County facing ‘big dark hole’ of expenses

New budget must include funds to pay DPS crime lab costs

LIVINGSTON -- Facing what was described as a “big dark hole” in next year’s budget, Polk County commissioners continued ironing out details for the 2018 spending plan during their regular meeting Tuesday.

County Judge Sydney Murphy opened the discussion by telling commissioners that under changes approved by the Texas Legislature, effective Sept. 1 the county will begin paying for the services of the Texas Department of Public Safety’s crime lab.

“There a lot of unknowns with this,” she said, adding that while the state has provided a “price list” for the crime lab’s services, there are a lot of details that have not yet been finalized.

For instance, the state has promised to provide vouchers to help lower the local cost for crime lab services but how the system will work and the number of vouchers that will be available is not clear.
Polk County Sheriff Kenneth Hammack and Polk County Criminal District Attorney Lee Hon have been working to gather as much information on the process and charges but they were still unsure of the impact the change will make on the county budget.

Because the change will go into effect on Sept. 1 and the county’s new budget year begins on Oct. 1, additional money must be found in the current budget to cover the crime lab charges.

In reviewing the proposed budget for the coming year, Murphy also noted some added expenses that would have to be covered, including additional personnel for the county jail and the sheriff’s department and a “major” capital expenditure to obtain new voting equipment.

County Clerk Schelana Hock explained that current equipment was purchased in 2006 and paid for under the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Since that time, the major equipment vendors have all come out with newer designs and parts for the older machines are becoming increasingly hard to find.
Because HAVA is no longer providing funds for the equipment, the county will be responsible for the entire cost.

After reviewing the draft budget Tuesday, Murphy asked commissioners to examine it in detail and send her any questions or requests.

She noted the final budget workshop would be held on Tuesday, Aug. 8, at the end of the commissioners’ next regular meeting. During that meeting, they are scheduled to discuss salaries, expenses and allowances for elected officials as well as the proposed tax rate.

Under the budget schedule, the first public hearings on the proposed tax rate would be held at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 22 while a second hearing would be held at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 5. A public hearing on the FY 2018 budget is planned for 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 12. During their regular meeting immediately following the Sept. 12 hearing, commissioners are scheduled to adopt the budget and the order setting the tax rate for the coming year. All hearings and meetings will be held in the Commissioners’ Courtroom on the third floor of the Polk County Courthouse in Livingston.

Other business

During the meeting, commissioners also:
Approved a request from the Hammack to allow him to transfer funds from the county security fund to the sheriff’s department fund in order to fund a raise for an employee.
Rejected a request from Hammack to waive a county policy and allow him to implement a number of merit raises immediately. County policy currently requires all merit raises first be approved by the commissioners with the higher pay rate becoming effective at the start of the next two-week pay period.

Learned that the grant work installing water and sewer service to the new RoyOMartin oriented strand board plant in Corrigan is almost complete. It was also reported the company has hired 123 people and expects to begin testing its equipment in September with full production planned by November.

Learned that the construction of the new Livingston Senior Center is running ahead of schedule. Grant administrator Randy Blanks noted the contractor has completed 50 percent of the work in 21 percent of the allotted time.

Received the annual report from Santek, the company that operates the county landfill west of Leggett. The report indicate that the amount of trash received by the landfill in the past six months was up by 5-7 percent from the previous six months. At its current volume, the 130-acre site will last for another 38.6 years.

Received an actuarial valuation report for the county’s retiree health benefits trust. Under the program, the county provides lifetime insurance to county employees who worked for 20 continuous years. In 2015, there were 11 former employees receiving the benefit at a cost of $66,000. In 2017, there were 21 former employees entitled to the insurance at a cost of $160,000. Murphy noted that at present, there are another 19 active county workers who will be eligible for the benefit when they retire.

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