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Winners and losers from new county budget
by Carolyn Kahant for TaxpayersWatch
Posted 10/20/05
 
 Kerr County's 2005-06 budget is now final. It was approved by a vote of 4-1 by Commissioners Court, with Pct. 4 Commissioner Dave Nicholson objecting.
 
Our property tax rate has been increased by 4.7%. County employees, on the other hand, will receive 3.2% more in their paychecks.
 
Fourteen county jobs have been cut, threatening the loss of some services. The county did not fully fund their share of the Butt-Holdsworth (public) Library, so we may also suffer reduced library hours.
 
This comes in the face of significantly higher property valuations set by the Kerr County Appraisal District, bringing in $1,000,000 more in revenues than last year. Higher property appraisals are the reason Gillespie and other nearby counties have lowered their tax rates this year.
 
 How do our county leaders explain the measures they have taken, and how should we rate their performance in light of them?
 
County Judge Pat Tinley told The Community Journal on September 9 that property appraisal increases were not enough to cover the budget shortfall. He then said the tax freeze for over age 65 homeowners is the main culprit. We have to ask: How could he believe a shortfall of $140,000 from the over-65 freeze is the culprit, when $1,000,000 is not enough to fix the problem?
 
Commissioner Pct.2 Bill Williams has also blamed the over-65 tax-rate freeze whenever the budget shortfall was brought up, calling last year's freeze vote "a blind haste to rush to judgement." Commissioner Pct. 3 Jonathan Letz has said, "We're going to have to raise taxes on the young to pay for the elderly." Commissioners Baldwin and Nicholson have mostly refrained from using this scapegoat.
 
Another mantra of commissioners court for months has been "our county reserves are perilously low." All need to understand they were made low precisely because of "emergency infusions" in the hundreds of thousands of dollars that were necessary to keep the Juvenile Detention Facility afloat, both before and after it was purchased by the county. This court voted, again 4-1, to continue operations of the Juvenile Detention Facility for the coming year, with the very real possibility of further emergency withdrawals.
 
It appears to this writer that those who were responsible for the low reserves rewarded themselves (or were rewarded) with a raise, while passing the costs off on the silent and uncomplaining taxpayer.
 
Here's how the figures work on the plus and minus side:
Higher appraisal values   $1,000,000    Cost of living raise          $235,000
1.75 cent tax increase        360,000    Over-65/disabled freeze    140,000
                              gain $1,360,000                                lose  $375,000
 
But if we add the $1,000,000 put into the Juvenile Facility, you can see how it balances out.
 
County employees have enjoyed regular pay raises for the past several years, and again this year. They also have a benefits package that adds up to 40% of their salary. Go to our front page story, "Kerr County weighs in 'too fat'"; at the end, there is a list of salaries of elected officials. Add 43.2% to each salary to find the actual amount each one will receive during fy2005-06.
 
Commissioner Nicholson proposed a list of spending cuts, including a 10% cut in the salaries of all elected department heads, but this unpopular motion did not find a second.
 
So now comes the main question: why did the court vote 4-1 to increase your taxes? Answer: Because they could. Because by keeping the increase below the level of the tax cap that requires going to the voters for approval, they can continue making small, incremental increases and still avoid the ballot box. At the end of the day, if they manage to restore the reserve fund they decimated, they will proclaim themselves good stewards of the taxpayer's money.

 

These observations lead me to believe that we the taxpayers have not been well served. However, it may be that we did get what we deserve, which is to say that Kerr Countians tend to be overforgiving of mediocre performances, and even sometimes downright incompetent ones. 
 
For example, two public hearings were held for citizens to speak about the proposed property tax increase. At the first hearing, 4 attended and 3 spoke. At the second, one person spoke a 2nd time. Only one of the three spoke against the increase.
 
At a public hearing on the budget, numerous people attended and several spoke, but all except one (myself) were solely concerned with the fate of the library. This does not communicate much general interest, let alone concern, from voters.
 
At this hearing, Commissioner #1 Buster Baldwin spoke emotionally about the 14 job cuts they had to make. "We're a family ... we're friends, and we get along real well. And we have disrupted (their) lives and cut them out." This is reminiscent of December 2002, when the court hastily authorized $400,000 in taxpayer funds for an employee's hospital bill. The reason given: because we're all family, and we take care of each other. We still haven't recovered that money.
 
Now, though, we face increasingly difficult times. If this year's budget was tight, wait until next year.  The sheriff is already pushing for a multi-million dollar expansion of the county jail, which translates into greater debt obligations. A good part of our current budget problems are because of debt payments, which will only grow as long as we take the easy way out of every problem: spending more money. 
 
Can we do better when it comes to county leadership?  Are we limited in our choices because of political factions that so strongly influence the majority of voters in Kerr County? We need to put in office those who understand economics, and will apply what they know in the intersts of the average citizen, rather than the developer, the realtor, the large land-owners or other special interests. Unless we choose tough-minded, fiscally conservative, and independent individuals -- we'll find ourselves taxed to the max with little to show for it. Bad as it is, it can get still worse.
 
 
 


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