Smith County's proposed $66.2 million operating budget pushes long-term needs to another year as the county deals with flat revenues.
County Judge Joel Baker, who acts as the county's budget officer, is proposing a property tax reduction to the effective rate, 32.36 cents per $100 valuation, which is the rate needed to maintain current revenues. The current property tax rate is 32.39 cents per $100 valuation.
But officials and department heads are aware a day is coming when they will need money that is unavailable. So far, their collective hopes are for an improved economy to generate revenue growth.
According to department heads and commissioner court discussions, needs include technology upgrades, major road projects, facility improvements and more staff.
Needs can always outnumber available dollars, Warr said.
“Judge Baker and every commissioner on the court has had to say 'no' at some point this year,” he said. “But we are hopeful we can free up dollars to put more in needed spots like for roads.”
The Road and Bridge Department was cut deepest in 2010. Its budget was reduced almost 37 percent, to $6.8 million from more than $10 million.
The department cut 17 positions.
Its long-term plan of rebuilding 100 miles of county roads annually shifted to maintenance only, which includes filling potholes as needed and finding ways to extend surface life.
On Tuesday, in a statement, Baker said the county will continue with “pay-go” projects, which include moving several departments in an attempt to exit the former Carlton Hotel. The capital improvement fund generates a little more than $1 million annually and has been used for projects such as the new Sheriff's Administration Building on Spring Avenue.
Commissioner Cary Nix said there are needs that aren't addressed within the budget but that funding answers will have to come from somewhere other than a tax increase. Nix said he believes there is still room within the overall budget to find money for Road and Bridge but that millions of dollars will be needed within the next few years to improve the infrastructure for a growing county.
Roads once barely used are now becoming major thoroughfares pressing for upgrades, he said.
“I don't know the answers right now, whether it's the (state) legislature adding a fuel tax or us dedicating pennies for roads only,” he said. “But we can't keep kicking that can down the road.”
Nix said dedicating funding to county roads would be a “hard sell” to urban residents who don't use rural roads.
Road and Bridge Administrator Doug Nicholson said the department will continue to do what it can with the funding it gets but that major projects will be a necessity within two to four years.
Aside from infrastructure, technology and capital improvement needs will cost millions. Upgrades to the justice system's software program, which is necessary to move cases through the system, maintain criminal records and coordinate the efforts among multiple departments and agencies, are overdue and will be costly.
The court has discussed implementing the upgrades, which will cost about $4 million, within the next four years.
The county saved several hundred thousand dollars this year by finding efficiencies, such as reducing shipped inmate numbers, and by refinancing its debt, Warr said. Warr believes the new jail will mean more efficiencies.
But, as Warr said, “there is always something to spend more money on.”
The county will receive almost $600,000 in additional revenue based on 1.32 percent growth to its tax roll but budgeted $771,000 more for expected indigent defense and capital murder costs than last year.
Two public hearings on the proposed 2013 budget are set. The hearings will be at the Courthouse Annex at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 21 and 9:30 a.m. Aug. 28. The court will vote on the fiscal year 2013 budget after the Aug. 28 hearing. The adopted budget goes into effect Oct. 1.