The first public hearing Thursday on the proposed McLennan County tax rate for 2018 drew little fanfare.

The lack of attendance at the meeting reinforces the idea residents are happy with the proposed budget and 2-cent cut to the property tax rate, County Judge Scott Felton said.

County commissioners have set the proposed tax rate for the upcoming fiscal year budget at 50.5293 cents per $100 of property value, down two cents from the 2017 rate and down three cents from the 2016 rate.

“What I hear around the community is they’re OK with it and appreciate the tax cut,” Felton said. “There’s a lot of discussion in Austin about revenue caps, and I address that with our legislators, saying 'when you start limiting the mandates I’ll start talking about being interested in adjusting revenue caps.' ”

While state leaders are pushing limits on local control over property tax rates, they are also piling unfunded requirements on local governments, Felton said.

Two people spoke during the first public hearing on the tax rate.

Randall Scott Gates told commissioners a vote in favor of the proposed rate is a vote furthering corruption and compromise of county government.

Gates said 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother's request for commissioners to approve a raise for his clerks raises a conflict of interest.

“It appears that this idea occurred to him after he made felony charges go away against the county commissioner,” Gates said.

Strother threw out felony charges against Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones after ruling an arrest warrant affidavit contained insufficient probable cause. Strother granted a motion from Jones’ attorneys to quash two engaging in organized crime warrants, which Gates, a retired law enforcement officer, obtained from a justice of the peace in another county.

At the time, Gates said he sought the warrants because he was not satisfied with the handling of an investigation into Jones that resulted in him pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of offering a gift to a public servant. Jones had offered to refund a primary opponent's filing fee if the opponent would drop out of the race.

When Strother made the request for raises for his clerks, he said the bump in pay would bring the clerks' salaries into parity with salaries for commissioners' administrative assistants.

Resident Eric Schafer said while county commissioners have proposed a lower tax rate, the county will collect more revenue than in the 2017 fiscal year.

The county expects to bring in $74.1 million in property tax revenue for 2018, up $473,326, about .63 percent, from 2017.

“I’m a little confused as to why the county needs more money, especially when things have been purchased for using tax payer money that doesn’t really add value to the county,” Schafer said, referring to the county's almost $4,000 purchase of a stained glass work from then-County Court-at-Law Judge Mike Freeman, who was on the cusp of retiring.

McLennan County residents have another opportunity to give input on the tax rate at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the commissioners courtroom on the first floor of the McLennan County Courthouse, 501 Washington Ave.

A hearing on the proposed budget is set for 9 a.m. Aug. 22, the same day commissioners expect to officially adopt the budget and tax rate.

The proposed budget is available at co.mclennan.tx.us/154/Budget-Office and in the county clerk’s office.

McLennan County employees will receive a 2.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment for 2018 under the plan, at a cost of $1.27 million. Commissioners also agreed to keep a 2 percent performance-based program in the budget for county employees. The program started last year and allows department heads and elected officials to offer one-time bonuses to employees who score high enough on a performance review.

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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