‘Not out of the woods yet’ on budget crunch
David Barkemeyer
Milam County Judge

Settlement of the Cotton murder trial has raised questions regarding the 2014 budget since it included some $350,000 in the district court budget for anticipated costs of appeal of that case if such had occurred.

In addition, because of the loss of some $480,000 in ad valorem tax revenue due to the drop in the Milam County tax base, primarily because of the reduction in value of the Luminant power plants, we also had to eliminate needed pay increases as well as raise the county tax rate three cents to 63 cents, along with planning to reduce the county work force by an additional four people.

Even with that, the county’s $600,000-plus in anticipated year-end general fund reserves would be exhausted by year end 2014.

Now that the case has been resolved and is behind us, thankfully the cost impact is much less severe than had been planned for and the uncertainty of the situation is behind us. Also, we are now a participant in the Regional Public Defender Program for capital cases that in the future will offer us protection against such unexpected costs

With that said, we still need to be frugal as a county government. We aren’t “out of the woods” yet.

Even with the $350,000 in relief that’s afforded us by the trial settlement, we still will be faced with some depletion of the general fund reserve we’ve fought so hard to build up these past two years.

Sound fiscal management dictates that we need to continue to build our reserves toward a goal of some 20 percent of our annual budget, or about $2 million. Therefore, we need to continue with the budget that’s been set 2014. This means the workforce reductions that have been planned still need to be carried out by year end 2013.

What about pay increases? In my opinion, based on the 12- county survey that we conducted earlier this year, we should consider pay increases in Milam County as soon as we on the commissioners court as a consensus can agree that we can afford to implement them, beginning of 2015 at the latest.

I know it may seem unreasonable to do work force reductions and then proceed to give pay increases. But we must be efficient and, at the same time, we must pay employees properly.

The fact is we’re falling behind in our pay levels and, soon or later, we must correct that.

Another cause for concern is that we’ve just raised the tax rate to three cents.

That’s “shooting ourself in the foot” regarding county economic development. Being in the top 20 percent of Texas counties our size in tax rate is a big, big liability in terms of our ability to attract new businesses and industry to Milam County.

So, come 2015 budget time next year, I’m dedicated to dropping our tax rate back down, hopefully to 60 cents, which means our revenue will be limited.

We must hold the line and reduce our workforce as planned by year end 2013 and operate as planned without pay increases, at least through the first quarter of 2014 and see how we look on revenue, expenses and reserves.

If things look solid financially, if Luminant is holding steady, then we can take a look at some modest pay increases via line item transfer in the budget at that time so we don’t come to 2015 budget planning time even further behind on pay levels, and do our best to reduce the tax rate as much as possible in the next budget cycle.

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2013-11-28 digital edition

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