Editor: Shannon Cottongame
August 25, 2022
The Hill County Commissioners Court recently held a series of meetings leading up to the annual process of adopting a budget, and a tax rate was proposed Tuesday morning, August 16.
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 at the end of July.
After filing the draft of the plan, Lewis said that he feels it is a good, fiscally conservative budget that was calculated based on a substantial drop in the tax rate.
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.
Tuesday morning, August 16, the court proposed a general fund tax rate of $0.389494 per $100 valuation, which is down from this year’s rate of $0.420202.
The proposed FM lateral rate is $0.069685 per $100 valuation, down from this year’s rate of $0.07704.
The total combined proposed tax rate is $0.459179. That is a decrease in the overall tax rate of $0.038063, which represents a 7.65% decrease in the overall tax rate.
Due to increased property values in the county, the rates will still bring in more revenue than past years while suppressing the tax rate as required by recent state laws intended to slow property tax growth.
A public hearing on the proposed rate will be held Tuesday, September 13, at 8:30 a.m. during the commissioners court meeting.
The first draft of the budget included a beginning balance of $7,854,114, revenues of $24,343,736 and expenditures of $25,498,556, leaving an ending balance of $6,699,294.
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. Several department heads requested pay increases for their employees, and they were informed that a cost-of-living adjustment is included in the proposed budget.
Overall, a five-percent pay increase is budgeted for county employees this year due to inflation. Lewis said that some of the county’s extra revenue this year will also be set aside in a payroll contingency fund, as work needs to be done to even out the county’s payroll policy and ensure that employees are being paid equally for performing similar job duties.
Reviewing the county’s largest departmental budget, Hill County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Scott Robinson spoke to the court about the department’s plans in the coming year.
The sheriff’s office continues working to upgrade its fleet and now has 15 newer Chevy Tahoes on patrol. In this fiscal year, Robinson said that the department would like to add six more, but three older units will be traded in to cover some of that cost. Final numbers will be presented to the court as the budget process continues.
Robinson also presented requests from Covington and Itasca schools, which have independently inquired about entering into agreements with the sheriff’s office to place school resource officers at their districts. Preliminary discussions have resulted in the possibility of an 80/20 split between the districts and the sheriff’s office, with the schools picking up the majority of the cost. During the summer, the employee could serve as a patrol deputy for the sheriff’s office.
Lewis said that there have been hours of conversation between the county, lawmakers and superintendents about school safety, and having a school resource officer on campus can be a deterrent. With the schools picking up a sizable portion of the cost, the county will consider funding the positions in the final budget.
Looking at each of the four precincts’ budgets, Precinct 2 Commissioner Larry Crumpton pointed out that more people are moving to the county and more money is needed for infrastructure. “We have more people coming in and expecting more services, and our budget is staying the same,” he said.
Lewis explained that while the overall proposed tax rate has dropped, the FM lateral rate is proposed above the no-new-revenue rate to address some of these needs, but the county is limited as to how much revenue it can take in due to recent legislative changes.
The court discussed the possibility of a one-time capital outlay to increase commissioners’ budgets. Lewis pointed out that if this is done, it would not be a recurring expense in future budgets, and commissioners would have to work within their budgets in future years.
Commissioners were still waiting for final numbers from the tax assessor/collector detailing tax rate options and related revenue at the time of the meeting, and the discussion was expected to continue when those numbers were available.
Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Tina Lincoln spoke to the court during budget hearings and requested an increase of $4,500 to the juvenile probation budget. The county has budgeted a $92,500 transfer to the juvenile probation department in the past two budgets, but Lincoln said that the state continues to cut her department’s budget.
She said that she has been heavily involved in the legislative process and will continue to fight to get Hill County more funding. “I don’t want to be lumped into the small county equation anymore,” Lincoln said. “I want to be funded for the services we’re actually providing.”
Some of those services, which are not required but that Hill County offers, include the truancy prevention program, drug court program and Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program (JJAEP).
The need for the department’s services has continued to increase, and Lincoln reported that the juvenile resource case manager served 412 students in the county last year, which was the highest number in the department’s history.
Finding detention beds for youth offenders who commit the most serious crimes continues to be an issue in the state, and the department is regularly contracting with out-of-county facilities to find any additional space available.
Lewis told Lincoln that the county plans to budget for the purchase of a transport vehicle for the department, as its current vehicles have been handed down from other departments and have high mileage and maintenance costs.
Another topic that came up during budget workshops is the possible expansion of offices in the courthouse to the fourth floor. Lewis said that offices are full and funding for the project could be available from the recent sale of the parking lot on Franklin Street. The project would involve extending the elevator in the courthouse to the fourth floor. The judge said that he would gather numbers for the project and bring it back before the court.
After adjustments are made based on budget hearings and workshops, a final county budget for the coming fiscal year is expected to be approved in September.