Hill County commissioners discuss COVID-19, budget

Editor: Shannon Cottongame

September 1, 2021

The Hill County Commissioners Court met in a regular session Tuesday, August 24, and continued discussing the latest COVID-19 surge, the county budget for the coming fiscal year and other regular business.

In his comments to the court, County Judge Justin Lewis reiterated the seriousness of the current situation with COVID-19 and continued to encourage Hill County residents to talk to their doctors if they are hesitant about vaccination.

Lewis said that as of the Friday (August 20) before the meeting, there had been 210 people in the county infected with the virus in the previous 30-day period. (Editor’s note: The Friday, August 27, report showed 237 in the past 30 days.)

He said that as of August 20, there were seven individuals on ventilators at Hill Regional Hospital and the situation with available hospital beds for COVID-19 patients in Central Texas was becoming serious. “You can’t just walk into a hospital and expect to be admitted,” the judge said. “I implore you, if you have not received your vaccine, please talk to your doctor about it.”

He pointed out that about 95 percent of people hospitalized in Trauma Service Area M, which includes Hill County, are unvaccinated, and while the vaccine does not guarantee that a person will not contract the virus, it is very likely to keep the vaccinated from dying if they do get it.

“You’re gambling with your own life,” he said. “Don’t believe the stuff you see online. Go speak with your personal physician about this and make a decision that’s right for you.”

The judge said that the situation is expected to get worse with school starting, and he is staying in contact with Hill County superintendents and commended them for doing “an outstanding job in very troubling times.”

Emergency Management Coordinator Tom Hemrick reported that he had been working to stay ahead of any local needs for personal protective equipment, hospital staff and equipment.

Hemrick said that there had been incorrect information on social media about free COVID-19 testing at the fairgrounds, and he pointed out that the service is no longer available due to the state denying Hill County’s request for the free testing site.

The Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) did provide some rapid tests for the county to use internally on county employees who need to be tested, Hemrick said.

Lewis reported that the county’s construction projects are moving along, and District Attorney Mark Pratt was scheduled to move back into the courthouse last week after his office was repaired following the winter storm. Touch-up and flooring work on the first floor of the courthouse were next on the list, and work on the County Court at Law courtroom is expected to begin around the third week of September.

Plans are also coming along for the remodeling project at the Covington Street annex and the Extension Office at the fairgrounds with about 95 percent of the plans compete.

County Auditor Susan Swilling presented the nine-month budget report to commissioners with updates about where the county’s actual numbers stand in relation to the adopted budget.

The county’s efforts to reduce its utility bills at its facilities has paid off, with significant savings on electricity and water usage. Swilling said that the county’s expenses are coming in below last year at the same time, and Lewis commended elected officials for doing a good job managing their budgets despite the challenges associated with the winter storm and some offices being relocated. Sales tax numbers also continue to come in strong and are among the best numbers ever reported in the county, Swilling said.

The court observed and recorded the auditor’s budget report.

Following up on a previous discussion during recent budget hearings, commissioners voted to make a change to the county’s health insurance start date for new employees in an effort to be more competitive as an employer.

Previously, new employees had to wait 90 days after they began working for the county to be eligible for insurance. With the change, they will now be eligible following one full month of employment, with the start date at the first of the next month. The change was proposed after the sheriff’s office suggested ideas for attracting employees.

The court continued to review items in the budget that might need adjustments before a final copy of the spending plan is adopted September 7.

One of the areas Judge Lewis said needs to be reviewed is the autopsy and transport expenditure in the budget. Lewis said that the number of unattended deaths in the county has increased, leading to a significant increase in expenditures. He said that the pandemic has driven some of the increase.

The judge said that he will also review the numbers as requested to see if there are any possibilities to increase pay for jailers as the sheriff’s office continues to have trouble finding correctional officers.

The 9-1-1 addressing budget may also need to be adjusted as the county grows. Commissioner Martin Lake reported that the Texas Department of Transportation is estimating that Hill County will grow by 1,000 residences per year for the next two years. Each new address will need a sign, which means there will be more expenses for signs and poles.

An increase in the part-time employee wages for the information technology department is expected to be added to the budget. Lewis said that the department has cut its budget multiple times, has done an excellent job of addressing the challenges following the winter storm and needs the part-time position to address the county’s technology needs.

There was discussion about whether to increase the county’s sales tax estimate in the budget. Lewis said that he likes to figure the number conservatively to avoid making promises in the budget that cannot be kept, but with the numbers still coming in strong, the issue will be reviewed at the next budget workshop.

The court also approved an interlocal agreement between the sheriff’s office and Johnson County, which is in need of a van to transport inmates while waiting for the delivery of new vans that have been ordered. Chief Deputy Scott Robinson said that Hill County has a van that can be loaned to Johnson County, and Johnson County assumes the responsibility for any maintenance or damages while the van is being used by its employees.

The annual agreement between the 66th Judicial District Court and the Community Supervision and Corrections Department outlining services that the county and CSCD provide to one another was approved as in previous years.

Contracts and interagency agreements were also approved for the Hill County Juvenile Probation Department, which contracts with several entities to provide services to the department and juvenile offenders.

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