County to approve slight tax increase

General fund drops, but debt rate goes up

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After holding two public hearings in six days on the proposed tax rate for 2020-2021, the Austin County Commissioners Court is poised to pass a slight increase due in large part to an increase in debt.
The county is doubling its debt rate from $.03033 to $.06004 after spending voter-approved bonds to begin construction of the justice center in Bellville and a new EMS building in Sealy. That brought the overall tax rate up from $.56423 to $.56964 per $100 of property valuation. For property valued at $200,000, the increase would be $10.82 a year.
Despite giving themselves and all elected officials a traditional 3% raise and increasing salaries for many county employees, the commissioners and county judge were able to lower tax rates for the general fund, road and bridge fund, FM and Lateral fund, and the total operating rate.
The commissioners are scheduled to vote on the tax rate at the next meeting on Sept. 28.
The general fund went down from $.3857 to $.36673, and the total operating rate dropped three cents from $.5339 to $.5096.
During a public hearing held both online and at the county courthouse on Sept. 8, only one person spoke. Linda Neihaus took the four commissioners and County Judge Tim Lapham to task for giving themselves raises and raising taxes while so many people are suffering financially because of the pandemic.
“My only comment about this is, as always, I never like to see a big increase,” she said. “This year it’s not a big increase; it’s a tiny increase, however, I will say that with the overall economic situation with so many people having lost their jobs, people have problems paying their mortgages, they are not able to make their daily expenses, and so for the commissioners court to approve salary increase in this condition rates a no thank you.”
Neihaus said the county has its budget process backward. She said they should start with a budget and fill it in with the needs rather than take requests and build the budget to fit the demand.
“I’m totally against what you are doing. Not only should there not have been a tax increase, you should have a lower tax rate in order to be respectful and appreciative of the taxpayers who pay your salary,” she said.
At the hearing to start the meeting on Monday, Sept. 14, no one spoke.
In the regular meeting, the commissioners discussed and approved the compensation order, which sets the salaries for the year. Commissioner Bobby Rinn, who voted against the raise for elected officials, complained that the process wasn’t fair to everyone because some employees got larger raises than others and some didn’t get any at all. Lapham and Commissioner Randy Reichardt explained that raises for employees are given by their department heads, who are elected officials. They said giving positions instead of individuals salary increases would cost taxpayers more. When the vote was called, it passed 3-1 with Rinn opposing. Just before the vote, Commissioner Mark Lamp went on record again stating the he was refusing to accept his travel allowance.
In other action related to employee’s income, the commissioners voted to opt-out of the Presidential Memorandum deferring Social Security tax withholdings from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31. Lapham said had they participated, employees would have received a tax break up front that they would in turn have to pay back, thus lowering their paychecks beginning in January.
The commissioners also voted to pay off election equipment that was purchased mostly with the use of grant money. They also approved the list of election judges, alternate judges, and clerks for the Nov. 3 General Election. Election Official Kim Rinn said there is still a need for volunteers to serve as election judges.

In other action, the commissioners:
• Heard three residents complain about road conditions on Gindorf Road and Diamond Drive at Gindorf Estates.
• Voted to end the burn ban.
• Pay a $7,000 bill for architectural plans for an EMS station in Industry.
• Entered into interlocal agreements with Fort Bend and Travis counties for postmortem exams by their medical examiners.

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