The vote to approve UCAD’s $790,755 overall budget for 2014 came after two Upshur County Commissioners had objected to the proposed pay raise the previous week, and after the district’s board held a Monday public hearing where a handful of citizens protested the pay hike.
The county government, which is a separate entity from the Appraisal District, finances 26.9 percent of the UCAD budget (an estimated $213,000 for the coming year), more than any taxing entity except the Gilmer Independent School District.
All four county commissioners were among about 17 citizens attending the public hearing, which preceded the board meeting at which the budget was approved. Once the afternoon gatherings ended, the three commissioners who also attended the board meeting expressed unhappiness to The Mirror that a majority of directors approved the proposed raises.
Whether the budget is finally approved or not is now up to some 17 governmental bodies (including some which are not centrally located in Upshur County) which tax property in the county and elect the UCAD board of directors. (Two other entities also tax property in the county, but have no say in electing the board or voting on its budget.)
Unless at least nine of the 17 specifically approve a resolution rejecting the proposed budget within 30 days from last Monday, it will stand as approved, district Chief Appraiser Sarah Curtis told The Mirror. If an entity doesn’t vote on the budget, that is tantamount to approving it, she said.
Upshur County Commissioners Court was scheduled to discuss and possibly vote on the matter at a 9 a.m. meeting Friday, after The Mirror’s deadline for this issue. The other entities which have a say on the UCAD budget include nine school districts and seven incorporated cities.
Besides Gilmer, the schools include Big Sandy, Ore City, New Diana, Pittsburg, Gladewater, Harmony, Union Grove and Union Hill.
The cities include Gilmer, Big Sandy, Gladewater, East Mountain, Ore City, Warren City and Clarksville City (a municipality which has one taxable property in the county, and contributes less than $2 yearly to the UCAD budget.)
Two other entities which help finance UCAD, the Kilgore College district and the Upshur County Emergency Services District, have no vote under state law on the district budget. Mrs. Curtis said she did not know why they don’t, and she said that the incorporated Upshur County city of Union Grove has no vote, either, because it levies no city property tax.
During Monday’s 39-minute budget hearing, UCAD board Chairman David Clay said the pay hike was proposed because his entity competes with other Appraisal Districts for appraisers, and “we want to keep our employees” because training a new appraiser costs $10,000.
Clay said the board didn’t want appraisers to be “discouraged by working for us.” He said they were local people doing a good job, and “All of us up here (on the board)—we’re taxpayers, too. . . We try not to take advantage (of taxpayers).”
Mrs. Curtis also defended the hikes, which she had proposed, saying the district is “not up to average” in paying employees, compared with comparable counties’ Appraisal Districts.
She also noted UCAD, which sets the taxable valuations on property in the county, had returned more than $146,000 in leftover budgeted funds to its supporting taxing entities over the past four years.
But on the Friday before the hearing, Pct. 3 Comm. Frank Berka and Pct. 2 Comm. Cole Hefner had expressed opposition to the proposed pay raise on grounds that the county had recently suffered a major budget shortfall, and that county employees have received no pay increase in nearly seven years. On Monday, Pct. 4 Comm. Mike Spencer joined them in objecting to the UCAD proposed raise.
During the hearing, Mrs. Curtis said the proposed raises constituted $18,000, some $4,000 of which would come from the county government. The district’s overall proposed budget is about $15,000 higher than the current 2013 budget, she told The Mirror.
Concerning the proposed pay hikes, “My people work every day to earn them,” the chief appraiser said. After detailing how county employees have more insurance and retirement benefits than UCAD workers, she also said the proposed five percent raise would still not result in “touching” what she termed a “very large difference” in benefits.
“I’m not trying to put them (UCAD employees) at the top of what everybody else is paying,” said Mrs. Curtis, who said she was instead trying to get their salaries “in the middle” of what other Appraisal Districts pay.
When one man complained about everyone getting the same percentage of raise regardless of their work performance, Mrs. Curtis said employee evaluations performed each December determine whether workers will get their full increase. She said not everyone does, and Clay said the district had fired a few people.
Citizen Huey Mitchell asked where the money for the raises would come from, and Clay responded that some would come from taxing entities, while the rest might come from cutting out other items now in the budget.
When Mrs. Curtis noted that the district had returned unused funds to taxing entities in recent years, Mitchell said, “My concern is, nobody returns anything to me.” Clay indicated that was the taxing entities’ responsibility.
H.M. (Butch) Ragland asked Mrs. Curtis, “If you returned money, why do you need more?” She replied that by law, the district had to return the money because it “can’t designate funds for future raises.”
Upshur County Republican Party Chairman Cynthia Ridgeway complained that taxpayers are “not seeing corresponding benefits” from the returned funds, and asked what the district had done “above and beyond” to merit a raise. At that point, Clay cited the district being in a “competitive situation” with other Appraisal Districts for employees.
Berka charged that the district had “an attitude of ‘I can, so we will.’”
“We’re in difficult times,” the Pct. 3 commissioner added. “Just because you deserve it doesn’t mean it’s (funds) available to do it.”
Said Mrs. Curtis, “If I don’t put in a raise for my employees, nobody else will.”
Lewis Hewitt said that if district employees want to leave, let them go to Gregg County to work and spend money for the gasoline to commute there.
During the first part of the hearing, Mrs. Curtis had detailed how county workers have more benefits than UCAD employees, but said that was not a factor in seeking the raise. She told The Mirror she brought up that issue because people who came to protest the pay increase, on grounds that the county workers haven’t received one, didn’t mention that district workers have considerably fewer benefits.
She told the hearing she didn’t oppose county employees receiving a raise, nor did she “begrudge” their benefits.
In a handout sheet summarizing the county’s benefits compared to the district’s, Mrs. Curtis said county workers paid $168 monthly to insure their entire families, while the county pays the remaining cost. District employees pay $882 monthly to insure their families, and the district pays none of that amount, the sheet said.
During the hearing, she also noted that UCAD workers pay a higher percentage of their paychecks toward retirement, have a lower employer match, have lower guaranteed earnings, and that, unlike the county, the district doesn’t pay Social Security.
During the board meeting, Berka asked the history of raises for UCAD employees, and Mrs. Curtis said they received hikes both last year (for the current 2013 year) and probably for the years 2009, 2010, and 2011—but not for 2012.
During the 12-minute board meeting, Directors Clay, Darrell McKnight and Peter John Sullivan voted to approve the proposed budget, while Jared Maddox opposed it. (Maddox declined comment after the meeting on his vote.)
Board member Conrad Coppedge, who attended the public hearing, left before the actual board meeting which followed.
Hefner said he planned to vote against the proposed budget when the Upshur County Commissioners Court considered it.
“I appreciate the Appraisal Board’s position. . . I understand where they’re coming from,” he said. “But given the financial situation of the county and the fact we haven’t been able to afford raises for our own employees, I’m opposed to the budget.”
Hefner said he had no “animosity” toward UCAD, saying it has “done a good job” of managing its budget, and that “everyone from the Appraisal District has been very gracious and professional.”
Berka told the newspaper he is “adamantly against” the proposed pay raise. But, with almost all other governmental entities paying far less of the UCAD budget than the county government, he predicted the “payroll increase will come because those other taxing entities will be asleep at the wheel.”
Berka, an auto dealer, also reiterated what he had said at the hearing—that what the Appraisal District was proposing was comparable to his calling up his customers who had bought vehicles in the last one or two years, and asking them to send him an extra $20 per vehicle because “my people think they deserve a raise.”
Spencer said, “I hate to see the Appraisal District take money from the county when the county cannot afford raises for its own people.”
“The Appraisal District works for the government, and the commissioner works for the citizens,” Spencer added.
Pct. 4 Comm. Paula Gentry attended the hearing, but not the board meeting following, and has made no comment on the proposed raises.
Monday’s events also resulted in other reactions.
Upshur Republican Chairman Mrs. Ridgeway said in an e-mail that she urged the Big Sandy School Board on Monday night to reject the UCAD budget, and that she planned to address other school boards concerning the matter.
One of the UCAD directors had some criticism for the county government, as Coppedge told the newspaper after the public hearing, “I’m ashamed that the unelected employees of Upshur County haven’t had a raise in seven years.”
On another matter during the hearing, Berka told the board a rumor was circulating that the Commissioners Court was demanding that the district increase taxable property values, and Clay replied that was “absolutely not” true.