same amount of tax as the previous year, when property values are taken into account. In 2007, that rate was about the same, right at 48 cents per $100 valuation.

This year, the effective rate is higher than the rate county property owners are currently paying. That means Commissioners would have to increase the tax, just to bring in the same amount of money as last year.

To keep the rate from going higher, many requests were made  from county officials to see where expenses could be trimmed. This week, department heads are appearing before the court to squeeze a little more blood from the turnip.                         

That’s when the proceedings got tough. It’s one thing to cut back on business and travel expenses. It’s another to have to go back to your office, and tell an employee there’s no longer room in the budget to fund their position. If there ever was a good time to lose a job, this isn’t it.   

The ones who cry for the Commissioners to take even deeper slices in the budget are often the ones who’ll be the first to complain if the  roads get bumpy. 

They also probably want the Sheriff’s Office to keep that burglar out of the shed, and those stray dogs from terrorizing them when they go to the car. 

Another big expense is running the jail. When criminals are caught, or one of the courts sentences them to prison time, we’ve got to have a place to keep them.       

I was researching a story last week, and found an Athens Review from 1989, when the county was talking about building a jail to replace the 1929 structure on Larkin Street.

The new Sheriff, Slick Alfred, was overseeing a detention center that had 76 prisoners. The average daily inmate population in July, 2012 had grown to 312.

If the county hadn’t built the 1991 jail, at current prices it would cost the county more than $3 million each year to pay to have overflow inmates housed elsewhere.

You can look in just about every department, and find reasons why the county is spending more money than it did a few years ago. I’m sure there’s some fluff here and there, but when a department head comes before the Commissioners Court, and makes a case for hiring an additional employee, or upgrading computer software, they have to give it respectful consideration.

That’s what makes this budget session so hard, the commissioners aren’t just cutting out the department’s wants, but also legitimate  needs. They’re doing it with such diligence, because they realize there’s not much extra cash in our pocketbooks either.

Rich Flowers is News Editor of the Athens Daily Review.