McLennan County commissioners got their first look Wednesday at $106 million in countywide budget requests from department heads for the upcoming year.

From $1.1 million in requests for new personnel and a constable’s request for new weapons, to setting the tax rate and considering the county’s reserve fund, commissioners will spend the next 2½ weeks preparing a fiscal year 2018 budget proposal. They will submit the document for public inspection July 25, starting the clock for public hearings needed before adopting the budget in late August. The fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

First glance of the budget includes almost $102.7 million in revenues, almost $103 million in expenditures and a total ending contingency fund balance of about $34.4 million. Revenues are based on current figures because a proposed tax rate has yet to be discussed, and the final property appraisals have yet to be released.

Assuming revenues, expenditures and contingency balances don’t change, commissioners could approve all $106 million in department head requests and still end the year with more than the target fund balance, County Auditor Stan Chambers said.

Commissioners have discussed increasing the amount they set aside over the years, and County Judge Scott Felton has said he hopes to get to 33 percent of the county’s expenditures put away for emergencies, up from 25 percent in recent years.

While the contingency would be ahead of schedule as a percentage of the budget, it would represent a $5.5 million drop in the fund balance from the current year, Chambers said.

“We don’t want to get into a negative slide and start dipping back down. We’ve built ourselves into a pretty healthy situation,” Chambers said. “We should be encouraged. We’re in a much healthier position than we were four years ago.”

As commissioners start budget talks, state lawmakers return to the Capitol soon and are set to consider a bill local leaders have spoken out against.

Felton said it is important to keep a strong reserve fund in case the Legislature approves the measure, which would place new restrictions on local governments’ ability to change their property tax rates.

Chambers said department heads and elected officials requested $1.1 million in new personnel and about $197,000 in raises for specific positions.

If commissioners give all county employees a 3 percent cost-of-living salary adjustment, it would cost the county $1.3 million, he said. The less than 900 county employees got a 4.35 percent cost-of-living adjustment last year and no adjustment two years ago.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones asked how much revenue the county would lose by reducing the tax rate by 1 penny per $100 of assessed value. He was told it would lose $1.43 million.

Last year, Jones pushed for a steeper cut to the tax rate than the 1-cent cut the court ultimately approved.

This budget year’s tax rate is 52.5293 cents per $100 of value, down from 53.5293 the year before.

Chambers divided department budget requests into two categories for commissioners to review.

The longer list includes departments requesting a budget increase of less than 3 percent, and less than $50,000, compared to last year.

A few of the 15 departments on the shorter list, requesting more than a 3 percent or $50,000 increase, exceed the threshold because of projects commissioners already have approved.

For others, commissioners will ask the department head making the request for a report on the need.

Commissioners asked for Precinct 3 Constable David Maler, among others, to report to the court to explain requests.

Maler submitted a proposed budget that is 5.5 percent, or $7,693, more than last year’s.

Weapons request

Chambers said $3,000 of that request is for travel, and it also includes money for professional development, two shotguns, two pistols and two rifles.

Chambers said Maler told him the weapons would ensure he is as well-outfitted as a sheriff’s office deputy.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Lester Gibson said if one constable is going to be outfitted to that extent, they all need to be.

Jones said the request for a rifle and a shotgun seems excessive, but he would understand the request if Maler needs to replace existing firearms.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry said it is important to ensure law enforcement is properly equipped, but they will have to draw the line somewhere.

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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