Court tackles 2013-14 budget, slight increase for Sheriff's Office
by PHILLIP WILLIAMS
Aug 11, 2013 | 1034 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Upshur County Judge Dean Fowler announced the Commissioners Court will consider raises for all county employees as the court spent nearly four hours Wednesday discussing and revising his proposed $10.9 million budget for the forthcoming 2013-2014 fiscal year.

The court has not yet finalized the budget nor tax rate, but any raises would be the first given county workers in about seven years. There was no discussion of the level of any potential raise to take effect Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins.

Near the special session’s end, Fowler also said his proposed budget was “basically exactly the same” as the current one, although $300,000 lower because the current budget contained that amount of funding for courthouse renovations required by the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Fowler added near meeting’s end that the proposed budget is based on a tax rate of 52.23 cents per $100 valuation, compared to the current 51.22 cents, but he said it was a “little premature” to disuss the tax rate.

He said 52.23 cents is the “effective” tax rate—the level required to raise the same amount of revenue as the current rate, but using new valuations established by the Upshur County Appraisal District.

Last year, the court voted 3-2 to approve a 4.21-cent hike in the tax rate, and Fowler said at the time that would pay off the county’s debts and the hike would only be for the current 2012-2013 fiscal year.

Pct. 2 Comm. Cole Hefner pointed out Wednesday it was understood when the county paid off a loan, a 3-cent portion of the hike would “fall off the rate and this (proposed rate of 52.23) is making it (the rate hike) permanent (instead). Right?”

“Yes,” Fowler acknowledged.

Several months after approving the supposed temporary tax hike, county officials discovered that a nearly $1 million shortfall in county funds was projected, so the Commissioners Court cut the current budget by about that level in mid-fiscal year. In addition, two of the court’s current members, Pct. 3 Comm. Frank Berka and Pct. 1 Comm. Paula Gentry, were not in office when the court approved the tax hike last year.

Hefner voted against the tax increase, which Fowler and Pct. 4 Comm. Mike Spencer supported. Then-Pct. 3 Comm. Lloyd Crabtree cast the other vote for the tax hike, while then-Pct. 1 Comm. James Crittenden opposed it before both left office at year’s end.

As the court Wednesday went over Fowler’s proposed budget department-by-department, the judge recommended only relatively small portions of the controversial major increases Sheriff Anthony Betterton requested in the separate budgets for the County Jail and Sheriff’s Office.

Hefner said Betterton sought $537,500 more, $282,500 of it for the jail budget and $255,000 for the Sheriff’s Office budget.

Fowler said he approved a $34,000 increase for the jail—$20,000 for prisoners’ food, $6,000 in employee retirement matching funds, $5,000 for inmates’ prescription drugs, and $2,000 for transporting prisoners. The judge said the jail population has increased.

He said he also recommended a $115,000 hike in the Sheriff’s Office budget—but since that included $90,000 for two new school resource officers at New Diana ISD and $20,000 in retirement match, “basically, I increased his (Betterton’s) budget (for the office) $5,000.”

Said Hefner, “The way you proposed it is okay with me, tentatively.” But Berka expressed concern the proposed gasoline budget for the office was inadequate, and Fowler agreed to check into that.

On the matter of inmate food, however, Berka said, “I’ve been told those people are eating like kings down there.” And Hefner said he didn’t understand “why we can’t get it (food costs) down.”

Fowler replied the jail population was up.

In another major part of Wednesday’s budget session, Road and Bridge Administrator Andy Jordan asked to add two full-time employees and give $1 hourly raises to his workers to bring their pay in line with other counties.

He said they are among the lowest-paid county employees, although they pick up fallen trees in rain and work in 100-degree temperatures. He also said one worker with five children is taking home only about $6 hourly despite his certification in dealing with hazardous materials.

Despite seeking more workers and the raises, Jordan said his proposed budget was $92 lower than the original proposed budget for his department last fiscal year (before he took office).

Hefner and Spencer expressed support for increasing the Road and Bridge budget, and Berka said he didn’t want it decreased. Hefner said the R&B budget is $400,000 lower than it was a decade ago.

In other aspects of the budget discussion Wednesday:

• Mrs. Gentry proposed a pay raise for herself, saying she should earn as much as a Justice of the Peace. (Between the time she won the Republican nomination for her office last May, and the time she took office Jan. 1, the court reduced commissioners’ pay by about $10,000 annually in the 2012-2013 budget.)

• Fowler agreed to Mrs. Gentry’s and Berka’s controversial proposal to restore funding for the Lee Public Library in the Gregg County portion of Gladewater after the court eliminated all funding for it in recent years.

She proposed $1,000 and Berka suggested $2,000. Mrs. Gentry suggested using funds saved from the elimination of the County Fire Marshal’s Office, which was vacated some months ago by Paul Steelman’s resignation.

But Spencer objected, “We don’t have the money to do that,” and Hefner pointed out the court cut the Upshur County Library’s budget in the past (it is the same as last year in the new proposed budget).

However, Fowler said, “I’m going with them” (Berka and Mrs. Gentry) in their request to restore the Gladewater institution’s funding.

Responding to past complaints from Gladewater-area residents, Hefner asked what benefits they don’t receive that, say, Ore City and Simpsonsville residents do.

Berka pointed to the large percentage of the county’s tax revenue that comes from the Gladewater area. He added that Gladewater residents say that they “rarely see patrol” by the Sheriff’s Office, and don’t receive much road work.

• After hearing appeals from several residents of Pct. 1, and from that precinct’s constable, Gene Dolle, for a $4,600 increase in his budget, all four commissioners approved his request by consensus.

“I don’t have the money to put gasoline in my car. . . If I’m not mobile, I can’t accomplish much of anything,” Dolle said. He also cited his work on behalf ot the county, and several residents cited how active he has been.

Several other elected officials also appeared before the court to discuss their proposed budgets.
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