Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran said Tuesday he is recommending a tax rate increase to fund law enforcement needs, even though he is not recommending the sheriff’s office get everything it asked for this year.
Moran outlined just over $1.2 million he is recommending for law enforcement and said an increase from 33.7311 cents per $100 of property value to 34.5 cents would generate roughly that amount.
He also cited an analysis, saying he does not think keeping the tax rate level is a workable plan. He said another option would be to take money out of a general fund reserve balance, which is similar to the county’s savings account.
However, Moran said he prefers to pay for continuing expenses with continuing revenue sources. He said pulling money out of the savings account to pay for ongoing law enforcement needs would create an issue in the long run.
“I am dedicated to that investment in law enforcement,” Moran said. “I think that is a high priority for this year’s budget. That is something that I want to stand by and stand behind and make sure happens.”
He made the comments during a budget discussion as part of the Smith County Commissioners Court meeting. He said there would be additional discussions at meetings July 9 and 23 before the commissioners court recommends a budget July 31.
Moran also invited members of the commissioners court to give their views on the budget. “Citizens deserve a very thorough examination of the direction we’re heading and a very thorough explanation of why we’re headed in that direction.”
“It’s not an easy decision here,” Commissioner Cary Nix said.
Commissioner Jeff Warr said the county is among the fastest-growing in the state. He pointed to the Austin area, where he said the government likely will never catch up with its growth.
“To spend your savings every year in hope that you get to replenish it, ultimately is going to catch you, whether you’re at home or in the government,” Warr said. “It’s not prudent.”
County Auditor Ann Wilson said choosing a higher tax rate without relying wholly on reserves would allow the county to continue to grow while improving services.
Commissioner JoAnn Hampton said, “Most of my (constituent) complaints are about road and bridge, and we’ve made a commitment to road and bridge issues, take care of those issues, and I think we should stick with that. I really do.”
Warr agreed that he also gets many inquiries about roads.
“I want to keep it as low as we possibly can — that’s the bottom line,” Warr said. However, he said people in elected office can’t get their way all the time, and need to do the best they can in given situations.
“But at some point in this county’s life, we have got to raise our taxes and do the things that we’ve been elected to do, make the hard decisions, and I don’t think we should cut the sheriff’s department,” Hampton said.
“They probably need more,” she said. “It’s true. But let’s give them what we can give them this year and see how it goes. Get some productivity, some performance from the sheriff’s department on how they’re doing and how to quantify what they’re asking for.”
Nix added: “We’re not doing wants here. These are needs.”
Warr said a shrinking county would need to spend less money, but that’s not the case now.
“Every time you see my party pat themselves on the back for exempting more classes of people, be it veterans or veterans’ families —this affects your local government, and that means the people who are paying are going to be paying more, so just keep that in mind as you elect people in Austin.”
“When you talk about discretionary items, it gets pretty small,” he said. “Most of them are mandated, and mandated by Austin.”
Wilson reiterated that it’s ideal to not spend too much money from the reserves. She also said the county recently had its bond rating upgraded by the agency Moody’s, in part because of a healthy reserve balance.
“If you continue to pull out of your reserves, you’re going to downgrade that, and you don’t want to downgrade your credit rating because you’re going to need it again, and it establishes where you are fiscally sound,” Wilson said.
Moran also pledged transparency in the budget process.
“I doubt any other governmental entity has gone further in their transparency on the budgeting process than we have this year or in past years, and I want to applaud you because I know this court is more interested in sound fiscal policy and not sound-bite fiscal policy.
“And a lot of governmental entities get caught up with sound-bite fiscal policy,” he said. “That is not the intent of this body, nor is it the intent of the county judge.”
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