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County spending

When Ellis County voters approved a 0.5-percent sales tax back in May, they did it in overwhelming fashion. Granted, turnout for that election only was 18 percent, but the extra surcharge was favored by 82 percent of the voters.

At the time, we were hard-pressed to determine if people actually recognized the need for a new EMS/rural fire building and renovations for the jail, courthouse and Law Enforcement Center -- or if they felt strong-armed by the threat of higher property taxes to accomplish the same.

Either way, most reasonably minded residents would not have expected the upcoming budget to be loaded with increased expenditures. In fact, after noticing the county's total assessed valuation going up 7.4 percent between this year and next one might have thought the mill levy would drop an equivalent amount and keep expenses in check.

An examination of the proposed 2014 budget released last week shows that commissioners attempted to do just that. The mill levy did go down from 35.55 to 33.886, but that reflects only a 4.7 percent decrease. As such, the tax base will produce an additional $370,538 in the coming year. How much of that will come from the real estate, personal property and oil and gas sectors is unknown at this point.

Still, the modest 2.6 percent boost in ad valorem taxes somehow will allow an almost 36 percent jump in spending. Net expenditures are expected to be $19.5 million this year and soaring to $26.5 million in 2014.

That $7 million increase not only catches your attention, it makes you catch your breath. Again, only on first blush.

Half of the increase is explained away by the May election, when we told commissioners to bring the county buildings up to date. The sales tax is forecasted to generate $3.4 million next year.

That leaves $3.6 million yet to be reconciled. Approximately $1.7 million is in the emergency disaster and contingency fund that wasn't spent in 2013; accounting rules force it to be added as an expense in 2014. Another $530,000 is found in a general obligation bond to pay for road projects. There is $712,000 additional being placed in the solid waste fund, as the county anticipates an extremely large capital outlay when the landfill is full. Employee raises will cost $263,000; employee retirement funding is up $130,000; and new hires are being added in the county attorney's office, jail, rural fire and EMS.

Of the numerous other variances found in the budget document, the overall changes basically zero out.

This actually is a pretty solid budget. The process could stand improvement, but that's practically impossible with so many elected officials in department head positions. County Administrator Greg Sund only has so much authority to bring a comprehensive, accountable budget together.

For comparison's sake, The Hays Daily News examined county budgets going back to 2007. From that starting point through next year, the overall assessed valuation has increased 38.5 percent. Ad valorem taxes over the same period went up 39.7 percent. That's more exact than the proverbial "close enough for government work."

Net expenditures have risen 67 percent over those same eight years. Motor vehicle, mineral production, delinquent and other taxes bring in revenue. Increased fees from health services, EMS, court services, herbicide sales, mortgage registrations and many others generate dollars for the county -- and eventually have corresponding increased needs for more employees to provide the services. State aid for highway projects is a mainstay, unlike the portion of the sales tax the state now keeps for itself.

The bottom line is that county government is holding up to the responsibility of being good stewards of public money -- and trust. Sometimes one just has to dig a little deeper into the budget to arrive at that conclusion. The $7 million budget increase cannot be taken at face value.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net