BY PHILLIP WILLIAMS
GILMER — The Upshur County Appraisal District's Board of Directors voted 3-1 Monday to propose a $790,755 budget, which provides a controversial 5 percent pay raise for district employees — and which is subject to approval by a certain number of the county's taxing entities.
All four Upshur County commissioners attended a public hearing on the 2014 budget Monday before the board meeting at which it was approved. After the gatherings ended, three expressed unhappiness to the Tyler Morning Telegraph with the decision. The county government finances more than one-fourth of district's budget.
Last week, Precinct 3 Commissioner Frank Berka and Precinct 2 Commissioner Cole Hefner expressed opposition to the proposed pay raise on grounds that the county had recently suffered a major budget shortfall, and that county employees have received no pay increase in nearly seven years. Precinct 4 Commissioner Mike Spencer joined them Monday in objecting to the hike.
Appraisal board Chairman David Clay told more than 15 persons attending the hearing that his entity competes with other appraisal districts for appraisers, and "we want to keep our employees" because training a new appraiser to come in costs $10,000.
Clay said the board didn't want appraisers to be "discouraged by working for us."
Chief Appraiser Sarah Curtis also defended the proposed hikes, saying the district is "not up to average" in paying employees, compared with comparable counties' appraisal districts. She also said the district had returned more than $146,000 in leftover budget to its supporting taxing entities during the past four years.
Meantime, Mrs. Curtis said the proposed raises constituted $18,000, about $4,000 of which would come from the county government. The district's overall proposed budget is about $38,000 higher than the current budget.
Concerning the proposed pay hikes, "My people work every day to earn them," the chief appraiser asserted. After detailing how county employees have more insurance and retirement benefits than district employees, she also said the proposed 5 percent raise would still not result in "touching the difference in benefits."
When one man complained about everyone getting the same percentage of raise regardless of their work performance, Mrs. Curtis said employee evaluations performed each December determine whether workers will get their full increase. She said not everyone does.
After hearing a smattering of protest from citizens during the public hearing, directors Clay, Darrell McKnight and Peter John Sullivan voted to approve the proposed budget, while Jared Maddox opposed it. (Maddox declined comment after the meeting on his vote). Board member Conrad Coppedge, who attended the public hearing, left before the actual board meeting.
At the board meeting, Mrs. Curtis said 17 of the 19 taxing entities in the county finance the district, and that if at least nine of those 17 pass resolutions vetoing the proposed budget, the district must refigure it.
Hefner said he planned to vote against the proposed budget when the Upshur County Commissioners Court considers it Friday.
Berka, meanwhile, said he is "adamantly against" the proposal, and Spencer said, "I hate to see the appraisal district take money from the county when the county cannot afford raises for its own people."
"The appraisal district works for the government, and the commissioner works for the citizens," Spencer added.
With almost all other governmental entities in Upshur County paying far less of the district budget than the county commissioners court, Berka predicted the "payroll increase will come because those other taxing entities will be asleep at the wheel."
At the board meeting, Berka asked the history of raises for district employees, and Mrs. Curtis said they had received hikes both last year (for the current year) and probably for the years 2009, 2010, and 2011— but not for 2012.