Budget topic of discussion
Houston County Courier
The 2010-2011 budget was a topic of discussion at the Tuesday, July 27 meeting of the Houston County Commissioners Court. The regular meeting included a budget workshop to receive and discuss budget requests from county departments any interested citizens or organizations. County Judge Lonnie Hunt will file the proposed budget by Monday. In the first draft that was reviewed by the Court, most county departments will see no increases in their operational budgets, while some will see slight decreases. No pay raises are proposed for county employees or elected officials. However, personnel expenses are going up due to a 10 percent increase in health insurance and a slight increase in the retirement program. It was also noted that most county employees will receive a small increase under the county’s longevity pay policy which was adopted two years ago. Increase jail staff requested Sheriff Darrel Bobbitt appeared before the court, along with Chief Deputy Ronnie Jordan and Jail Administrator Jerry Baker, to request additional jailer positions in the new budget. The sheriff stated that the Houston County Jail has been understaffed for many years. The county currently employs one jail administrator and 10 jailers. Dispatchers also currently operate the jail control room. When the new Houston County Justice Center opens this fall, the dispatch office will function separately, so additional jailers will be required to operate the control room. A jail staffing analysis prepared by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards recommended a total staff of 30 for the Houston County Jail. Hunt said he believed that number was unrealistic. The judge’s proposed budget includes funding for six new jailer positions which would increase the total jail staff to 17. The Sheriff told the court that he felt obligated to ask for the full staffing as recommended by the Jail Commission. However, he said his depart-ment will continue to do the best they can with whatever the county can afford to provide. He also said that once the new facility is open, he is hopeful that Houston County can contract to house inmates from other counties, and that doing so would generate additional revenue for the county. The Houston County Justice Center, which will include a new 144-bed jail plus law enforcement offices and a Justice of the Peace Court, is projected to open around Nov. 1 of this year. Justice Center under budget Hunt said the new building will be completed under budget, and savings on the project will be used to help pay the debt service in next year’s budget. That will free up tax dollars for other needs which will enable the county to make up for an overall reduction in tax revenue without raising the tax rate. Property values down Certified property values countywide are down about $54 million this year, the first decrease since 1994. At the current tax rate of 38.6 cents, Houston County will receive about $200,000 less in property taxes next year. However, Hunt said, because of the savings on the Justice Center project, the county should be able to fund the new budget without an increase in the tax rate and without dipping into the county’s reserve fund balance. “We continue to look for ways to do things more efficiently,” he said. “And we continue to look for new sources of revenue in an effort to keep from increasing the burden to our property owners,” Hunt added. Looking at cell phone sales tax One possible option Hunt mentioned would be to eliminate the county sales tax exemption on cellular phone service. “The State already collects sales tax on your cell phone service,” he said, “but Houston County exempts that from our half-cent sales tax. By removing this exemption, we would generate a little more sales tax dollars which would help keep the property tax low.” “My personal cell phone bill ran $179 last month,” he noted. “By removing the exemption, I would have paid about 60 cents more in sales tax. That’s not much, and we have no way of knowing how much this would generate countywide, but every little bit helps.” Employee health insurance In other action, the Houston County Commissioners Court approved renewal of employee health insurance through the Texas Association of Counties insurance pool. The monthly cost per employee is increasing to $509.78 but the county will receive a renewal credit of $54,672 which lowers the net cost per employee to approximately $468 per month. In other action . . . • The commissioners author-ized payment of comp time and vacation time to Joyce Moore, who has retired from the sheriff’s department. • Commissioners granted ap-proval of the salaries of Charles Lee Barton and Richard Smith as full time replacement jailers, and Joseph Smith Jr. as part time jailer in the Sheriff’s Department. • The county commissioners approved a budgeted six-month pay increase for Precinct 1 Road Hand Bruce Goolsby. • Additionally, the commis-sioners received the proposed budget for the Vehicle Inventory Tax Escrow Interest Fund from tax assessor-collector, Danette Millican. The VIT tax goes to the State of Texas, but the county is allowed to keep interest earned to supplement operations of the tax office. Wiring for Justice Center Authorization was granted to the county judge, sheriff, and Precinct 4 Commissioner Kennon Kellum to act on behalf of the court to select a vendor to install inside wiring at the new Justice Center at a cost not to exceed $40,000. The architect is currently reviewing proposals from three vendors.