BY GREG PEAK
LIVINGSTON – A preliminary spending plan that would cut Polk County's projected 2016 budget deficit from $1 million to $43,000 was presented Tuesday by County Judge Sidney Murphy to county commissioners.
Among the recommendations being made by Murphy is a freeze on all merit pay increases, at least through the 2016 budget year. Other provisions in the plan include a variety of cuts involving not replacing some personnel and reducing spending at all levels.
Murphy said she attempted to eliminate as much as possible from next year's budget but is willing to make additional cuts if the commissioners could find other areas of savings.
"I'd rather save a job than have an annual banquet," she said while discussing the proposed cuts.
Among the areas commissioners asked Murphy to study are the county's memberships in the I-69 Association and the Gulf Coast Strategic Highway Coalition (GCSHC) to determine what benefits the county receives versus the cost of membership. The I-69 Association deals with the planned upgrade of Highway 59 through Polk County into an interstate highway while the GCSHC deals with proposed improvements to Highway 190.
The 2016 budget would go into effect on Oct. 1 and is still in the planning stage. Commissioners did voice some resistance to freezing all merit pay raises with Pct. 4 Commissioner Tommy Overstreet noting they might be "micromanaging" the various departments. He suggested that each department be given a set amount of money for the year and then let the department heads determine if there is enough cash available to grant a raise.
Murphy offered praise to the "small departments" for going over and above in their efforts to not only reduce next year's spending but the expenditures under the current 2015 budget.
She noted that in March, when the county realized it was losing over $800,000 in budgeted revenue from the IAH Adult Detention Center near Livingston, the small departments in particular have been working to help offset that loss.
On Tuesday, she noted that instead of facing an $800,000 shortfall this year, that number had been cut to about $200,000.
In her report, Murphy also told commissioners that Moody's Corporation had reduced the county's credit rating in response to a longtime practice of using the county's reserve funds to balance its annual budget.
Pct. 3 Commissioner Milt Purvis said the county has rarely ever had to actually use its reserve fund and noted that last year they were able to add money to the fund.
Murphy said she had argued with Moody's about the matter but in the end, the credit rating corporation said the practice of using the reserve to balance the budget is a key factor.
Commissioners agreed to study Murphy's budget proposal and to look for any additional cuts. They will continue to discuss the 2016 budget during their meetings in August and September.
In other business, commissioners were updated on the progress of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) off-system bridge program. TxDOT Bridge Engineer Nancy Smith presented commissioners with paperwork on 17 more bridges that will be scheduled for replacement by the state.
She noted a year ago the county came up with a list of about 40 of its bridges for consideration by the program and of that number, about 30 had been approved by the state. The 17 bridges presented Tuesday are the last of those bridges to be included in the replacement schedule.
Tax collection rate
Commissioners also received the certification from Tax Assessor-Collector Leslie Burks that the county should collect 96 percent of the property taxes it assesses during the coming year. This is up from a 95 percent collection rate projected last year.
The certified collection rate is the figure on which the county bases its projected tax income when the annual budget is prepared. Murphy noted the 1 percent increase means the county can anticipate collecting an additional $172,000.
When Pct. 1 Commissioner Bob Willis wondered if increasing the collection rate could cause problems, Murphy said they have examined prior years and found that the actual collection rates were even higher than 96 percent – sometime reaching the 98 percent level.
During the meeting, commissioners also:
-- Renewed county employee healthcare coverage with the Texas Association of Counties.
-- Approved the purchase of 2,850 cubic yards of iron ore to be used on McSpadden Road in Precinct 4.
-- Approved submitting a pre-disaster mitigation grant that will allow the county's Office of Emergency Management to hire a consultant to assist with the creation of a new five-year Hazard Mitigation Plan. Emergency Management Coordinator Larry Pitts explained the current plan expires in 2017 and work will soon begin to replace it.
-- Approved a new local customer service cooperative agreement with the Texas Attorney General's office.
-- Approved renewing the lease for the Texas Forest Service office located in the Polk County Office Annex pending legal review.