The old bird is 116 years old and definitely shows its age, but it was standing tall in a shiny new display case unveiled Tuesday morning by McLennan County officials.
McLennan County commissioners and County Judge Scott Felton approved a $146 million budget and new tax rate for fiscal year 2019. But after that, county leaders briefly recessed the meeting and stripped away a black tarp on the first-floor rotunda to reveal a lighted display case featuring the eagle and a backdrop with air-brushed paintings of the county flag and Themis, the goddess of divine law.
Just as the bird was replaced with a newer version, the display case stands on the first floor of the courthouse in a space once occupied by a shoe-shine stand and a pay telephone, also relics of courthouse days gone by.
County employee Randy May was praised for building the attractive display cabinet with a county crew. County officials also recognized local air-brush artist Von Otto for painting the background of the case.
The eagle adorned the current courthouse when it opened in 1902. It was removed and replaced with other statuary from the top of the courthouse during a major dome and roof restoration project in 2011. Former Precinct 3 Commissioner Joe Mashek had the idea of finding a way to display one of the eagles, and his successor, Will Jones, pushed the concept to fruition.
The eagle was selected because it was in the best condition of those replaced. It has been in county storage since it was removed, expect for a short time when it was on display at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.
Felton said the county would like to find an appropriate place to display the statue of Themis that was removed from the courthouse dome last year and replaced with a sturdier version.
Commissioners conducted a public hearing before approving the new budget and tax rate. No one spoke.
The new tax rate of 48.5293 cents per $100 of property value is down 2 cents from this year’s rate, 4 cents from last year’s and 5 cents from 2016.
With higher property values, the new rate is almost 1.4 cents more than the effective rate, or the rate needed to bring in the previous year’s revenue. Property tax revenue accounts for $71.8 million of the total budget.
The budget includes $2.9 million in personnel-related expenses, including $1 million for new personnel and $1.4 million for a 2.7 percent cost-of-living raise for county employees. Commissioners have included $417,798 in the budget for an incentive pay program that is awarded at the discretion of elected officials and department heads and that Felton said is designed to “encourage efficiency and providing good service to our taxpayers.”
“The budget process went very well,” Felton said. “We continue to have mandates from the state that we are required to do, certain things that they do not provide funding for that are always a concern. I doubt that will let up anytime soon. The value of the property in the county going up really made the budgeting process easier, but we were able to offset the impact of that to the taxpayers to some extent by lowering the actual tax rate. This is the fourth year in a row we were able to lower the tax rate.”
Among the unfunded mandates that concern Felton is the growing amount to pay attorneys and other expenses for indigent criminal defendants, which is expected to cost the county $5 million in the coming year, Felton said.