All four commissioners voted to raise the rate from 51.22 cents to the “effective” rate of 52.23 cents—the amount needed to generate the same amount of revenue the county received for the present fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. It was the third consecutive year the court has increased the rate.
All 52.23 cents of the new rate is for maintenance and operation, with none for debt service.
Afterwards, in statements to The Mirror, Pct. 4 Comm. Mike Spencer and Pct. 2 Comm. Cole Hefner cited unforeseen circumstances as triggering the tax increase, with Spencer acknowledging the court had pledged last year to eliminate part of the rate this year. The court voted 3-2 last year to raise the rate by 4.21 cents, and County Judge Dean Fowler said at the time that the incease would be effective for only one year.
But on Tuesday, Spencer and Hefner cited the fact the court had budgeted $150,000 for prosecuting a capital murder case which had arisen since then, and another $150,000 in contingency funds if needed for that prosecution.
In addition, Spencer cited the $995,000 budget shortfall that was publicly revealed in the middle of the current fiscal year as a factor in the tax hike, while Hefner cited the $100,000 budgeted for computer upgrades as another reason.
Hefner said the expenses related to computers and the capital murder cases are “beyond our control.”
The court, which has two different members than it did last year, set the tax rate hike and budget in separate 4-0 votes. Pct. 1 Comm. Paula Gentry and Pct. 3 Comm. Frank Berka, who both took office Jan. 1, joined Spencer and Hefner in approving the moves.
Fowler, who normally votes only to break ties, did not vote. During Tuesday’s meeting, he said the $13,178,592 budget is “roughly the same as last year,” but that it now had funds for the capital murder case and did not contain funds (as did last year’s budget) for renovating the courthouse to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Following the meeting, Spencer said, “I nearly voted no (on the tax rate hike), but we needed the money. . . I’m disappointed that we couldn’t show that the note rate went away. . . (as) we had promised last year. . .(although) the note (itself) did go away.”
The reference to a note involved the county’s paying off a loan it had received from First Natonal Bank of Gilmer. When the court raised the tax rate by a 3-2 vote last year, Fowler said then that the hike would pay off the county’s entire debt and “this is going to balance the budget, and put us on a cash basis.”
That was before the nearly $1`million shortfall surfaced in the middle of the budget year, prompting commissoners to make nearly that much in mid-year budget cuts soon afterward. Fowler and then-County Auditor Janice Tucker essentially blamed each other for the shortfall, and some commissioners criticized Ms. Tucker.
Spencer said after Tuesday’s meeting that he is “not happy with the way the effective rate (of 52.23 cents) was calculated,” and that the State Comptroller sets the formula for determing that.
Hefner told the newspaper that “I did not want to adopt a tax rate that included the INS (interest and sinking, or debt service) rate from last year. However, we have a Constitutional duty to provide criminal defense for indigent defendants. . .We have a capital murder trial we have to fund.”
Hefner also said the court had no choice but to update an “aging” computer software system and computer hardware in the new budget. The software is 30 years old, and effective Jan. 1, 2016, can no longer be updated, he said.
“It’s important to note we have a surplus budget,” which means the court will be ready next time there are unexpected expenses like the capital murder case, Hefner added.
As for the pledge to eliminate last year’s tax hike this year, Hefner said Thursday, “I did not make that promise last year. Others did.” (Hefner voted against the tax hike last year.)
Unlike then, when several citizens protested the tax hike, Tuesday’s 7-minute public hearing portion of the meeting on the new budget/tax increase drew no criticism of the latest 1.01-cent hike. Only about 11 persons, more than half of whom are on the county payroll, attended this time.
When County Treasurer Myra Harris asked if the budget included any pay raises, and was told it did for only Road and Bridge Dept. employees, she replied, “I’m sorry. I think all the employees need a raise.”
Mrs. Harris said some employees, such as county library workers, “are very underfunded.” (County employees have not received an across-the-board raise in about seven years).
But Pct. 1 Comm. Paula Gentry responded that county workers and officials got to keep their full health insurance benefits in the new budget (after the court considered reducing them). And Fowler joined Hefner in observing that the Road and Bridge Department’s bottom line budget didn’t change from its current budget, despite the raises for its workers.
Hefner pointed to what he considered the low salaries that had been paid those employees, noting they work in adverse weather conditions, including heat.
Added Spencer, “They’re also short-handed.”
Fowler said it is not yet known exactly how much of a raise those workers will receive. County Road Administrator Andy Jordan had recently asked the court to hike their pay $1 hourly.
Also during the hearing, Upshur County Democratic Party Chairman Dan Miles Jr. asked the court to budget “special money” for elections next year so that Diana residents would not have to drive to Gilmer to vote in a particular election.
He and Mrs. Harris were the only citizens offering comments during the public hearing.
After that portion of the meeting ended, but before the votes, County Auditor Brandy Lee successfully recommended the court increase its funding for court-appointed attorneys in the new budget by $20,000.
Hefner, who voted against last year’s tax increase, pointed out that when he went on the court in 2011, the county was looking at a $1.8 million deficit and that the court made “some pretty hard changes. . . (a) lot of cuts.” It also “had to increase revenue a little bit,” he said.
The new budget cuts expenses $2 million from their onetime level, while revenues are up $1 million, which “in effect” is a “$3 million dollar change over three budgets,” Hefner continued. The new budget also establishes a $208,000 surplus to begin to build reserves for “rainy days,” he added.
Hefner said he was happy to be “a part of this” progression from a deficit to a surplus.
Berka then warned that “if we do not get ahold” of health insurance expenses, “next year’s problem with medical (matters) could be what this year’s was.” Fowler recently said the county’s expenses for that are “out of whack.”
During the meeting, Berka asked The Mirror to print that he was begging county employees to “pay attention” to the new third-party administrator on insurance, The R. Brown Co. of Gilmer, on how to utilize benefits.
Berka, who had pressed for reducing the county’s expenses on employee retirement benefits, also told the newspaper Thursday the new budget reduces the county’s match for the benefit from 2-1 to 1-1.
The court voted on the budget, then the tax rate, just before adjourning Tuesday’s 21-minute special meeting. The court will hold its regular semi-monthly meeting at 9 a.m. Monday.