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August 9, 2012

County seeking two cent raise in property tax rate

GREENVILLE — The Hunt County Commissioners Court voted Wednesday to propose a two-cent increase in the county’s property tax rate.

“I don’t think the people are going to be that disappointed or upset,” said Commissioner Larry Middlebrooks, who offered the motion following an often contentious 90-minute session.

Earlier in the meeting, County Judge John Horn voiced the opposite opinion.

“There are people out there working two jobs, making $7 an hour, who can’t afford a tax increase,” Horn said.

The vote passed on a 3-1 vote, with Middlebrooks, Jim Latham and Kenneth Thornton voting in favor and Jay Atkins voting against.

The tax increase will be used to help pay for a proposed, across the board pay increase of $1,040 for each county employee, and to maintain the current level of county retirement and health benefits.

The meeting had been scheduled as the initial public hearing on the proposed county budget, but turned into a heated debate over whether the county can continue to sustain the benefits, which are claiming more of the county’s budget dollars.

“In a few years, out of every dollar a county taxpayer pays, 30 percent will be just for retiree benefits and long-term health benefits,” Horn said. “If we don’t address the issue now and make the necessary adjustments, we could lose it all.”

“Our long-term possibilities are scary,” Hamilton said.

Horn had proposed a $34.1 million budget for fiscal year 2012-2013, funded by a tax rate of 50.75 cents per $100 valuation, the same as in the current fiscal year. The proposed rate would have been above the effective tax rate — which would generate the same revenue as the current fiscal year — of 49.94 cents per $100 valuation.

The proposed budget did not include any pay raises or benefits for county employees.

Wednesday’s discussion was kicked off by Hunt County Court-at-Law No. 1 Judge Andrew Bench, who asked the commissioners to consider salary increases for some of the key personnel in his court and that of County Court-at-law No. 2 Judge Duncan Thomas. Bench noted how the court reporters, court coordinators and bailiffs in Hunt County’s two state district courts — whose budgets are not controlled by the county — were receiving raises this year. In the past, Bench said, the same county court positions had received equivalent pay as their district counterparts.

“All I’m asking is that our people be paid exactly the same amount for exactly the same work,” Bench said, also objecting to a line item in the proposed county budget which would have reduced the county’s contribution to the employee’s retirement funds from the existing 7 percent to 5 percent. Bench said the commissioners made the change without notifying any of the county’s elected officials.

“To a man, or woman, they are opposed to this change, both on their behalf and on behalf of their employees,” Bench said, quoting one estimate which said the move could lead to a 20 percent reduction in some employees’ retirement accounts. “Our employees are already underpaid for the work they do for this county.”

Latham said there was only one way to keep things as they are.

“Without a tax increase, it would be difficult if not impossible to fund the benefits and such that we’ve had before,” Latham said. “Without additional revenue, we won’t be able to do our job and we are going to get into a real jam.”

Middlebrooks said the commissioners should consider setting up a plan whereby newly-hired employees are not eligible to receive the same benefits as longer serving employees.

Horn said the problem now is that many of the county’s current employees will be eligible for retirement and full benefits in the next few years, forcing an increasing amount of the county budget to be devoted to funding the benefits.

“Those are circumstances that are way, way beyond my control,” Horn said.

Atkins explained the revenue in the budget for his precinct had been reduced by approximately 60 percent in the past two years, due to budget cuts and deferrals .

“I’ve got roads that are falling apart,” Atkins said. “I’ve got bridges in dire need of repair that I don’t have the money for. What do you think is going to happen if we hit them with a tax increase for salaries?”

Atkins said he could not vote for a tax increase or pay hike unless each of the commissioners’ budgets were restored.

“And that benefits 87,000 people,” Atkins said.

Hunt County Sheriff Randy Meeks, who was joined by a large group of individuals representing his department, said a pay raise was needed.

“I feel like we need a tax increase to take care of our employees,” Meeks said.

In the end, the commissioners voted unanimously to require a county employee to work eight consecutive years to become vested in the county retirement system, voted 3-1 with Atkins against to maintain the county’s current contributions to the retirement system and also to raise the proposed tax rate to 52.75 cents per $100 valuation.

The rollback rate, which would require voter approval to adopt, is 54.16 cents per $100 valuation.

The budget and tax rate must be approved prior to the start of the 2012-2013 fiscal year on Oct. 1.

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