At its June 22 meeting, the first of two Smith County Commissioners Court budget workshops emphasized a 2022 fiscal year budget funding law enforcement. Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran said he wants a Smith County budget that’s “in the blue,” alluding to police funding. The county’s preference aligns with the priorities of most of Texas’ largest cities.
During the 2020 fiscal year, officials in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio each spent more than a third of their general funds — over $434 million, on law enforcement. The Texas city outlier to the trend is Austin, unanimously voting in August 2020 to cut its police department budget by one third.
“While many jurisdictions in this country seek to defund law enforcement, this budget’s aim is to refund law enforcement. It doubles down on our commitment to law enforcement and further demonstrates that we will do our best for the men and women who don law enforcement uniforms in this county,” said Moran.
Moran made it clear his proposal reflects the very beginnings of the budget process and would be subject to change. “I want to involve [commissioners] very early in this process, so that you can provide feedback to me and likewise, I want the public to be involved. These numbers are going to move and change; that’s why we call it a working draft budget.”
Arriving at a final budget is a months-long process. A second budget workshop is scheduled July 27. The final proposed FY22 budget will be filed August 13.
Formal public hearings for budget and proposed tax rate are scheduled for 9:30 am and 5:30 pm August 24.
The Commissioners Court will vote on the proposed budget and tax rate September 7. With approval, the budget goes into effect October 1, 2021.
Below are summaries of the proposals addressed during the workshop.
Law enforcement and corrections salary proposals
The draft budget provides an across the board 4% salary increase for all county employees whereas law enforcement salary increases average 14%.
Of the $4.68 million budgeted for salary increases, $3.5 million is for law enforcement and corrections. Within law enforcement the salary increases range from a high of 44.04% for an entry level Jail Transport Officer to a low of .21% for a maximum grade Lieutenant.
Moran said he hopes increased law enforcement salaries will alleviate some recruitment and retention issues within the Sheriff’s Office and jail operations.
Among elected officials the county judge, commissioners and county-court-at-law judges will receive no salary increases.
Given a broad range of salary considerations such as duties, education, pay relative to similar positions in other counties and the private sector, the county clerk, district clerk, treasurer, justices of the peace and constables are targeted to receive increases in base pay from 8.3% to 21.5%.
The employee health insurance fund remains strong with a $7.1 million balance as of April 30, 2021, even as claims are rising due to COVID.
There is no expected premium increase for employees and no decrease in benefits. Moran said, “Because of the strong fund balance and the need to come up with additional operational funds to fund these salary increases across the board, we are proposing to decrease the employer contribution (to the health insurance fund) from $822 to $722 per month, per person.
Fleet additions proposal
The draft budget earmarks funds for the purchase of 37 new vehicles, including six pieces of heavy equipment for the road and bridge department.
Twenty-five of the remaining 31 vehicles are allocated to law enforcement. The total new vehicle funding is $1.775 million with an additional $1,176.955 million from general fund reserves to specifically cover the heavy equipment purchases.
Moran said the fleet budget is higher than in previous years. “Last year we got really, really stingy because of the need to drop that tax rate.”
Inmate detention and jail predictions
In other budget notes, the Sheriff’s Office expects a positive impact of $1.2 million as the federal inmate detention rate increases from $45/day to $80/day.
However, this revenue is offset by the budgeted increase of $1 million to cover the continued rise of inmates outside medical treatment. The proposed budget also caps jail overtime expenditures, a continuing county concern, at $450,000. Once this amount is reached, jail overtime will revert to compensatory time.
Smith County tax rate proposal
The initial budget draft for FY22 has a targeted tax rate of $.335 per $100 valuation which is unchanged from the adopted FY21 rate and ranks Smith County the 14th lowest tax rate among Texas 254 counties.
The county’s sales tax revenue continues to trend upward and is estimated at $21,500,000, up from $19,000,000 in FY21.
This estimated increase will play a major role in keeping the tax rate low while allowing for major increases in law enforcement salaries. The projected increase in the county’s net taxable value for FY22 is 9.52% higher than FY21.
Road and bridge proposal
The dedicated tax rate for road and bridge funding has seen a year over year increase from 2.9436 cents in FY2015 to 3.5 cents in FY21. Moran said that historically, the county has underfunded the road and bridge department and the goal is to increase over the next three to four years the dedicated portion of the tax rate for roads and bridges to 5.0 cents to adequately fund the department and eliminate the need for bonds.
The FY22 draft budget allocates 3.75 cents of the 33.5 cent tax rate to road and bridge funding as a step toward that goal.
Personnel changes proposal
In discussions with department heads prior to preparing the draft budget, Judge Moran received requests for 24 new employees. Only 14 new employees are included in the draft budget.
Moran said support services departments – Facilities Services, Human Resources, and Purchasing – “serve all elected officials and other departments. As the county head count grows, so do their responsibilities.”
The draft budget allows for four new positions – two custodians and two maintenance techs – for Facilities Services as well as one each in Human Resources and Purchasing.
The District Attorney’s office is allocated a new legal assistant and an investigator. The remaining eight new positions are scattered one each to various departments. The county will have 877 employees in FY22.
The court heard presentations from several department heads requesting additional funding or justifying their proposed budget increases. County Auditor Ann Wilson presented a brief overview of all budget categories pointing out the increases due to salary, personnel and vehicle changes.
According to Wilson, outside of these changes most FY22 budget categories remained the same or near FY21 amounts. For example, Public Service expenditures for FY22 are budgeted at $934,686 down from the $983,996 of FY21 with the decrease contributed to a $50,000 drop in the indigent care line item.
Commissioner Hampton asked the judge to revisit the amount ($115,000) allocated to the Andrews Center and consider raising that to $175,000, the center’s requested amount. Judge Moran said he would “go back and take a harder look at it between now and the next workshop.”
Judge Moran acknowledged several items to consider or reconsider after hearing feedback from the commissioners. “As you can tell this is a very farraginous budget with lots of moving parts. So, give it some consideration, talk with your constituents. We’ll have our next workshop here on July 27th if not before,” he said.
Brenda McWilliams is retired after nearly 40 years in education and counseling. When not traveling she fills her days with community, charitable, and civic work; photography; writing and blogging at Pilgrim Seeker Heretic; reading, babysitting grandchildren, and visiting with friends. She enjoys walking at Rose Rudman or hiking at Tyler State Park. Brenda and her spouse, Lou Anne Smoot, the author of Out: A Courageous Woman’s Journey, have six children and seven grandchildren between them.
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