Crafting a Budget in a High-Growth County
By Julie Anderson, Editor
“Fort Bend County is, and has been for many years, a high-growth county. In the 13 years I’ve been County Judge, we’ve added 400,000 to our population to now exceed 725,000 residents. That growth provides our greatest challenge as we strive to accomplish as much as possible in our areas of responsibility while preserving or lowering our tax rate and protecting our 20 percent homestead exemption and our special $100,000 senior citizen and disabled veterans’ exemptions.” Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert
Defining the County Budget
Legal document…approved expenditures…statement of revenue…expenses and fund balances
While these clinical descriptions of the county budget are indeed accurate, the budget document embodies much more to Commissioners Courts and the constituents they serve. The facts and figures in the Texas county budget often epitomize a way of life, or at least an intended way of life. For example, consider the following defining phrases used in a training session on the county budget:
- A plan of action for the fiscal year
- A policy statement by the Commissioners Court
- A vision statement for the County
“While the budget will be shaped to a great extent by the perceived mission, vision and priorities amongst the Commissioners Court members, elected officials and department managers, the adopted budget provides a financial roadmap for operations over the fiscal year,” shared Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert.
This roadmap is created by a “series of informed negotiations,” Hebert explained, and “represents a consensus agreement on the Commissioners Court as to the best means of expending limited resources during any given fiscal year to meet the county’s obligations under state law and established policy.”
Fort Bend County’s financial roadmap follows guidelines set out in the Fort Bend County Budget Policy and a timeline specified in the Fort Bend County Budget Calendar.
The first item on the budget calendar is to review and amend the budget policy, which takes place in January of each year. The 2017 Budget Policy, published on the county’s website, includes the following: “Fort Bend County is one of the fastest growing counties in the United States of America. As such, we experience increasing requirements for additional services and facilities continually. Given this factor, the Departments and Offices of the County must plan and execute needed new programs to best mitigate the cost to the County, while still meeting the needs of the citizens.”
The budget policy and budget calendar are developed and managed by the Fort Bend County Budget Office with the leadership of Fort Bend County’s budget officer, Pamela Gubbels, who also serves as the county investment officer.
As defined by Hebert, in Fort Bend County the budget officer is an executive manager charged by Commissioners Court with working with elected officials and department heads to develop a preliminary budget in accordance with budget policy, presenting that preliminary budget to the Commissioners Court for review over a series of budget hearings, compiling and publishing a final budget once approved by the Court, recommending a tax rate to balance that budget, and overseeing departmental budget performance throughout the fiscal year.
“Members of the Court have great confidence in Pamela Gubbels and her staff and work closely with her throughout the budgeting process,” Hebert offered. “Pam attends every court meeting along with the county attorney and the county auditor and is our first point of reference for any budget issues that might arise.”
Having an experienced, quality budget officer allows elected officials and budget managers to work logically with one person to try and use their budget in the best possible way within the constraints of the county, stated Fort Bend County Commissioner James Patterson.
“As an executive manager appointed by the Commissioners Court, I report directly to the Court,” Gubbels confirmed. Throughout the budget process, Gubbels’ office goes through several iterations of the budget, conducting budget meetings and workshops with the Commissioners Court as detailed in the budget calendar.
“The budget process is very time sensitive, especially during the final stages when public hearings and public notices are required,” Gubbels expounded. “It is important for me to communicate to the Commissioners Court as well as all elected officials, department heads, and budget coordinators when certain workshops and meetings will take place.
“Because most of this takes place during the summer months, the budget calendar is helpful to those vested in the process when planning vacations and time off,” she continued. “Last but not least, the budget calendar keeps my office organized and serves as my ‘To Do’ list.”
The most challenging part of preparing the budget is recommending a balanced budget to the Commissioners Court that utilizes taxpayer dollars most efficiently without increasing taxes, Gubbels declared.
“This is especially challenging because of the growth Fort Bend County has experienced over the past several years which necessitates increases in services,” Gubbels explained. “Fort Bend County strives to lower the tax rate or keep it level while providing more services to our citizens.”
Patterson echoed Gubbels with regard to the challenges presented by growth and noted the need for shared knowledge between the county and constituents.
“We have to show our taxpayers that in a fast-growing county we must continue to expand our court system, jail, road and bridge operation, etc., while making sure we do not overburden the people who must carry the load,” Patterson specified.
When it comes to educating the public, Hebert wishes that constituents had a more thorough understanding of the state/county relationship with particular emphasis on the following: The county is the local arm of the state, and the county’s duties and responsibilities are enumerated by state law.
The Judge also believes it is important for taxpayers to realize that the County Commissioners Court does not control the Central Appraisal District (CAD), an independent agency with its own board of directors.
“Just because it has ‘Fort Bend County’ in the name doesn’t necessarily mean the county is responsible for its actions,” Hebert emphasized. As with the CAD, the term Fort Bend County is a geographical reference for an independent governmental agency. In fact, the county is home to several dozen special districts, wholly separate from the county, whose name begins with Fort Bend County.
Another important concern to share with taxpayers and the state leadership is the consequence of proposed appraisal caps and revenue caps.
“We collect only property taxes at the county,” Hebert underscored, “and any legislative cap on appraisals or revenue will hurt all of us as we will quickly fall behind in our effort to meet the needs of our growing population.”
For example, when Hebert came into office in 2003, the county had no traffic signals and had to rely on cities and the Texas Department of Transportation to provide those signalization improvements.
“Today we have dozens at a cost of $250,000 to $1,000,000 or more, depending on the intersection configuration,” Hebert reported. “That signalization need will only continue to grow in the foreseeable future. A budget that is legislatively capped would not have given us the flexibility to address this local issue through a local action.”
For more information on the Fort Bend County budget process, go to http://www.fortbendcountytx.gov/ and search for “budget office.”