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County bracing for $1.4 million deficit Judge warns of possible layoffs when 2016 budget year begins

BY GREG PEAK
Editor
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LIVINGSTON – Polk County commissioners were warned they could face a $1.4 million deficit in their 2016 budget if income and expenses are not changed.

During Tuesday's meeting of the county commissioners, County Judge Sydney Murphy presented preliminary figures for next year's budget and gave officials a warning that some tough decisions would have to be made during the coming months.

The judge noted she is trying to cut spending as much as possible now so that the county departments will not have to take major hits to their staff when the new budget goes into effect on Oct. 1.

"It's going to be a painful October. At the rate we're going we're going to have to cut personnel," she said.
Murphy caution the budget information she presented Tuesday was "very preliminary" and said the situation could get better or worse depending on what is done in the coming months.

"All I can say boys, is sharpen your knives," Pct. 1 Commissioner Bob Willis said while looking over the preliminary budget estimates.

Murphy noted the biggest "hit" the county will take in its revenue is the loss of money from the IAH Adult Detention Facility contract. The county is expected to lose over $848,000 due to changes in the way the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Marshal Service utilize the facility. In the past, the county collected a fee for each inmate housed there, but changes in federal immigration policy have caused the number of illegal immigrants being detained to drop.

One bit of good news came from the jail where the inmate population has now declined to the point the county can afford to contract with other counties to house their inmates.

The county was forced earlier this year to increase its staff of corrections officers at the jail to meet state mandated levels and can now house up to 192 inmates per day. As of this week, the actual number being detained had dropped to 139.

Under an agreement approved by commissioners Tuesday, inmates from Liberty and Chambers counties can now been held in the Polk County Jail at a daily rate of $42 per prisoner. Commissioners stipulated that if the local jail population increased, the number of out-of-county prisoners would have to decrease in order to keep the total jail population below 192.

It was also stipulated that Liberty and Chambers counties would be responsible for the cost of transporting the prisoners and for their medical care.

During the meeting, the commissioners discussed but took no action on a proposal from Murphy to change the way the county advertises its job openings. Currently, when there is a position open the individual departments will post notices asking for applicants and then when one is found, forward the information for action by commissioners court.

Murphy said that because of the need to hold off filling some positions to save money, it might be better for the department heads to get the okay from commissioners before they advertise the position.

When asked for his opinion, District Attorney Lee Hon said the commissioners might be overstepping their authority in this area. He noted that while the commissioners are responsible for the budget, the other elected officials have the right to fill the positions they are authorized with whom ever they chose.

"I'm concerned that you might be trying to micro-manage the other departments," Hon said.

"That's not my intent," Murphy said. "We don't need to tell them (the elected officials) who they should hire because we don't know what their requirements are. We're just trying to cut the bleeding in the budget."

Murphy noted that right now, all county departments are operating "in the red" and indicated she is trying to reduce personnel costs by not filling every position that is vacated.

Helicopter agreement on hold
An agreement with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to pay Polk County to contract with a private helicopter service for a statewide marijuana eradication effort was put on hold when commissioners learned that the county, not the DEA, would be liable for any accidents that might occur involving those flights.

Earlier this month, commissioners agreed to allow the county to be the "participating agency" that would contract with a private helicopter company to fly DEA and other law enforcement officers during air searches for marijuana fields. The DEA had previously worked with the Texas Department of Public Safety, paying for the use of their helicopters for the marijuana eradication effort. However, all state helicopters have been relocated to the Texas-Mexico border to combat smuggling and illegal immigration.

During their May 12 meeting, DEA Special Agent Robert Franklin said he had $475,000 available to obtain private helicopter service but noted the DEA is not allowed to contract with a private company. He asked that Polk County enter into the contract using the DEA's money.

The commissioners voted to table the matter but indicated they would move forward with the contract if the liability issue could be resolved.

Other business
During the meeting, commissioners also:
-- Learned from Hon that the two district judges serving Polk County – Kaycee Jones and Ernie McClendon – are conferring about the appointment of a replacement for former District Clerk Kathy Clifton, who resigned last week. Until an appointment is made, County Auditor Margie Ainsworth and the district clerk's staff are continuing the operation of the office. He noted that if the two judges cannot reach an agreement on the appointment, the governor would be required to call a special election to fill the post. If an appointment is made, the person selected would serve until the next general election in November 2016 at which time voters would chose someone to fill the remaining two years of Clifton's term.
-- Hon also reported his office is acquiring a victims' therapy dog to be used to help children who are required to testify in court. The district attorney said victims' support groups have found the therapy dogs provide children with comfort in stressful situations.
-- Learned from Emergency Management Coordinator Larry Pitts that while no flooding had been reported in Polk County as a result of the rainstorms on Monday and early Tuesday, activity at the Lake Livingston Dam was increasing. He said that as of Tuesday morning, the dam had increased its discharge rate to 62,100 cubic feet per second and was expected to raise the amount to a higher level.
-- Named Courtney Comstock as the deputy emergency management coordinator. Comstock will continue as the office manager for the Office of Emergency Management but Pitts said the deputy coordinator title would allow her to act in his absence. "This would more close reflect what her actual duties are," Pitts said.
-- Approved a corrected order accepting Long Point Drive in the Alabama Point subdivision for county maintenance. Commissioners had previously approved accepting the road if the development's property owners association paid to bring it up to minimum county standards. In the corrected order, it was specified the POA would pay $20,084.20 to bring the road up to standards.
-- Named Livingston-Polk County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Christi Sullivan to be the Polk County representative on the Texas Forest Country Partnership.