Near the end of Wednesday’s 3-hour meeting, Fowler proposed the court hold a public hearing and vote on the budget Aug. 31, but said he might call a special meeting to discuss it before then.
The judge presented a proposed $11,233,000 budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, saying “I found $400,000 worth of cuts” to make from the current 2011-2012 budget. (On Thursday, he said he would make further cuts suggested by the court.) He also recommended raising the ad valorem tax rate from the current 47.01 cents per $100 valuation to 47.87 cents.
However, the new suggested higher tax rate is what is known as the “effective tax rate”—the rate needed to raise the same amount of revenue the county generated in the past fiscal year. So while the rate would increase slightly, the amount of revenue it raises would be offset by a drop in mineral values.
Thus, “It’s really not a tax increase,” Fowler said.
In introducing his proposed budget, Fowler said it projects revenue at $10,708,000—a $525,000 shortfall from proposed expenses. However, he proposed renewing a $1.43 million bank loan—which is scheduled to be paid off this coming fiscal year—with a 3-year payout.
Renewing the loan would lower the interest and sinking portion of the county’s tax rate in 2014 from 3.3 cents to 2.8, he said. The court can either renew it, raise taxes, or find another $525,000 in budget cuts, Fowler said.
“This proposed budget does not spend any reserves,” he pointed out. Nor does it provide a pay raise for county employees unless there is a reduction in force or cut in benefits since “there’s no other way to pay for it,” Fowler noted.
He said that “probably the most striking thing about” his proposed budget was reducing the four commissioners’ salaries from the current $40,990 to $30,000. That brought objections from two members of the court, Pct. 3 Comm. Lloyd Crabtree and Pct. 1 Comm. James Crittenden, who were both recently defeated for reelection and who will leave office Jan. 1.
The other two commissioners, Mike Spencer of Pct. 4 and Cole Hefner of Pct. 2, already return part of their salaries to the county.
On Thursday, Fowler told The Mirror, “I believe that the commissioners’ salaries will be cut and I believe that I’m going to make those adjustments to the budget (further cuts) that were suggested. The only thing I don’t have a good feeling” about, he said, “is whether they (commissioners) will adopt the effective rate and renew our loan, or if they will (instead) raise the maintenance and operation (portion of the tax) rate, having in mind that we will do away with our interest and sinking rate—do away with our loan.
“We need to renew the loan in order to balance the budget. However . . . there’s still one payment left on our current loan,” Fowler said. Without the renewal, he said, “We would have to raise the maintenance and operation rate 3.35 cents. We would still have to charge the interest and sinking rate this year, but next year the interest and sinking rate would disappear. That’s what I have to make clear to the commissioners at our next meeting.”
When Fowler raised the proposal of cutting commissioners’ salaries, Hefner agreed with it. When Crittenden asked Fowler if he was proposing cutting his own salary as well, the judge said no. Hefner then noted that the commissioners no longer had responsibility for maintaining county roads (because of the Unit Road System approved by voters before any of the current court members took office, and twice more since then.)
But Crittenden pointed out that none of the current commissioners had ever had that responsibility, and that commissioners still do some work involving roads.
Added Crabtree, “It takes (a) full-time commissioner to learn how to be a commissioner. If a county commissioner doesn’t deserve $40,000 a year, then we shouldn’t pay them at all.”
Hefner said the idea of adopting the Unit Road System was to reduce commissioners’ salaries (which have never been reduced in the years the system has been in effect.) Hefner said he did not think the job was worth $41,000 a year, and Spencer said he agreed with Fowler’s recommendation to reduce the salaries.
Fowler said his proposal was not aimed at the court’s forthcoming two new members, Pct. 3 Commissioner-elect Frank Berka and Pct. 1 Commissioner-elect Paula Gentry. The judge said he had told Crabtree’s and Crittenden’s predecessors they should cut their salaries.
Berka told the court he was happy with the pay-cut proposal.
But Crittenden objected that slashing the salary would limit candidates for county commissioner to “business owners and those who are financially well off.”
He said commissioners are the county’s chief executive officers and that paying for “part-time help” would result in part-time service. Hefner replied that some people would contend $30,000 is “hardly part-time” pay.
That didn’t move Crabtree from his opposition to the cut. Speaking of Crittenden, with whom he has long feuded, Crabtree said, “We don’t agree often, but we agree on this.”
As the court started going through each departmental budget, Fowler noted that Tax Assessor-Collector Sherron Laminack had suggested closing the Gladewater branch of her office, which is now staffed by Commissioner-elect Gentry, but that Mrs. Laminack was considering sending someone to the office part-time two days weekly.
“We’re going to take a lot of heat for closing the (Gladewater branch of) tax office,” Crabtree predicted.
County Engineer Eric Fisher also objected to the proposed budget for his Road and Bridge Dept., saying he would lose two more workers off the current “skeletal” crew, and “if you cut two more employees, (you) may as well break my leg.”
But Fowler said Fisher was spending less for salaries now than is allotted in the current budget.
Fisher replied he hadn’t been working with a full staff, and “I’m trying to serve the public. My phone calls are off the wall.” But Fowler said the county’s services must drop unless taxes are increased.
The judge finally asked the court to visit with Fisher about the budget issue.
In debating the tax matter, Crittenden said he took issue with Crabtree’s proposal to raise taxes to raise workers’ salaries. Crabtree replied that he wasn’t proposing it just for that, but to upgrade services as well.
Hefner said he was “not real comfortable with borrowing money” and brought up the issue of changing the county’s funding of county workers’ retirement.
Fowler later said the county had not raised taxes in 10 years and “at some point, we have to look at increasing taxes. Can’t do it (keep from raising them) forever.”
He said renewing the bank loan was “to keep the tax rate as it is.” Spencer said he preferred using the county’s money to borrowing.
Hefner said he opposed raising taxes. When Crabtree proposed it, Hefner said firmly, “And I’m not for raising taxes. Forget it.”
“I don’t want to increase the taxes,” Crittenden echoed. Added Spencer, “I’m not for a tax increase.”