|Trinity Standard - Local News
Stories Added - October 2010
Copyright 2010 - Polk County Publishing Company
Tax, budget increase approved by county
Trinity Standard -
GROVETON – Despite requests from seven taxpayers that they “hold the line,” Trinity County commissioners voted last week to increase the 2011 budget as well as the tax rate which supports it. During a special meeting held Friday, Sept. 24, commissioners conducted a public hearing on the budget and gave local citizens a chance to ask questions or make comments. While the hearing drew about 30 taxpayers, only seven chose to address the court and all voiced opposition to the new budget and corresponding increase in taxes. In his remarks to the taxpayers, County Judge Mark Evans noted that under the plan, the county’s property tax rate would increase from the current 62 cents per $100 in assessed value up to 65 cents. “What that means is that if you have a $100,000 home, you’ll pay about $34 more in county taxes than you did last year,” he said. The judge noted that under state law, the county was required to post notices that the new rate would amount to a 17.41 percent increase. “We are not increasing the tax rate by 17 percent,” he said. “We are increasing the amount of revenue we receive from taxes by 17 percent. “If you look at the current rate versus the rate we are proposing – going from 62 to 65 cents – we are talking about a 4.8 percent increase in the rate,” he said. Evans added that under state law, had the county proposed keeping the 62 cent rate approved last year, commissioners would have had to conduct a public hearing on an 11.99 percent increase. Under the 2011 budget, which will go into effect on Oct. 1, the new 65-cent tax rate is expected to generate a total of more than $3.5 million, which is up by more than $500,000 from last year. Most of the increase in income will come from higher property values. However, property owners who are 65 or older have had their county taxes frozen and the increase in values and the tax rate will not affect them directly. Evans noted that the new 2011 budget calls for about $4.5 million in spending for the general fund , which was up from just over $4 million for 2011. When combined with the road and bridge and records management budgets, the overall spending plan for the coming year calls for income and expenses of just over $5.7 million. This is up from 2010’s $5.2 million. During last week’s hearing, the most forceful opposition to the increase presented came from Lyn Hill, a resident of the Precinct 1 area of the county. Hill noted had had voiced his opposition during an earlier hearing on the tax rate and said he felt the same way about the increase in the county budget. He cited a recent front-page article that appeared in the Houston Chronicle, which said there were more people living in poverty in the United States today than at any point over the past 50 years. “If the United States is in that condition, what makes you think that Trinity County is not in the same condition or maybe worse,” Hill said. He noted that if the county would adopt the same budget as they had for 2010, they could “roll back” the tax rate to 55 cents. Hill said he did not feel the commissioners were listening to the people and added he felt the commissioners should have scheduled at least one hearing at a time that working people could attend. When he started to accuse the commissioners of being “bullies,” he was stopped by Evans and asked to refrain from name-calling. Hill apologized but repeated that the commissioners needed to talk to local residents. “I do talk to the people in my precinct every day,” Pct. 1 Commissioner Grover “Tiger” Worsham said. “The only time I get comments on taxes is at this time of the year. The rest of the time, the comments are that we need more – more deputies and better roads.” Another speaker, Linda Sample of Chita, asked commissioners to go through the budget again “with a fine toothed comb” and try to cut it as much as possible. Evans indicated that had already been done. He explained that during the budget process, they start with what was actually spent by the county during the 2010 budget year and then try to project what those costs might be in 2011. “Other than reducing the number of people – clerks and deputy sheriffs – there is not much we can cut. Most of the things that the county government does is required by state law,” he explained. Evans noted that while most of the county’s departments will see very little in the way of increased funds, the exceptions were needed to meet actual needs. He noted that the cost of workman’s compensation insurance – which the state requires – is increasing from $14,000 to $50,000. Another increase noted in the budget is a $70,000 increase in the cost of health insurance for county employees. That line item will jump from $250,000 in 2010 up to $320,000 under the 2011 budget. One item that is being added this year for the first time is a “reserve fund,” which has been allocated $117,681. These fund are earmarked to help cover the cost unexpected expenses that come up every year. Also up by $55,000 is the allocation for housing county prisoners in jails outside of Trinity County. The 2010 budget set aside $290,000 for “contract jail space” while the new budget calls for $345,000. Even that higher figure might not be enough, based on actual costs thus far in 2010. During the first 11 months of the current budget, the county actually spent over $414,000 to house its inmates. Commissioners have not yet approved the final 2010 bill for September. One taxpayer questioned whether it would be cheaper to build a larger Trinity County Jail facility. The existing jail in Groveton is only certified by the state to house seven long-term inmates and the county must use other jails to handle the overflow. Worsham noted that while taxpayers might be willing to approve a bond election to build the facility, it is the long-term cost that is holding up the process. “I’ve talked to officials in counties about our size where they have built new jails. What they are saying is that once the new jail opened, it increased the operating cost by about three times what they were paying before,” Worsham said, noting that a larger staff is required by state law to run larger jail facilities. When asked if Trinity County could build a large enough jail so they could charge other counties to house prisoners, Worsham said they could but it would be a “dangerous gamble” at this time. “Maybe 10 or so years ago, doing something like that would have paid off but not today. Just about all of the counties around us – San Jacinto, Houston and Polk – either have just opened or are about to open a new jail. They are all begging us to let them house our prisoners,” Worsham added. Evans noted that it is this abundance of jail space that could end up saving Trinity County money next year. He noted that after San Jacinto County opened its new jail earlier this year, Trinity County Sheriff Ralph Montemayor began using it because he was offered a better price. “By using that new jail, the daily cost of housing a prisoner dropped from $44 to $40 a day,” Evans said, adding that when Polk and Houston counties open their new facilities, the daily rate might go even lower. Following the public hearing, commissioners unanimously approved the proposed budget as well as an order adopting the new 65 cent tax rate. Under the tax rate order, 02.9 cents of the rate was allocated to pay off the county’s debt – basically the $1.6 million in certificates of obligation issued to fund the local share of the on going courthouse renovation work. The remaining 62.1 cents of the rate will be used to fund the operation of county services. Also approved was the county’s 2010 Certified Tax Roll presented by the Trinity County Appraisal District. The tax roll lists the total taxable market value of property in the county at about $1.25 billion.