The court raised the tax rate from the current 52.23 cents per $100 valuation to 56.66 cents. That came after Pct. 1 Commissioner Paula Gentry’s motion to approve County Judge Dean Fowler’s recommendation to increase it to 57.66 cents died for lack of a second.
Gentry joined Pct. 4 Commissioner Mike Spencer and Pct. 3 Commissioner Frank Berka in approving the 4.43-cent hike, which Spencer said is effectively a 6.5 percent tax increase. Pct. 2 Commissioner Hefner and Fowler voted against it.
Fowler called The Mirror afterward to explain, “I just wanted to say the reason that I voted no is because I believe that the court should have adopted the entire proposed rate. But I do appreciate the commissioners’ hard work and the negotiations and the discussion that occurred today.”
Fowler said he believed the county needed more in reserve funds than the 56.66-cent rate will provide. On Monday, he added that his originally proposed budget would have provided $774,000 in reserves, but that the rate which was approved will provide about $240,000.
When he proposed the tax hike recently, Fowler said that if the county had an emergency, it had no funds to cover it.
After the judge contacted the newspaper Friday, Spencer called The Mirror and said, “We were able to negotiate a tax rate that was lower than the proposed tax rate.”
All commissioners but Hefner voted to approve the more than $11.6 million budget, which provides longevity-based annual pay raises of up to $1,200 for all employees except three in the Road and Bridge Department, and for all elected officials except the four commissioners.
They are the first raises for most county employees in about eight years.
Workers will receive $150 for each year they have worked for the county, up to a maximum of $1,200, while elected positions will receive $1,200.
Before approving the final total budget, the court voted 2-1 to include the pay raises in it. Spencer and Hefner approved the motion, Gentry opposed it and Berka abstained.
Gentry said Monday “I voted no because road and bridge (workers, who almost all received a pay raise in the new budget) got a substantial raise last year” when nobody else did. Gentry, who proposed the longevity-based raises for other employees, said, “I was trying to do a happy medium.”
The proposed tax hike had brought protests from two citizens, David Watts Jr. and John Melvin Dodd, at a more than hour-long public hearing preceding the vote. Another citizen, Ron Cook, said he favored raising taxes, while a handful of others asked questions and/or made comments which did not indicate whether they supported the tax hike..
Dodd said some citizens are “already in dire straits” and that a tax increase would cause “incredible problems.” He argued some taxpayers would be “hurt tremendously,” being forced to cut their food budget and perhaps having to live without air conditioning and heating.
He also said a family which bought 105 acres in the county must sell the property because “there’s no way in the world they can pay the taxes.” He asked the court to cut expenses “somewhere” instead.
Watts, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican Party nomination for state land commissioner earlier this year, told the court Fowler’s proposed tax hike represented “potentially a 10 percent increase” in the rate, and that it would raise 10.43 percent more revenues than last year. He charged such a budget would be “obscene.”
He said that two years ago, he had talked to Fowler about a tax increase which was approved then, and “I was assured repeatedly it was temporary. It was not,” Watts said, charging there is now a “lack of credibility.”
The county’s tax rate was about 42 cents per $100 valuation in 2009, and since then, the county has increased the adopted tax rate four straight years prior to this one, Watts said. “I urge you to vote no” on the tax hike, he told the court.
Hefner said the court is drawing extra revenue from new properties. He also asked Watts what the court should do when oil and gas revenues “plummet? Take deputies off the street?”
Watts replied that four years of tax rate and revenue hikes were “enough.”
County Auditor Brandy Lee said the court once used reserve funds to keep tax rates low, “but now we have no more reserves.”
Hefner added that annual revenues from justice of the peace courts, and from housing jail inmates from outside the county, have dropped more than $1 million. Meantime, the court has “radically cut expenses,” spends less per citizen than Wood and Gregg counties, “and we have no debt,” added Hefner.
Berka maintained the court had provided “good stewardship,” and that further cuts would be insignificant. In addition, he said, “We’ve not built any reserves.” Berka said Fowler’s proposed tax rate would take five years to build $3.5 million in such funds, and “(We) owe it to our county to be solvent, to be prepared.”
Noting that Upshur’s budget items had been “drastically cut,” and that neighboring Wood County’s budget is $18 million, Berka added, “It’s not that we have a spending problem. Not now. We did (before). . .We (now) have a revenue problem.”
As for having reserve funds to cover potential emergencies, Watts said “interest rates are at a historic low” if the county needed to borrow money. He said the court was telling citizens, “We should take money out of your pocket for a maybe.”
But Berka said the county had gotten in trouble when it borrowed money.
Concerning Watts’ statement that he had been told the tax hike in 2012 would be temporary, Hefner said capital murder cases had arisen that the court had to fund the next year.
When Watts suggested that the court might tap into any reserves, Berka said Wood County had $9.1 million of such funds, and that Van Zandt County is in trouble because “their people don’t want them to raise taxes.”
Watts replied, “You’re going to have to reduce spending further.” When Berka asked how, Watts suggested paring funding for employees’ health insurance, not giving pay raises this year, and building reserves slowly.
Watts also said there should be other ways to raise revenues than ad valorem taxes.
Dodd added, “We need industry” to bring in revenue. He said the court should work on that.
Spencer said he was embarrassed at the county’s financial situation, but that “we got wrong information” on its financial status in the past and “it just keeps biting us in the rear.”
“We’re playing catch-up,” said Spencer. Reiterating Hefner’s point that revenue from justice of the peace courts and housing out-of-county inmates had declined. Spencer said tax revenue was the only source of funding the court could control.
“Where can you come up with a million or two (in) cuts?” he continued, saying he had looked. As far as pay raises, “We are way behind on that. . .(We) sure can’t hire competent people” under current pay, Spencer argued.
When Jimmy Caughron asked how a tax increase would affect senior citizens, Fowler said taxes would increase on their property other than their homesteads.
Fowler then addressed Watts’ statement that the proposed tax hike would raise 10.43 percent more revenues. The judge said that under regulations, he thought that figure was the clearest way to explain it, but that the state comptroller’s calculation was that Fowler was recommending a tax hike of slightly below 8 percent.
Gentry cited several years when Upshur’s tax rate dropped, saying “It does go down.”
“This year, there is no debt. We paid off our loans. We’re climbing out of the hole,” Gentry argued.
Citing criminal justice-related costs, she added that “there are a lot of things that we can’t control.”
Berka cited legallyrequired costs the county must pay for indigent health care. Watts responded that everyone in the room had costs they had no control over.
When Watts’ wife, Desiree Watts, said it seemed like no one wanted to talk about bringing revenue into the county, Berka pointed out the court had granted a tax abatement to one new industry (near Ore City.)
Hefner added, “I have a problem with taking your money by force” and giving a check to business to come into the county. He also said the county has an economic development corporation.
Spencer returned to the matter of current spending, saying it is “not out of control.” Hefner then said the court had cut $2 million from the budget in the past, and Gentry said the county spent $68,517 on prisoner medical costs, not counting more than $39,000 for their prescriptions. (By law, the county must pay those costs.)
In addition, Spencer said valuations on which the tax rate is based had dropped, and he would like to know why. He further said taxpayers could “pay a little bit now or a lot later.”
In discussing pay raises, Jordan asserted that he “can’t find people to fill positions” in the Road and Bridge Department, which he said is four or five employees short.
He additionally said “anybody worth their salt” is going to work in the oil field or elsewhere.
Said Gentry, “We’re losing good people. . .We can’t hire people.”
When the court raised the issue of exempting Jordan and two of his workers from the pay raises, he said he would forgo raising his pay, but that he had a problem with the fact that the only two employees not receiving raises were in his department.
When Harris pointed out that Road and Bridge employees got a raise last year, and nobody else did, Jordan said, “I’m still behind.”
Once the public hearing ended and the court took a recess during its nearly 3 1/2-hour meeting, commissioners acted to name East Mountain police officer Mark Nichols as the county’s emergency management officer. He will also remain as a city police officer, and Fowler said the city of East Mountain had agreed to let him use its vehicle, gasoline and work partly on the city’s time.