County budget discussions, reflective times near

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At present, the Austin County Commissioners Court have only just begun preliminary budget talks. Recently, chief appraiser Carmen Ottmer for the Austin County Appraisal District issued a proposed total rollback tax rate of 0.5641.

Commissioners made plans to refinance 2007 certificates of obligation and 2009 unlimited tax road bonds during a March 28 meeting using the services of U.S. Capital Advisors to set up the process. Refinancing the bonds is projected to save the county more than $400,000 over the bond’s life.

At the time of the March 28 meeting, Jim Gilley of U.S. Capital Advisors told the court, even though bond consolidation starts the payment process over from zero and the county’s debt may be higher, but the “rate is so much lower that your interest payments plus your principle is going to save you north of $400,000.”

The bond consolidation attempt has yet to take place, county auditor Billy Doherty said to commissioners on Monday.

“At the time, all of the flooding was happening and I wanted to pretty much table it until I found out exactly how much money y’all had left over,” Doherty said.

“So here in the next month or two if we want to do that we can,” County Judge Tim Lapham said.

Pct. 1 Commissioner Reese Turner asked if there was a deadline the court was committed to. Doherty said commissioners can recall the 2007 bonds any time they deem necessary, but a second interest payment is approaching, and he’d prefer commissioners wait until that time has elapsed.

“If we decide to do that within this period of budget discussions, our debt requirement is going to go down for the next fiscal year,” Turner said to Doherty, to which he confirmed.

According to the Texas Comptroller’s website, the rollback tax rate is the sum of the M&O (maintenance and operations) and debt service rates. Maintenance and operations deals with costs associated with effectively running a governmental entity, in this case, such as salaries, supplies and utilities on a daily basis.

Debt service covers interest and principle on bond obligations taken out to pay for buildings and infrastructure. Generally, the rollback rate is higher than the effective tax rate, unless a decrease in debt service occurs and then the rates will lean the opposite direction, which will occur if commissioners head in the direction of bond consolidation before the start of the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

“We’ll have plenty of meetings to discuss and look at it,” Lapham said to the court. By law, Ottmer has to have the rollback rate submitted to the court, so there’s ample time for budget negotiations to shift.

Property values over the past year have affected the county chief appraiser’s certified value report submitted to the commissioners from last fiscal year to the approaching 2016-2017 fiscal year.

In Carmen Ottmer’s report, last year the county’s appraised value was $2.6 billion. This year, it comes up just shy of $2.8 billion.

Pct. 1 Commissioner Reese Turner summed up the last two reports from the appraisal district stating that this year’s report represents “over 40 percent jump in the number of people protesting and, evidentially, the values of some of the properties have increased quite a bit, as well.”

Commissioners ceremoniously accepted the chief appraiser’s value report.

Another fixture in the upcoming budget is a 3 percent salary increase for county elected officials. Most of the court agreed with the 3 percent raise, or at least did not voice dissent, except for Pct. 3 Commissioner Randy Reichardt, who thought a 4 percent raise would be more prudent and help to retain talented staff down the line, instead of losing them to higher paying counties.

Austin County Sheriff Jack Brandes probably deserved the salary increase the most since for some time now his chief deputy Richard Holloman had been receiving higher wages.

The court decided to increase Brandes’ salary $200 more per month more than whatever his chief deputy receives.

Commissioners approved the salary order and proposed salary and allowance increases with Turner adding “that this is a maximum and we can adjust it down.”

Problems like the sheriff’s office will continue to happen “unless we make some distance …between elected officials and workers,” Reichardt warned his fellow commissioners. Commissioners accomplished the same goal last year when they increased all elected officials’ salaries across the board but decided not to take the raise themselves.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what you are taking home,” Lapham said. It’s just a salary order, Reichardt said to finish Lapham’s comments.

“I don’t think the mood of the taxpayers is such that we should be getting too frisky here,” Turner said. “We have a quantum leap in unhappy people and I don’t think it would be smart to waive a red flag in their face at this time. Despite all of the good reasoning, these are not good economic times.”

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