Friday, August 8, 2008

News From my hometown. Red Alert!

The commissioners in Gonzales County had to get out their red pens earlier this week, trying to find a way to slice budget requests. Commissioners spent most of two days going over all aspects of the proposed 2008-09 budget, in the end making major cuts to proposals, including a request by the sheriff to hire two more deputies.
In the end, though, commissioners did agree to give all county employees an 8 percent raise in order to keep up with the rapidly rising cost of living.Commissioners have also proposed a tax rate of .6450 per $100 of assessed valuation. That's slightly lower than last year's rate of .6562. However, because of increased valuations as well as new construction, the lower rate will actually give the county about $358,000 in additional revenue.
Though the final numbers are still being figured by officials, the total county budget will be just under $10 million. Slicing the pie On Monday of this week, commissioners went through each budget proposal for every county department — including their own.
Commissioners are responsible for their road and bridge budgets in their own precinct. Those budgets have ranged from $688,000 to more than $800,000 in the past couple of years. They include all of the county's road employees as well as the commissioners. The biggest obvious problem which arose early was the condition of the budget in Precinct 2, which is in the Waelder area. Commissioner Donnie Brzozowski, who inherited the budget less than two years ago, says the district was left in tough condition. "When you don't have any money and don't have any equipment to start out with, it's pretty tough," said Brzozowski. "People in Precinct 2 deserve to have the same services as everyone else. They pay taxes like everyone else. "Brzozowski said the money for the Waelder precinct was "going over there but they weren't doing anything. Somebody should have cracked the whip on them years ago and said something was wrong." He said equipment was broken or not being used and everything was pretty much in a state of disrepair. Brzozowski said he has been working hard to get the budget back to where it needs to be but understands it will take some time. It was noted that because the commissioners are elected, the only office which has any authority to correct problems is the state attorney general.Because of the situation in Waelder, the non-salary portion of that budget had to be set at $450,000 in order to ensure raises for the employees. The other three precincts trimmed their budgets to $400,000 in the non-salary category. In doing so, every commissioner made budget cuts form their original proposals. But it was Brzozowski who had to make the biggest sacrifices of what he wanted in the budget. He had to find more than $145,000 in cuts to the non-salary line items and then still needed to add in $50,000 to cover the salary increases. One of the biggest items Brzozowski removed was $62,000 for a new semi truck. He also made cuts in diesel fuel, vehicle repairs, equipment and a plethora of other items. All of the other commissioners also sharpened their pencils, cutting a wide variety of proposed spending in order to get their non-salary line items down to $400,000 in each precinct. But even with all of those cuts, there still had to be more slicing in the county's other departments, including the general fund and the jail and sheriff's office funds, which amount to a large portion of the overall budget. Sheriff Glen Sachtleben on Monday proposed hiring two more deputies for better coverage of the county. The sheriff told commissioners no new officers have been added in 15 years. He said better coverage is essential for the residents of the county. He also said he wanted to put deputy Floyd Toliver "back on the highway." Toliver now covers the Nixon-Smiley area and has the county's canine unit. "We lost $125,000 in revenue when we took him off," said the sheriff. The sheriff also was seeking new cameras for his patrol cars. He said the current cameras are antiquated and replacement parts cannot be found. That will cost around $50,000.The sheriff was seeking three new patrol units, as well as a new transport car for the jail. That car was eventually cut out of the budget by the commissioners. "We need to see where our money situation is," said commissioner Kevin La Fleur." Anything you can do would be greatly appreciated," said Sachtleben. That was Monday. By Tuesday afternoon, commissioners had decided they could not afford to add the two new deputies to the department. They also decided to cut out $23,000 in the jail budget to purchase the new transport car. La Fleur said he thinks the sheriff's office needs to sell its seized vehicles in order to get the funds to purchase the cars. He said there are many vehicles behind the sheriff's office and that could be a source of revenue in order to get the new car. All commissioners were in agreement with that logic and axed the money out of the proposed jail budget. Increasing salaries After the lunch break on Tuesday, when most of the proposed cuts had been agreed upon, commissioners then had to decide on the salary issue. They had already been told health insurance costs are going to raise 9 percent over the next year. Judge David Bird said after the lunch break they had tweaked the numbers and the county was "even" without the pay raises. In order to give the 8 percent raise, he said the county would have to deficit-budget some $322,000, which he said would probably work just fine since the fund balances are in good shape. Fund balances are basically reserve funds in each budget. " This will be the first year it has really taken a hit," said auditor Becky Weston. Commissioner Dell Whiddon said he felt the county's employees deserved the raise. "I don't know of anything that didn't go up," he said. "We need to go on and get it done," said La Fleur. Commissioners then had to decide if they wanted to keep the tax rate the same as it was last year or go ahead and make it slightly lower and use fund balances to make up the difference for the raises. "We can propose higher but we can always go down," said La Fleur.But after some discussion, commissioners said they would go with the lower rate and use the reserve funding to make up the difference. "Everybody's going to say we got an 8 percent raise," said La Fleur. "At least we are showing we are trying to cut the tax rate. "The next step in the process for commissioners is to formally adopt the tax rate and advertise it in the newspaper leading into public hearings which are required by state law. Once the tax rate is published, another series of events begins, including publishing the salaries of elected officials and a pair of public hearings. The final budget will be adopted in September and then go into effect on Oct. 1.