by Joh Roth, County Commissioiner, Precinct 3, September 22, 2011
LOOKS CAN BE DECEIVING….
All of Parker County’s elected officials have been Republican for quite a few years. In the last Presidential election,Parker County voters overwhelmingly voted for the Republican candidate(s). Because of those two factors, you—like me—would think that Parker County could be a model that other counties look to for conservative leadership. Well, looks can be deceiving!
After being elected to office in 2004, I had no idea that being a conservative would bring such controversy to commissioner’s court. Naïve me, I thought all republicans were grounded in the party platform. I thought it was a given that we were united on principles such as less government, personal responsibility, pro second amendment and private property rights. Boy was I wrong!
MY FIRST CLUE….
A few months after taking office the first alarm of a non-conservative agenda rang out. In early 2005, Commissioner’s Court voted to spend close to one million dollars on a building and property that we have yet to formally identify a county use. More puzzling was that the money used to purchase the property was from a bond that was designated specifically for Jail expansion.
The bond did allow for excess Jail funds to be used for other county property, but the property in question was purchased one year prior to the signing of the jail expansion contract.
To this day, the seller of the property continues to occupy the building and while I have repeatedly asked to see a written lease agreement, one has yet to be produced! Whether this was a political favor or real estate speculation, neither in my mind are a proper use of tax dollars.
The vote taken on the purchase of that property really opened my eyes and I started to realize the battle I stepped into. I was extremely puzzled as to how four “fellow republicans” could vote to buy anything without identifying a county purpose. That day was not a fluke. Since then, the liberal “D” agenda has been quite evident…all the while hiding behind the big “R”.
Personally, I don’t really care if you are Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Liberal, or even purple with green stripes. I would respect you more for standing up for your beliefs and being proud of it! One of the great things about America is that we have the freedom to express our views and opinions. I believe that—with that freedom—there is a responsibility for elected officials to behave in a manner consistent with the political label they pin beside their name. Party principles have little to do with many of the decisions made in Commissioner’s Court, but are critical when it comes to decisions dealing with budgets and tax rates.
LET’S TALK ABOUT BUDGETS AND TAXES….
I have voted against the past two budgets and have voted against what is proposed this year as well. The year before last, I voted against the budget mainly because it pulled a significant amount of money out of our already insufficient reserve fund (fund balance/rainy day fund) so as to give the appearance of a “balanced” budget. Since spending exceeded revenue for the budget year, it wasn’t really a “balanced” budget. Last year I was strongly against the Commissioner’s Court games that were being played with the Lateral Road tax (Road and Bridge) and the Debt Service tax to shift money to help prop up the County’s inflated General Fund budget.
The price of goods and services has gone up for governmental entities just like it has for individuals and families. When times get tight for taxpayers, we are forced to tighten our belts. I believe Government should have to do the same. The easy way out for taxing entities is to raise the tax rate when they should be looking at ways to reduce spending. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could give ourselves a raise to balance our family budget? Moreover, in the day of the TEA Party, how can anyone on the political right even consider raising tax rates?
THE EFFECTIVE TAX RATE & MINERAL VALUES….
This year you are being told that the tax rate being adopted is the effective tax rate. The effective tax rate, in theory, is the rate that will generate the same revenue as last year’s rate on the same property. Any new property on the tax roll will result in additional revenue over the previous year. This may need some extra elaboration. What does this mean to the average taxpayer? This year’s budget as proposed by Judge Riley contains $1,277,487 of additional revenue to the General Fund while only $347,283 is generated by new value on the tax roll. No matter how you spin it, the Judge has proposed a $930,204 tax increase over the new value that entered the tax roll this year.
The effective tax rate calculation was legislated years ago as part of “Truth in Taxation” so that taxpayers would know when their taxes were increased. But, do you know how mineral values are treated in the calculation? Allow me to explain. Mineral values are treated as existing value (not new value) and thus DO NOT add to the bottom line tax revenue. The good news—when mineral values enter the tax roll, the tax burden on the rest of the taxpayers is reduced. Over the last couple of years, many of the gas wells in Parker County have been plugged and/or production has dropped. That, coupled with the decrease in value of Natural Gas, means that some of the tax burden that once was being picked up by mineral owners and energy companies has now been shifted back to the rest of the taxpayers. The bad news—this results in higher taxes for many property owners.
Having minerals values included in the effective tax rate calculation causes confusing and unnecessary fluctuations in the rate itself. Maybe one day our state legislature will recognize this and adjust the calculation worksheet.
THE VALUE OF CONTINUING EDUCATION….
The effective tax rate CAN BE a confusing subject and the majority of taxpayers may not fully understand it…but it is imperative that County Commissioners and County Judges DO! This calculation is the heart of how tax rates are calculated and there is no excuse for court members to not fully grasp the concept. Even with a degree in Business Finance, I needed the additional training to feel comfortable with my understanding of “County Business.”
It has always been and still is my belief that continuing education is critical for leaders to fully understand the intricacies of their job responsibilities. Without extensive training, court members can’t have full grasp of how to maneuver through all the rules and mandates placed on counties by the state. Newly elected officials need to go to school and do their homework instead of relying on what one member of the court thinks to make their decisions for them. This IS the way to better serve our constituents.
Unfortunately, county government is not set up to run as an effective business. All county elected officials have the total say in how their office operates, but their budgets must be approved by Commissioner’s Court. Contrary to the process, it would seem reasonable, therefore, for Commissioners to be involved with the preparation as well as approval.
GENERAL FUND AND LATERAL ROAD TAXES
To clarify, the General Fund is made up of basically all county departments except for the road and bridge precincts. The general fund tax rate funds general fund activities while the lateral road tax supports precinct road budgets. The third tax is the debt service rate which is set to make the payments on the county’s general fund and transportation bond debt.
The lateral road tax was established in the 1950’s by a vote of the people. It is specifically dedicated to be used for the construction and maintenance of county roads. Prior to the road tax being approved by the voters, the general fund was responsible for funding road and bridge operations. The purpose of the tax was not to replace the general fund’s obligation, but to add supplemental money to road and bridge operations to get Parker County roads in good shape and keep them that way.
Over the past few years, there has been a push by Judge Riley to shift road and bridge money to the general fund by reducing the road and bridge tax rate and raising the general fund tax rate. Doing this would totally defeat the original purpose of establishing the road tax.
When established in the ‘50’s, the road tax was set at 30 cents per $100 valuation. Sixty some odd years later, it has dwindled to a little over 8 cents per $100. To compound the funding issue of our roads, the recent oil and gas exploration has added hundreds of year’s worth of typical damage to the roads in just a few years. Throwing road and bridge money at the general fund doesn’t address the problems in the general fund and forces precincts to neglect maintenance of some county roads. In the last 3 years (including this year’s proposed budget) the property tax revenue in the general fund has increased by over 14% while the road and bridge tax revenue has decreased by over 7%. If you look back over the past 7 Years, general fund property tax revenue has grown by 142% while over the same period road and bridge has grown by 69%. This data makes the shift in funding very evident.
In my opinion,
this prolongs the needed adjustments in the general fund,
while compounding the maintenance issues of county roads.
These are complex issues which deserve to be analyzed by the whole court. In my seven years on the court, this year is the longest the Judge has waited to start budget talks with the commissioners. This year—of all years—the budget process should have begun many months ago. Instead, our first budget meeting of the entire Court was on September 6th with adoption of the budget and tax rate scheduled for September 26th.
In counties under 225,000 in population the County Judge is designated as the budget officer and is required to file a proposed budget by July 31st each year. Judge Riley met that requirement, but waited over a month to set budget meetings with the whole court.
With two new members of the court and another in just his third budget season…waiting until virtually the last minute, hasn’t given them much time to absorb all the details of roughly a fifty million dollar county budget.
THE JUDGE AND ME….
Recently in court, I made a challenge to Judge Riley that we put all politics aside and suggested that next year we start the budget process many months sooner. Unfortunately, all the Judge could muster up to my challenge were personal attacks like claiming this is the first year I’ve asked good questions, stating I don’t do my homework and accusing me of not taking my job seriously. These accusations had no purpose except to divert from the issue being debated, bolster his ego and make light of my efforts. My challenge is still on the table and I hope he will accept it before the next budget season.
BUDGETING IS SERIOUS BUSINESS
Now, I like to do my share of kidding around, but folks this budget isn’t something to joke with. In a recent budget meeting Commissioner Conley was joking around in Court and made a motion to eliminate Precinct 3 and transfer most of the money to the general fund which he said would solve this year’s general fund budget problems. I seconded the motion. Please understand that seconding a motion doesn’t always mean you agree with it (which of course I didn’t). It is, however, a way to advance into discussion. When I called for a vote and Commissioner Conley didn’t withdraw his motion, a vote was taken. He, then, is on record for voting to eliminate a precinct. The others voted to keep Precinct 3. Since he wouldn’t withdraw his motion, he must have intended it as something more than a joke.
THIS IS NOT A JOKING MATTER!
YOUR CHANCE TO SPEAK UP…
This is the second year in a row that Judge Riley and George Conley want to raise the tax rate. Once again, I am opposed. The two new members of the court are split — Dusty Renfro has been very vocal that he will not go for a rate increase while Craig Peacock seems to be in lock step with Riley and Conley.
To better accommodate taxpayers and to allow our working citizens an opportunity to participate, I made a motion to set a PUBLIC HEARING to discuss and adopt the budget and tax rate for Monday night, September 26 @ 7pm in the 2nd floor court room of the main courthouse. To my knowledge, this is a first. Normally, this meeting occurs on a weekday morning while most people are at work. Hopefully, this will make our meeting accessible to many more taxpayers. I invite you to attend. This is a PUBLIC HEARING.
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