No new taxes means no new raises

Alex Rupp, manager of Jack Brooks Regional Airport speaks with Commissioners.

Jefferson County Commissioners have tentatively committed to approving a budget for the coming fiscal year that will not raise the tax burden placed on property owners, but in order to do so, the elected leaders have to figure out how to balance a budget with more funding requests and less income.

According to Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick, who heads the Commissioners Court, the county has been hard hit by lowered gas prices.

“About $10 million over the last two years,” Branick said, estimating the county’s loss. Branick further noted that the loss of funding compared to county offices’ budget requests leaves a $16.2 million gap, making this “the worst time we’ve seen since I’ve been here,” he said.

And, in the interest of not raising taxes to cover the loss, Branick and his fellow commissioners will have to find somewhere else to raise the funds to cover county expenses. According to the elected leaders, one thing that will likely be lost in the budget is any anticipated cost-of-living raise.

During budget hearings held the week of Aug. 1, commissioners and Branick explained to department heads that this year there would likely be no raises for the county’s employees – and no new classification of personnel would be granted.

Commissioners hammered home the resolution not to grant wage increases to any of the county’s staff when Airport Manager Alex Rupp presented his budget requests to the panel. Although cutting a position that would save the county in excess of $60,000, Rupp was hard-pressed to find any support in re-allocating any portion of those funds to current personnel. Rupp tried to explain that by cutting the position, he would be re-allocating the job functions of that post, and only felt it right to compensate the employee who would be absorbing the extra work.

Maybe in January, commissioners relented.

“More work, same pay” may be the refrain at most of the county’s outlets, but Ford Park staff is so far budgeted for a 1.65 percent raise across the board, per management company SMG’s protocol. However, according to Ford Park general manager and SMG staffer John Hughes, the raise already budgeted for staff may be re-evaluated as his company typically follows suit with the county when deciding raises. Hughes did outline a “wish list” of capital projects that totaled more than $6 million – most of which were dismissed with little fanfare. Some of the noted additions sought by the management did elicit conversation, however, as county leaders pondered how to maintain the $75 million facility that Hughes notes is in need of serious repair.

When lamenting the costs associated with making improvements at the county-subsidized entertainment complex, Commissioner Brent Weaver urged his fellow commissioners to take a look at the big picture before unilaterally denying any and all budget requests.

“I’ve seen us choke on a gnat and swallow an elephant,” Weaver analogized, underscoring his position that sometimes it’s better to spend a little now than have to spend a lot later.

After the requests of his peers were decidedly rejected, for the most part, District Attorney Bob Wortham elected to withdraw his request for additional funding to cover expenses related to adding two new prosecutors and a clerk for utilizing the civil courts to hear criminal cases rather than bring it to the county commissioners. Citing an awareness of the financial challenges facing Jefferson County as well as exercising financial responsibility on behalf of the taxpayers, Wortham released word that his office will nonetheless proceed with its plans to utilize four civil courts to address backlogged criminal dockets and provide swifter justice for victims – but will do so with the staff already on hand.

According to a press release from Wortham’s office, the DA “believes that swift trials provide a deterrent to the criminal element in our community.

“Staffing these dockets will be managed by reassigning and re-tasking existing attorney positions. This reprioritization may cause some delay in other functions handled by the office, but … (we) will aggressively pursue this project as an additional means to stem the tide of criminal activity that impairs the lives of our citizens and the growth of our community,” Wortham said, adding that he intends to pursue additional attorney and clerical positions in the next budget cycle.

“This is the real world,” Commissioner Weaver said of the county’s current position. “Sometimes there’s good news; sometimes there’s bad news.”

 

According to information from County Auditor Patrick Swain, the commissioners will be presented a budget for adoption on Sept. 26, with a public hearing to be held to allow for public comments before it’s accepted.

shadow