County budget

McLennan County commissioners Ben Perry (from left) and Will Jones, and County Judge Scott Felton discuss the fiscal year 2018 budget earlier this year.

Staff photo — Cassie L. Smith, file

McLennan County spent about $562,000 for sheriff’s deputies’ overtime during the first Twin Peaks trial.

Commissioners said the county is still in good shape financially, despite having spent half its countywide contingency in the first two months of the fiscal year.

After approving about $440,000 for the sheriff’s office two weeks ago to pay overtime related to the trial, commissioners approved $122,000 more for the same purpose Tuesday from the countywide contingency line item.

There is $532,000 left of the original $1,016,000 in the countywide contingency line item, County Auditor Stan Chambers said. The county’s fiscal year 2018 started Oct. 1.

This should be the last move needed to cover overtime expenses from the trial, said Frances Bartlett, first assistant county auditor. The trial ended with the jury deadlocked on all three charges against Jacob Carrizal, president of the Dallas Bandidos chapter, related to the May 2015 shootout that left nine dead.

Commissioners Ben Perry and Will Jones said they hope the sheriff’s office plans to reevaluate its security measures after the first trial, which took an effort unprecedented for the county. It remains unclear when the next Twin Peaks trial will be.

“It’s definitely concerning. That’s for certain,” Jones said of the dwindling contingency fund. “Basically you had all hands on deck for the trial. I’m hoping that we learned and we can be more efficient. That’s my hope.”

Commissioners put $1 million in the countywide contingency line item for fiscal year 2017 and ended with $10,674 left in that line item, Bartlett said. In fiscal year 2016, commissioners started with $1.3 million and ended with $3,500, she said.

County Administrator Dustin Chapman said commissioners will be able to transfer money from other county departments into the contingency if it becomes necessary. The county could also get another state grant for its Twin Peaks expenses, Chapman said.

The county has spent about $1 million on Twin Peaks-related expenses so far and been reimbursed for $268,000 by the state.

County Judge Scott Felton said most of the county’s spending before the trial went to housing inmates arrested in the incident.

Commissioners adjusted overtime rules for deputies in February in preparation for the trial. Typically, deputies receive time off to offset any overtime they work, rather than additional pay.

“If we start back into comp time and they build up such a large inventory of hours it would be hard to manage your department because you have to let them take their comp time off,” Felton said. “The only other way to address it is hire more people. You don’t want to hire full-time personnel to cover a temporary issue.”

Felton said he is “very confident” the sheriff’s office knows how to handle the budget moving forward. He is hopeful the county will get another grant from the state.

Even if the contingency line item runs out and other options aren’t feasible, the county could still go to its unassigned fund balance, Felton said. Its estimated ending fund balance for the fiscal year is almost $33 million. The fund balance this year is up to almost 31 percent of total expenditures. It has been at 25 percent in recent years.

Commissioners would have to declare an emergency budget action to dip into the fund balance.

Chambers said the local government code allows for county commissioners to declare an emergency only in a case of grave public necessity to meet an unforeseen need that couldn’t have reasonably been included in the original budget. Chambers said the attorney general has ruled that decision is a discretionary act of the commissioners court.

Chambers said the county has never used up its contingency line item in one fiscal year.

Perry said he’s sure the county would look at other ares of the budget before dipping into the fund balance. For now, it will do its best to make sure the contingency isn’t depleted in the first place.

“We’re going to have to tighten up a little bit and be very cautious about what we take out of that contingency,” Perry said. “It just goes to show we knew we needed to increase our unassigned fund balance because you can’t project with this Twin Peaks situation. It’s difficult to budget for.”

Jones had originally asked to discuss during the commissioners court meeting Tuesday about the security barricades, signage and other security items installed for the first trial.

A temporary, metal fence was placed around the perimeter of the 115-year-old courthouse for the trial. Officials also blocked access to curbside parking spots on three sides of the courthouse. Black curtains were place over windows in areas where the jury or others involved in the trial could be viewed, and a tent was put up in the alley between the courthouse and the annex to shield the jury as they walked between buildings.

Jones said when the security measures were added they went up without any briefing to the court form the sheriff’s office. Jones said he was asked about the measures and did not have an answer and would prefer a briefing before actions of that nature.

Cassie L. Smith has covered county government for the Tribune-Herald since June 2014. She previously worked as a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise and The Eagle in Bryan-College Station. Smith graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington.

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