County Budget Crunch Eyed by Commissioners

By Will Johnson

Messenger Reporter

HOUSTON COUNTY – The Commissioners Court of Houston County met in a called meeting on Monday morning, Aug. 15 to discuss the new county budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2017.

The meeting was necessitated after the court tabled an agenda item concerning the FY 2017 proposed tax rate during a court session held on Aug. 9. During that meeting, a proposed tax rate of 0.54190 per $100 of property valuation was deliberated. Prior to the Aug. 9 meeting, a discrepancy was uncovered in an adopted county policy which could have caused a potential budgetary shortfall, if the policy was not amended.

As a result, the commissioners decided the best course of action would be to table the proposed tax rate and re-examine the budget.

County Judge Erin Ford called the Aug. 15 meeting to order at 9:00 a.m. and thanked County Auditor Melissa Mosley for her efforts in putting together an alternate budget using the county’s current tax rate of 0.504 per $100 of property valuation.

“The court has really looked at this to be able to maintain the tax rate we have, given the downturn in revenue, in consideration of the citizens of the county,” Judge Ford said.

He suggested going through the alternate budget line by line “… and come back to it in a subsequent review that we will have.”

The judge requested the county auditor to explain the changes which were made to the alternate budget, when compared to the proposed budget presented the previous week. “On the revenue side, the only change was to drop the tax rate from the proposed rate of .5419 to .504, the current year’s tax rate,” Mosley said.

Next, Mosley listed the various changes made in the alternate budget compared to the proposed budget. The alternate budget, using the current tax rate of .504, called for: the reduction of 10 full and part-time employees; dissolving the county’s recognition program; disallowing three capital outlays for the District Attorney, County Attorney and Houston County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO);  a reduction in the maintenance expenditures/renovations for the courthouse; a reduction of the petroleum expenses for the HCSO; the complete removal of cost of living adjustments for all county employees; reducing additional funding for juvenile probation; and removing additional funding for roads and bridges.

The reduction in the proposed tax rate of .5419 to .504 would decrease county revenue by $204,462.11 while the expenditure reductions would drop by $351,462.11. This would leave a pending allocation of $147,000 “… which could be allocated or roll over into the fund balance,” Mosley said.

When she concluded the explanation, the judge addressed the various county department heads in attendance and commented, “May I suggest that we go through each line item and if there is a general consensus, we move on to the next line item and if there isn’t, the department head will have time to address that and we will come back to it in a subsequent meeting.”

Before the department heads began to voice their concerns, Precinct Two Commissioner Willie Kitchen said, “If you will notice, there was no one department that was singled out. This was across the board. The largest cut came from where? It came from here (referring to the four commissioners). What I’m asking you to do before you speak, don’t feel like you were picked on. Everyone is having to give and take this year. We lost revenue because of the valuations. What we need to think about is not us in here, but the people we serve. What do they expect of us? They expect us to do our due diligence to spend their money effectively. If we work together, we can make it work. We can make it all okay, but we can’t be selfish.”

As the various elected officials and appointed officials made their case for not reducing their individual department budgets, Tax Assessor Collector Danette Millican commented, “Personally, I think you’re making a mistake and I’m a taxpayer. But, I think you’re making a mistake if you leave it (the tax rate) at 50 cents (.504). You will be playing catch-up somewhere down the road.  Y’all (the commissioners) know because you were all here when the tax rate stayed the same for three years. We lost a lot of value and I understand that.”

Precinct Four Commissioner Kennon Kellum commented, “Everything is not going to work.”

Millican replied, “The judge and the auditor had a budget last week at the .5409 level and we all had our employees. Everything was status quo.”

Kellum said, “If we give a three percent raise to all employees and then raise taxes, that doesn’t look good.”

After Millican’s objections to keeping the tax rate at the current level were voiced, the discussion of various line items in the alternate budget continued. However, because the meeting was only a budget workshop, no formal decisions were made by the court. A third budget workshop has been scheduled for Friday, Aug. 19 at 9:00 a.m.

Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at wjohnson@messenger-news.com.