For the past three years, McLennan County commissioners have budgeted for an average of $6.1 million more than the county spent, but local leaders say that’s a big improvement to years past.
Commissioners reviewed the overbudgeting as they started to wind down discussions of the proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, which starts Oct. 1.
Some of the commissioners said they have trimmed requests for more money than needed for specific purposes as they have worked through requests in the past few weeks. Others said $6 million in unused funds equates to about four cents on the tax rate that is collected and goes unused.
All the commissioners agreed budget padding has decreased in recent years.
The county’s four road and bridge departments, managed by commissioners, have had at least $1 million combined in unspent money budgeted for them in each of the past three years — more than any other part of the budget.
Residents need to be getting something in return for their tax payments, and the fact that commissioners’ road and bridge departments are the worst offenders is concerning, Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones said.
“All these other elected officials and some department heads come in and say, ‘Oh I’m giving money back to the budget.’ Yeah, you are giving it back to the fund balance but not the tax payer,” Jones said. “I think we’re doing a good job. We’re in a lot better shape than we were. But we just need to be as efficient as we possibly can. Tax dollars are so precious.”
The county’s budget is projected to have $5,497,575 left over by Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year. There was $6,281,916 unspent in fiscal year 2016 and $6,539,933 unspent in 2015.
More than $2.1 million of the unspent money this year will come from road and bridge departments. About $3.2 million came from road and bridge in 2016, and $3.1 million came from road and bridge in 2015.
Jones said the unspent money, to him, is one more argument against the county keeping 33 percent of its projected expenditures in a fund balance in case of an emergency. Commissioners last year agreed to move past its 25 percent fund balance, which had been in place for years, to 29.23 percent of annual expenditures. County Judge Scott Felton is pushing for the county to reach 33 percent.
The proposed fiscal year 2018 budget includes a $32.46 million in the projected ending fund balance, or 30.96 percent of total expenditures.
Jones said the county should stick to a fund balance that is 25 percent of total expenditures.
County Judge Scott Felton said the county should be more skillful at handling its budget than having $6 million remaining at the end of the year demonstrates.
County Auditor Stan Chambers said several factors came into play. The fiscal year 2017 budget started with a beginning fund balance that was $4 million higher than anticipated, he said. Expenditures were also not what was anticipated during the current fiscal year and revenues were higher than projected, he said.
“We want to be conservative,” Chambers said. “I do estimate the revenues conservatively, but I don’t believe overly conservative.”
Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry said when he was elected, each commissioner had an about $2 million contingency for each road and bridge department. The elected leaders have since paired that down to $250,000, he said. Perry said he would support eliminating road and bridge contingency completely.
“If we get into a pickle of any kind we can always go to the general fund,” Perry said.
The culture on the commissioners court needs to change so it is not taboo for a commission to ask for additional funding when there’s an emergency, like a bridge collapsing, Perry said.
He said the commissioners should have started discussions of this nature at the beginning of budget discussions, not toward the end.
The sheriff’s office’s budget will likely always have a relatively high amount of leftover money at the end of the year because its personnel positions are rarely all full, Perry said. The sheriff’s office budget is predicted to have more than $966,000 left over at the end of fiscal year 2017.
“They’re budgeted to be fully staffed, but they have a hard time staying fully staffed,” Perry said.
Some leftover money is acceptable, he said. Expenditures can never be predicted exactly.
“We have to hold ourselves accountable like we do everyone else,” Perry said.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Kelly Snell said it’s better for the county to be under budget than over.
Snell said the county used to have contingencies in every department, but only the road and bridge contingency budgets remain.
“I don’t think you’ll ever get it where you’ll be at zero at the end of the year, but I can tell you right now it’s a lot closer than it’s ever been before,” he said.