Editor: Shannon Cottongame
August 18, 2021
The Hill County Commissioners Court held a series of meetings last week leading up to the annual process of adopting a budget and tax rate.
Elected officials and department heads visited with commissioners throughout the hearings to present requests, most of which involved only minor adjustments to their individual budgets this year.
The proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning October 1 was prepared by County Judge Justin Lewis and County Auditor Susan Swilling and filed with County Clerk Nicole Tanner Thursday, August 5.
While the overall proposed tax rate is slightly lower than last year, a 3.5 percent increase in the FM lateral tax rate was proposed by the court to help compensate for the rapid growth of the county and to continue to fund upgrades to infrastructure.
The total county tax rate is comprised of two rates: the general fund rate, which is used for general operating expenses; and the FM lateral rate, which can only be used to purchase road and bridge materials.
Commissioners proposed the general fund rate at $0.420202 per $100 valuation, which is the no-new-revenue rate, or the rate that will raise the same amount of revenue for the county from the same properties taxed in 2020 and 2021. That rate is a decrease from the current year’s general fund rate of $0.439709.
The proposed FM lateral rate is $0.07704 per $100 valuation, which is a decrease from the current year’s rate of $0.077392 but above the no-new-revenue rate.
A public hearing on the tax rate will be held Tuesday, September 7, during the regular commissioners court meeting.
The proposed budget includes a 3 percent cost-of-living increase for employees and elected officials that attempts to keep up with inflation, along with an additional $300,000 for sheriff’s office operations.
In an effort to keep up with the county’s rapid growth, the portion of the general fund designated for commissioners’ precincts was increased from 8 percent to 8.5 percent.
While most hearings with officials only dealt with minor adjustments, commissioners met with Precinct 2 Constable Justin Girsh in the public forum about his job performance and expected salary after a series of private meetings reportedly failed to produce the desired results.
Girsh’s proposed salary in the budget was approximately half the salary of other constables, with other items, such as fuel and supplies, zeroed out.
County Judge Justin Lewis told Girsh that as of the second week of July, there had been 58 papers assigned to Precinct 2 during the budget year, and only five were recorded as being served by Girsh. Lewis recalled that he met with Girsh privately twice in January and the issue had also been discussed in executive session with the constable in May.
“It wasn’t until the last three weeks we started seeing papers upstairs,” Lewis said. “I told you I was going to call accountability on this and that we were going to pay attention to this.”
Girsh cited personal medical reasons for the issue and stated that there has also been an issue with other constables getting his papers out of his box and serving them. Lewis said that the reason other constables were serving the papers is because they were not being served and were holding up the court system.
The constable said that he had 11 papers in his possession that he was ready to serve. “I told you I would step up and handle it, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” Girsh said.
Commissioner Martin Lake said that he was having a hard time believing the constable and suggested transferring his vehicle to an official serving papers. Commissioner Larry Crumpton commented that the court has taken every opportunity to give the constable a chance to correct the issue.
With commissioners up against a deadline for officially proposing elected officials’ salaries, there was discussion around the table about whether they should propose the salary at the full amount and consider the issue again before the budget is finalized.
Lewis pointed out that a lower salary could be adopted after the proposal, but not a salary that exceeds the proposed amount. The court ultimately decided to propose the full amount and reassess the situation prior to the budget’s final approval in September.
“It’s a tough position we find ourselves in, but we did not put ourselves in this situation,” Lewis said. “We’re going to do our jobs around here or we’re not going to be paid for it.”
Representatives from the Hill County Sheriff’s Office spoke to the court about the department’s budget requests that were not fulfilled in the proposal.
Chief Deputy Scott Robinson told the court that the sheriff’s office was seeking a 6 percent increase for all employees, but that the proposed increase was only 3 percent.
He also requested the sheriff’s office be able to pay employees overtime instead of having them accrue comp time, which has been an ongoing problem for the county as employees leave and must be paid out. Robinson said that the sheriff’s office was looking at reducing comp time to a certain level and having the county pay employees out for anything over that amount. Comp time could then be managed by paying employees overtime.
The sheriff’s office, like other law enforcement agencies, is having a difficult time recruiting new hires. Robinson partially attributed this to fewer people going into the law enforcement career path and the inability of Hill County to offer pay that is competitive to surrounding larger counties.
Out of all the items that were not funded, Robinson said that the main requests that the department would like addressed were down payments for three vehicles to allow the sheriff’s office to continue upgrading its fleet, and approving master peace officer pay for the sheriff, who was left out of the certification- and education-based pay system recently implemented by the department.
Lewis thanked the department for providing the list and said that while commissioners support law enforcement efforts, numbers would have to be reviewed to figure out how to funnel more money into the sheriff’s office with limited resources.
Another portion of the budget that will need to be reviewed is the county’s tourism and economic development fund. The two budgets are separate from the county’s general fund and are designated to promote unincorporated areas of the county.
The tourism budget, which is funded from hotel occupancy taxes, can only be used to promote tourism. The economic development fund can be used for anything commissioners deem to be an economic development activity in unincorporated areas.
Commissioners had a plan for the budgets when former Hillsboro Area Chamber of Commerce Director Wendy Ellis had partnered with the county to use her background in tourism and economic development to manage the program. Ellis ultimately took another position, and commissioners are expected to have future discussions about how to move forward with the funds.
Commissioners are expected to take action to approve a budget and tax rate in September. See accompanying story in this edition for more information about last week’s regular commissioners court meeting.