A raucous “town hall” meeting called by Upshur County Pct. 2 Comm. Cole Hefner to receive public input on the county’s budget for Fiscal Year 2012-2013 drew more than 115 persons Thursday night, including several who expressed support for raising taxes and for county employees.
Hefner, who is not up for election this year, told the standing-room-only audience at the Disabled American Veterans headquarters off U.S. 217 N. in Gilmer that he called the meeting because he “just wanted to have a conversation with the citizens,” and that elected officials “need to make sure we’re representing a majority.”
Many who spoke during the hour-and-42-minute meeting were county employees or spouses of county workers, and concern was expressed over the budget’s impact on workers’ jobs and benefits.
While some speakers praised him for holding the meeting, Hefner came under fire from others.
Last year—Hefner’s first in office—the Upshur County Commissioners Court pared its budget by $1 million from the prior fiscal year, but still had an $800,000 shortfall “on paper,” he said. This year, he added, “I know this isn’t popular. . .but we’re faced with some hard decisions here.”
“We’re all in a bad spot, and we’re all going to have to suffer,” he said later in the meeting. Last year’s budget cuts resulted in layoffs of some employees.
The first speaker, Deputy Tax Assessor-Collector Fran Gardner, cited rumors that “several county employees are going to lose their jobs” in the new budget for 2012-2013, which takes effect Oct. 1.
She said county officials created the current financial problem by dropping the tax rate for several years. “Taxes have got to be raised to get the county out of this hole,” Mrs. Gardner argued.
But Hefner responded that persons on the county payroll are the only ones who benefit from a tax increase. He also later said he had no specific personnel cuts in mind.
One man, identifying himself as a retiree on fixed income, told the numerous county workers present that several people are losing their jobs in the current economy and “you all have to take cuts, too.”
Another retiree, Don McElvogue, added, “I don’t want to buy more government.”
Sherry Jewkes-Larsen, a clerk in the Pct. 4 Justice of the Peace office, criticized Hefner for calling the forum without posting it as a meeting of the County Commissioners Court, so all four county commissioners could legally attend.
“It appears like you’re trying to keep the others out,” she charged.
Hefner replied there was nothing wrong with one official having a town meeting.
After one man said raising taxes would be “suicide for any political official” in the current economy, Hefner said the court had “cut everything we could find” in the current budget. He also said he was committed to a “true balanced budget” for 2012-2013 without dipping into reserves and without “increasing taxes, if possible.”
He said some were calling on him to “go out here to the people (taxpayers) who are paying these bills.”
Michele Griffith, a clerk in the Pct. 2 Justice of the Peace office, angrily replied, “I pay those taxes like everybody else!”
Chris McCauley, who along with his wife Jill works for the county Sheriff’s Office, was among the more vocal county employees. An investigator for the Sheriff’s Office, McCauley expressed concern that people will pay the same amount of taxes, but get only half their current services, if cuts were made.
He also said he knew that if he stayed on, he could draw retirement. (Hefner has indicated he wants to look at how much the county contributes toward workers’ retirement.)
“I’m standing here today, worrying about losing my job,” said McCauley, noting he is a taxpayer. Mrs. Jewkes-Larson said, “I have stayed (with the county) because of my medical (benefits) and my retirement.”
At one point, a man in the audience asked Hefner, “Why are you attacking employees?” Hefner replied he wasn’t.
David Royer, a businessman, argued that county employees were underpaid and that “the benefits are the only thing they have to fall back on.”
He and McCauley called for economic development, saying the county can’t keep raising the tax rate. And noting that many people don’t pay property taxes, Royer raised the possibility of holding an election on a half-cent county sales tax.
(Editor’s Note: Upshur County already collects a half-cent sales tax. It has been doing so since Jan. 1, 1988. It is one of 123 Texas counties that do so. These counties apply revenues from this tax to property tax relief. For more information, go to www.window.state.tx.us/taxinfo/local/county.html . )
Hefner said he didn’t like the fact that county workers have had no pay raise (other than small longevity raises) in six years, and that he was trying to build a foundation for “merit” raises rather than across-the-board increases.
Donna Whitaker, a deputy in the Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office, proposed raising taxes. She said county commissioners for years had set a tax rate lower than the “effective” tax rate—the rate needed to bring in the same amount of revenue as raised the prior year.
She said they did so “to save their political tails.”
Hefner said he would consider setting the tax rate at the effective rate. She asked him to consider setting it at least at that level.
“We only make about $24,000 a year,” Ms. Whitaker said. “That’s poverty. . .Our retirement, our insurance, are why we’re here.”
One man asked Hefner if he wanted to be known as the commissioner who wouldn’t raise taxes, and who caused job losses. Hefner then asked if anybody had been affected by the personnel reductions already made.
When some in the audience cited the cutback’s effect on county road maintenance, Hefner replied, “(The) Road and Bridge (Dept.) has been the stepchild of the county. I’ll go with you on that all day long.”
Chuck Mears, a TEA Party activist and candidate for Upshur County Republican Party chairman, drew applause when he thanked Hefner for “making himself a target” by holding the meeting.
Mears also said everybody in government wants more for increased costs, but that his costs as a citizen go up, too. He suggested “balance” in property taxes, noting he knew a widow who had gone to work in order to keep her home.
Another man criticized the government workers present for “trying to soak me as a taxpayer” to pay them. He said there are “thousands more of us (taxpayers) than there are of you.”
But Wayne Pope, former Animal Control Officer for the Gilmer Police Dept. and husband of 115th District Court bailiff Becky Pope (herself a retired Gilmer Police captain), said that although he was retired, “If you want to tax me more, you do it.”
And Sherry Neill, who is over the Sheriff’s Office 911 system, said she had never seen the county in such “bad shape,” with some deputy sheriffs working two or three jobs. “You, mister, are not fair,” she told Hefner.
Pct. 2 Constable Jason Weeks told the commissioner he is “making promises you cannot possibly keep” by saying he would not raise taxes when the county’s costs have risen, and some county workers’ salaries are lower than fixed incomes.
The constable asked Hefner why he would put county workers “on the unemployment line” when commissioners “screwed up.”
“You’re not going to fix this by cutting these jobs. You may have to raise taxes,” Weeks said.
Brandy Davis, a deputy Tax Assessor-Collector, asked why 200 county workers had to bear the burden for the 40,000 county residents. When Hefner replied that the citizenry was in the “same boat” as county workers financially, Ms. Davis replied, “Become a Walmart greeter. Get a second job like we do.”
Another county employee said that “when we all start quitting,” the county will get in their place law enforcement officers who left other agencies under a cloud. He drew applause when he said, “Better start raising taxes.”
Gene Dolle, who recently won the Republican nomination for Pct. 1 constable and has no Democratic opponent in November, praised Hefner for a “good job,” but added that citizens “benefit from the workers in the county” and that law enforcement officers were needed to protect the citizenry.
Debra Bulfinch, whose custodial service lost its longtime contract with the county in last year’s budget cuts, said county employees are now cleaning their offices without extra pay and “I am more than willing to pay more taxes” to keep employee jobs.
Gilmer City Councilman William Hornsby said layoffs hurt county workers’ children, and drew applause upon saying the county can’t have a “1960 budget in 2012.” And District Clerk Carolyn Parrott said that if the county reduced the number of workers, “We’re not going to be doing the jobs we’re supposed to do.”
After the gathering, Hefner told The Mirror “I was extremely pleased with the results of the meeting. I think it did exactly what it was supposed to do. We as elected officicials work for these people and we need to be more open with them, let them express their concerns.
“I got some real good ideas from some of the citizens and some of the employees, and I’m going to be looking into it and hopefully having some more events like this,” Hefner said.