By Will Johnson
Messenger Reporter

HOUSTON COUNTY – Concerns over a possible shortfall in funding for Houston County were voiced during a Commissioners Court meeting held on Tuesday, Feb. 14.

Houston County Auditor Melissa Mosley addressed the court during the departmental reports portion of the meeting and informed the commissioners the timber funds which the county had relied on for many years should not be taken into consideration when the court begins the budget process for Fiscal Year 2018.

“I wanted to update you on the timber funds. The Secure Rural Schools Act was not approved last year. We did get a payment last year, but it was the final one. If the Secure Rural Schools Act is not approved (by the federal government) it reverts back to the 1908 act which is 25 percent of the revenues received from the lands.”

The 1908 Act referred to by Moseley concerns 16 USC 500 that directs the Secretary of the Treasury to make an annual payment to the States based on national forest receipts.

According to the statute passed in 2000, the Secure Rural Schools Act was an attempt by the U.S. Congress “… to restore stability and predictability to the annual payments made to States and counties containing National Forest System lands and public domain lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management for use by the counties for the benefit of public schools, roads, and other purposes.”

Mosley said with the final payment, the county could expect to receive $135,000 “… in total. In years past, we would get $400,000. The $135,000 is split in half, with half of it going to road and bridge (funding), while the other half is split between the schools. For instance, Grapeland ISD will get $12,000 this year. Next year, they will receive $5,400.”

The county auditor said DETCOG Executive Director Lonnie Hunt was currently in Washington, D.C. trying to drum up support for the measure but added “… things don’t look good.”

“This will be about a $250,000 loss, which we were anticipating. We were hoping we wouldn’t have to, but the timber fund issue is now here. I don’t think from this year forward we should budget any revenue from timber funds. We should just wait and see what we get and then budget for the following year,” she said.

As the meeting continued, County Judge Jim Lovell reported the commissioners and county auditor had recently returned from Austin where they “… heard the state legislature is slanting a lot towards taking away local government control and putting it in the hands of the state.”

“In my opinion,” Lovell said, “they don’t know what Houston County needs as well as Houston County does.”

Mosley was asked to discuss what the county leaders had gleaned while in Austin and she said while they were there, she was provided with a survey pertaining to unfunded mandates in 2016.

According to BusinessDictionary.com website, “An unfunded mandate is a statute or regulation that requires a state or local government to perform certain actions, with no money provided for fulfilling the requirements.”

“This survey shows just how much the unfunded mandates are affecting the counties. What I see happening is Senate Bill (SB) 1, SB 2 and SB 4 as well as the collaborative house bills that go with it are going to have a huge impact on Houston County when we’re coming up with our next budget,” she said.

Mosley explained SB 1 is the state budget while SB 2 concerns a revenue cap which concerns taxation. Currently, Mosley said, counties are allowed to go up by eight percent before a tax rollback election is required.

“They (state legislators) are lowering that rate to four percent. That is what is proposed. Basically, what this implies is that local counties don’t know what they’re doing, should limit growth and are not taking care of the taxpayers money,” she said.

“The local school district is the biggest tax revenue generator,” Mosley said. “The whole tax rate is what the homeowner sees. We are a small portion of that, but now the state is giving us more duties and tying our hands to provide those services we are required to do. That’s the bottom line. The counties are beginning to become those who will pay for the sins of any other entity in the entire state.”

Mosley explained a review of SB 1 indicated a loss of $250,000 to Houston County. SB 2 would prevent the county from recouping the lost revenue and SB 4 would increase the duties of counties without providing the funding.

Precinct Four Commissioner Kennon Kellum strongly suggested Houston County residents to contact their local representative and state senator (Trent Ashby and Robert Nichols) and voice their opposition to the proposed legislation.

After she concluded, the court approved resolutions opposing SB 2, the proposed county revenue cap and unfunded mandates. The commissioners also approved a resolution in support of the state to provide funds to cover the cost of indigent defense.

In other matters brought before the court:

  • The commissioners approved the minutes from previous meetings.
  • Budget amendments along with the payment of bills and expenses incurred by the county were approved.
  • The court approved the salaries for a part-time road hand in Precinct Four.
  • A proclamation for the Sons of the Republic was adopted recognizing Texas Independence Day.
  • The court approved orders allowing retail fireworks permit holders to sell fireworks to the public in celebration of Texas Independence Day, San Jacinto Day and Memorial Day.

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