Fowler said the rate would not necessarily go up that much, but with legal requirements for giving early notice of a proposed tax hike, he said, his proposal allows the county commissioners court room for raising the rate by that level.
The court will not approve the budget and tax rate before holding its second public hearing Aug. 15.
“I do believe we need a tax increase of some kind,” Fowler said during a four-hour meeting Thursday interrupted by only one 10-minute break. “We need to build significant reserves now.
“We can lower the tax rate later,” the judge said. “If we have an emergency, we don’t have any money to pay for it.”
In a paid advertisement in Saturday’s Mirror, the county announced that the recommended tax rate was 57.66 cents per $100 valuation, about 5 cents above the current rate of 52.23 cents.
In an article published in the July 23 Mirror, Fowler had said that since the county’s taxable valuation did not change much from last year, he anticipated little if any impact on the tax rate, which he said could rise or fall less than one tenth of a cent.
But Fowler told the newspaper Thursday that he had been talking about the “effective tax rate” - the rate which would generate the same amount of revenue as last year - rather than the rate he would propose.
Fowler said he had thought the effective rate, calculated by County Tax Assessor-Collector Sherron Laminack, would drop. After he talked to The Mirror for the July 23 article, he said, he learned it increased slightly.
As for the tax rate and reserve funds, Pct. 3 Commissioner Frank Berka said at Thursday’s meeting the county needed about 3 1/2 to 4 months of operating funds in reserves. Pct. 1 Commissioner Paula Gentry added that Fowler’s proposed tax rate would be the same the county had in 1998.
Pct. 2 Commissioner Cole Hefner meantime pointed out, “We have cut our expenses by $2 million in the last four years.”
The final part of Thursday’s meeting, which continued uninterrupted for nearly 3 hours, began with the public hearing before the court and some county officials discussed Fowler’s proposed 2014-15 budget. Near the meeting’s end, Fowler said commissioners had added about $280,000 to his original proposed budget, not including possible pay raises, and he told The Mirror the total proposed budget is now about $11.5 million.
The court is considering the first pay raise for most county workers in about eight years. Fowler said he liked Gentry’s proposal to raise most workers’ annual pay by $150 for each year they have been with the county, up to a maximum of $1,200 for eight years.
But court members disagreed on whether to raise the salaries of road and bridge department workers who, unlike most county employees, received a raise last year.
Without formally voting, three of the court’s five members - Gentry, Fowler and Berka - said they opposed another raise for those employees, while Pct. 4 Commissioner Mike Spencer and Hefner favored it.
During the public hearing, Upshur County Democratic Party Chairman Dan Miles Jr. told the court it needed to do something for the county workers.
“In county government, there is no such thing as performance raises,” Fowler said at one point. “It is against the law.”
Gentry, meanwhile, ran into opposition when she asked the court to raise commissioners’ salaries by $2,442 annually so they would equal the salaries of justices of the peace.
Responded Hefner, “I’m not for that. I don’t think we work as much as the JPs.” Spencer said he could not think about both increasing taxes “and giving myself a raise.”
When Fowler asked the court if it would consider giving Gentry alone a pay raise, Berka objected that would set a “terrible precedent.”
Gentry replied it had been a “terrible precedent” that the court had reduced commissioners’ annual salaries by about $10,000 between the time she won election to her post in July 2012 and the time she took office the following January. She had unsuccessfully sought a pay raise for herself in her first year in office.
The court also discussed individual department budgets with some elected officials and department representatives. 115th District Judge Lauren Parish had a long discussion with the court concerning her contingency budget.
District Clerk Carolyn Parrott, who leaves office at year’s end, requested a raise for her workers. The court meantime informally approved lowering the salary for the clerk in Pct. 1 Justice of the Peace Laura Lee Norred’s office.
Gentry proposed considering eliminating one of the two clerk positions in Pct. 2 Justice of the Peace Lyle Potter’s office, pointing out he is the only justice of the peace with more than one clerk. Berka added that Potter’s office generated less money than Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace Rhonda Welch’s office, and that the Pct. 3 office does its own collections, while Potter’s does not.
Fowler suggested lowering the budget for Potter’s office to the highest-paid clerk’s salary.
County Tax Assessor-Collector Sherron Laminack revealed that “I am thinking about shutting (down) the (branch) Gladewater office,” which is open two days weekly. She said one of her employees had resigned and “we’re in a bind sometimes.”
When Berka asked if she could keep the Gladewater office open if the court allowed her a chief deputy, she said yes. Laminack also said she wanted to raise the salary for one of her workers.
Fowler told Jill McCauley, who oversees the county jail for the sheriff’s office, that the court had had “some concens” that although the jail population was “quite a bit lower ... our food costs are almost the same or more.”
When she was questioned about it, McCauley said she was present to listen, “not to answer a bunch of questions.” But she eventually said she thought the problem stemmed from grocery prices having increased.
When County Auditor Brandy Lee said the jail would probably exceed its food budget this fiscal year, Spencer asked her, “Where are they going to get the money from (to cover it)?”
Replied Lee, “That’s a good question.”
Other than Miles and a reporter, only two citizens spoke at the public hearing. David Nix said he opposed any budget cuts for law enforcement, while Ron Cook said it was “necessary to raise the tax rate” to move “forward.”