Last week, Johnson County elected officials and department heads delivered their budget requests for the upcoming fiscal year. Johnson County commissioners on Monday began the process of approving or denying those requests and formulating a tax rate. The county’s new budget year begins Oct. 1.
Johnson County Judge Roger Harmon began Monday’s budget on an overall upbeat note.
“It’s a good day for Johnson County and I think a good day for the people of our county,” Harmon said.
Good because revenues are up and growth robust.
“We’re in good shape this year,” Harmon said. “I’ve been on been on both sides of that fence and it’s never fun to ask residents to raise their taxes.”
The hope this year, Harmon said, is to cut the tax rate.
“The good news is I think we can lower taxes substantially, not just a little bit,” Harmon said. “Of course, that depends on three votes on this court.”
Commissioner Larry Woolley voiced support of the idea.
“I’d like to see us grant some relief to homeowners who have been hit with increased appraisals,” Woolley said. “I’d encourage our other cities and school districts to consider doing the same.”
Another idea, which should cut the property tax rate by at least another 2 cents, is to pay the bond on the Guinn Justice Center off early.
“Our debt rate is extremely low already,” Harmon said. “I’m going to make the recommendation to the court that we lower it more by paying the balance of the Guinn Justice Center, which is about $2.3 million. Our fund balance is strong enough that we can pay that off and I think we can pay cash for some of the equipment items that have been asked for too.”
Barring something drastic, Johnson County should continue to boom for the foreseeable future, Harmon said.
“This county is in the process of the greatest growth we’ve ever had,” Harmon said. “Unless we have a major downturn in the U.S. economy I look for the continuation of our county doing well.”
Which, Harmon said, may well lead to tax cuts in the years ahead.
Or not depending on recent state legislation, set to take affect next year, which caps growth at 3.5 percent and requires voter approval to increase that number.
“I’ve been here 25 years,” Harmon said. “And this court has always been responsible. But we have a state legislature now that thinks they can control our county better than we can. That really bothers me. That someone sitting in Austin, Texas who never comes to our meetings and have no idea of what responsibilities we have in this county. Then, on top of that, they pass measures that cost us money. And yet they want to restrict us in growth. It makes no logic.
“We can always go to the public and say, ‘We’ve got this 3.5 percent tax cap but to provide the services we need we’re going to have to exceed that cap this year,’ and try to sell that to the voters in November”
Recent changes restricting the ability of cities to annex also pose a challenge to the county, Harmon said.
“With the new annexation law there will be no more annexation unless it’s voluntary,” Harmon said. “With that comes additional requirements and costs. All these subdivisions being built in the unincorporated areas of the county will eventually become our responsibility to take care of. So with that come additional costs. But the Texas Legislature, in their great wisdom, wants to restrict us.”
The good news, Commissioner Rick Bailey said, is that county coffers are healthy now.
“We’re in a position to do a lot of good things for our citizens and employees and get some of our debt paid off,” Bailey said.
Bailey said the court also needs to be keep in mind next year’s budget when the tax cap goes into effect. Woolley asked Tax Assessor/Collector Scott Porter to present tax and budget numbers under both current conditions and as if the tax cap were already in effect. Doing so, Woolley said, will give commissioners an idea of what to expect and plan for next year.
Harmon proposed a cost of living adjustment for employees of either 2 percent or 3 percent. The 2 percent increase would add about $643,000 to the budget. The 3 percent about $989,000.
Commissioner Jerry Stringer called for addressing employees first.
“I think we should approach them first,” Stringer said. “In previous years we did everything with the budget and then, with whatever crumbs were left over, we addressed our employees. Time and time again it’s been said our employees are the greatest asset we have in our county. I agree 100 percent. I suggest we put them first on the list and decide what we want to do for them. If somebody doesn’t get a copy machine or whatever with what’s left over I think our employees are much more important.”
Commissioners made no decision on Monday but appeared to lean toward the 3 percent increase.
Following that, they spent the rest of the morning going through requests department by department to provisionally decide what to approve and not approve.
“I’ll be right up front,” Harmon said as the process began. “We got a lot of new requests and there’s a lot of them I don’t think we need to do. But again, that will be up for this court to decide.”
Harmon also addressed the issue of rising property values, something officials blame in part on growth in Johnson County and increased demand.
“There have been a lot of complaints about valuations in Johnson County,” Harmon said. “I want everyone to know that the Johnson County Commissioners Court does not control that. The basic control of the appraisal districts, other than they do have a board, comes from the state comptroller.”
Commissioners broke for lunch having made no final decisions on department requests or property tax rate numbers.