The tax rate in McLennan County likely will remain the same next year, but Precinct 1 Commissioner Kelly Snell would prefer a decrease.
He cast the lone dissenting vote at Tuesday’s meeting at which commissioners approved a preliminary tax rate that may undergo tweaking. The county’s new budget year starts Oct. 1, and the public is invited to comment on the proposed rate at hearings Aug. 15 and Aug. 20, and on the budget Aug. 27.
Commissioners gave preliminary approval to a tax rate of 48.52 cents per $100 of property value, which maintains the status quo. However, property values that rose about 8% countywide mean the county will see about a $6 million increase in revenues, county auditor Frances Bartlett said by phone.
Snell did not see eye-to-eye with his fellow commissioners.
He said in an interview following Tuesday’s meeting he does not necessarily oppose the rate itself, but has issues with a few budget provisions. He cited in particular a suggested cost of living adjustment for retirees. The budget as submitted includes a 2% increase in those benefits, Bartlett said.
“That’s going to add about $360,000 this next year, but more like $2.5 million over the next 10 to 12 years,” Snell said. “There will be an increase every year until we get it off the books. I don’t want to do that. Normally, the court does not do anything that impacts the budget of the next commissioners court. That rule is not in place for the retirement fund, but I still don’t think the exception is appropriate. Before I got on the court, they gave three COLA increases to retirees, and didn’t pay for them in a single budget year.”
He said the county continues to deal with $36 million in debt relating to retiree COLAs, though it has been trying to whittle down the obligation.
The county participates in the Texas County and District Retirement System, an independently administered multi-employer plan, according to a description provided by Moody’s Investor Services.
Snell, whose precinct includes parts of Waco, Beverly Hills, Robinson, Golinda, Lorena, Bruceville-Eddy and Moody, has announced he will not seek re-election. His third term on the court expires in December 2020.
His administrative assistant, Christina Brault, has announced she intends to run for the Republican nomination to fill Snell’s seat.
He spoke more favorably of a proposed 2.5% pay increase for all current county staffers. He said the private sector often offers employees pay bumps of that size, and the county must stay competitive.
Commissioners briefly discussed a 2% across-the-board cut in county expenditures to soften the budget impact of COLAs for retirees.
That would not prove practical in small departments, where almost the entire budget allocation is earmarked for salaries, Snell said.
District 2 Commissioner Pat Chisolm-Miller suggested considering a 2% cut in operational costs that would leave wages untouched.
County Judge Scott Felton said he feels fine about the budget as approved. He said it has become commonplace for county expenditures to fall 3% to 5% below budget projections when the counting concludes on Sept. 30.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry said comprehensive budget cuts serve a purpose, and probably should be considered every four to five years.
“Budgets tend to inflate,” Perry said.
Commissioners asked Bartlett to research the comprehensive budget cuts imposed in 2013 and prepare an update for the court. Perry said it was his recollection that only elected officials, not the rank and file, saw pay cuts.
“We don’t want to punish anyone,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones said.
The proposed $119.4 million 2019-20 general fund budget includes $9.9 million associated with running the Jack Harwell Detention Center, which the county will take over from private operator LaSalle Corrections on Oct. 1. The county pays LaSalle about $8 million a year, Bartlett said, and hopes to recoup the $1.9 million deficit by housing federal prisoners.
COLAs for currents employees would cost $1.7 million.
Snell said in an interview that though the tax rate will remain unchanged, county residents may find their property taxes have risen because of the 8% countywide increase in appraised values.
The owner of a $200,000 home who saw his or her property jump to $216,000 in appraised value would pay about $48 more in property taxes next year, though the tax rate is proposed to remain steady.
Also Tuesday, commissioners heard an update on the $35 million repurposing and expansion of the Extraco Events Center complex at Bosque Boulevard and Lake Air Drive. They were told that contracted work so far is running 5% below budget estimates. The next phase includes installation of structural concrete and structural steel at an estimated cost of $6.75 million. J.P. Lowry Construction LLC of Waco will serve as subcontractor for the concrete work, while Patriot Erectors Inc. of Dripping Springs will handle the steel.
Patriot Erectors furnished materials and crews for the Doris Miller Memorial on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near the Waco Suspension Bridge.
Felton reported the county received an Aa1 rating from Moody’s Investors Service for the sale of $23 million in bonds to cover capital improvement projects, including a handful aimed at making county facilities compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.