Published October 2011
Counties Spared Worst of State Cuts, Still Face Economic Uncertainty
As the 82nd Session of the Texas Legislature approached, county officials shuddered at the predictions. Facing a $27 billion deficit, lawmakers proposed major shifts in public policy which would have forced additional expenditures by counties or reduction in county services. Additional proposals suggested diverting dedicated revenues to other budget items to absorb the state’s shortfall.
County officials and support organizations including the County Judges and Commissioners Association mounted a united protest, making calls, sending e-mails, and testifying before committees, explaining the direct and indirect impact these decisions would have on county budgets and taxpayers. When the final gavel fell and lawmakers headed home, commissioners courts breathed a collective sigh of relief, as the adopted version of the state budget partially restored funding to most county programs. In addition, revenue caps and most unfunded mandates were defeated.
However, counties did not escape completely unscathed, as severe reductions in certain areas such as health care will undoubtedly affect local budgets and services. For example, the Department of State Health Services which issues state matching funds to counties to help offset indigent health care costs took a 53 percent hit to its budget.
Once a county spends 8 percent of its general revenue tax levy on indigent health care, the county can then request state matching funds, with the state reimbursing the county at least 90 percent of all costs above the 8 percent spending level.
If the department fails to provide state assistance funds, the county is not liable for payments for health care services provided to its eligible residents after the county reaches the 8 percent expenditure level, said Jan Maberry, manager of the DSHS County Indigent Health Care Program.
In FY2010, the state was able to reimburse 100 percent due to available funds, Maberry continued. However, the next biennium may be a different story.
State funding cuts to local law enforcement agencies for required training have already made local headlines as counties finalize their budgets. In fact, Van Zandt County Judge Rhita Koches addressed the issue in late August, as she recommended modifications to the proposed fiscal year 2012 budget.
Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education (TCLEOSE) funding has been used in past years to cover the cost of training and education for the sheriff’s office and precinct constables, paying a flat rate per agency and then a per employee rate above that. The money is gone, but the training mandates remain, requiring 40 hours of training every two years, Koches noted.
Van Zandt County Sheriff Pat Burnett reported to the commissioners court that a number of local law enforcement agencies are cooperating on training opportunities to help lower costs for all and decrease the hit to the county budget.
Along with the residual effects of the latest legislative session, counties continue to face the challenges associated with the national and global economy, such as inflation and increased costs in fuel and materials critical to county infrastructure.
At its Aug. 22 meeting, the Kendall County Commissioners Court acknowledged a 29 percent increase in fuel costs and authorized a transfer of $35,000 from the county’s reserve fund to the sheriff’s department to help fuel the department’s fleet. Later in the meeting, the court approved the proposed $24.58 million budget, which was approximately $3.1 million less than originally requested to carry out the business of the county for the coming fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
On Sept. 1, the Anderson County Commissioners Court approved a $17.4 million budget which included 10 percent across-the-board budget cuts by each county commissioner totaling $396,000, with road and bridge construction taking the largest hit.
As counties continue to grapple with the trickle-down effects of the national economy coupled with legislation passed every two years, the question remains the same: How can we boost county coffers?
When it comes to Texas county government, the precariousness of county coffers is nothing new. In its April 2005 Local Government Survey, “The Challenges of Governing,” the Office of the Texas Comptroller asked participants two key questions:
What are the greatest internal obstacles to fulfilling your organizational goals?
What are the greatest external obstacles to fulfilling your organizational goals?
Some 44 percent of respondents cited lack of revenues as their greatest internal challenge, while 37 percent said inadequate funding from the State of Texas represented their most significant external obstacle.
According to the survey analysis, an overwhelming majority – 82 percent – of the 540 county, city and special-purpose district officials who voluntarily responded to the survey supported legislation to prohibit unfunded mandates on local governments. In addition, officials reported that declining and insufficient revenues were being met with an increasing demand for services, driven by population growth, newly identified needs in the community, additional state laws, and changes in the economic conditions.
Survey Question: Specific Challenges Facing Your Governmental Unit
Answer: Unfunded mandates, aging population with no new revenue sources, disappearance of opportunity to attract workforce and new ventures. Tax base used to fund basic services and regulated and mandated obligations thus eroding ambition and hope.
As we look toward 2012 – and the inevitable budget cycle which will launch once again in April-May – County Progress wants to hear what your county is doing to meet these challenges.
For example, Rockwall County, Texas’ smallest county at 128.8 square miles, was recently recognized as the No. 1 county in the country for job creation by CNNMoney magazine, with 98 percent job growth from 2000-2010. Williamson County was ranked No. 3 on the same list. In the coming months, County Progress will be checking with these and other counties that are setting and achieving worthy goals.
While Texas’ 254 counties are nothing if not diverse, there is also a commonality shared by commissioners courts, which are tasked with following state mandates, providing services, and looking out for the taxpayer, all the while striving to better their communities.
As is often said at our educational conferences, there is no need to constantly reinvent the wheel. As you read about the successes of other counties – large and small, urban and rural – consider sharing your county’s story so others may learn from your valuable experience. H – By Julie Anderson, email@example.com