Somervell County was able to put a turbulent financial period to rest earlier this week with a special amended budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year.
After the Commissioners Court met Monday morning and conducted a budget workshop meeting that afternoon, the members voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve final amendments to the budget.
Commissioners Kenneth Wood, Larry Hulsey and Don Kranz plus Somervell County Judge Danny Chambers voted to approve the amendments. The fourth commissioner, John Curtis, was unable to attend either the Monday or Tuesday meeting.
The amended budget shows a total revenue increase of $5,600,679.00 million, and total expense increase of $1,101,353.95. The revenue increase included $400,000 in grant revenue money.
The adjustments and the votes by commissioners allowed for multiple items that had been on hold because of the tax revenue crisis that began last year.
The budget outlook had been strained by a shockwave delivered by Luminant, which owns the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant. The company challenged its assessed tax value by a stunning margin.
Somervell County’s Appraisal Review Board assessed the plant’s 2016 tax value at $1.868 billion. Luminant, however, stated that energy prices had reduced the plant’s taxable value, and brought a lawsuit requesting that it be reduced to $261 millon.
Late last year Wes Rollen, chief appraiser for the Somervell County Appraisal District, told the Glen Rose Reporter, “At one point, the difference was $1.5 billion. When you see those numbers, from our standpoint, they are definitely scary.”
On Sept. 26, 2016, commissioners unanimously passed a budget of $11,643,943 million, which was down 2.74 percent ($4.3 million) since the 2013 budget. They also voted to increase the tax rate by 5 cents, to .46159 per $100 valuation, which did not change with the amended budget.
The one-cent increase the year before that was the first time the tax rate had gone up since 2013.
The Somervell County Appraisal District, representing four entities — Glen Rose Medical Center Hospital District, the Somervell County Water District, the Glen Rose Independent School District, and the county itself — countered Luminant’s lawsuit with one of its own.
Luminant settled the lawsuit with two payments totaling $7,278,092.08 million to the county in October.
“The settlement is what led to the payment,” County Auditor Brian Watts stated, noting that local taxpayers should be pleased. He said he considered the lawsuit “a righteous fight,” and that the time and effort put into the lawsuit was worth it.
“Because of the settlement from the lawsuit, we were able to restore the budget line items we had to critically cut,” Watts said. “It was almost to the point that it was going to be affecting the taxpayers. Today’s action restored those services and puts the county back where we should have been.
“Even though there was no pay raise, we were able to give a small bonus and recognize what a great asset they employees are to the county.”
The amended budget includes employee bonuses, purchases of vehicles for the Sheriff’s Office, and pay increases for deputies who receive official certification in conversational Spanish.
The county’s fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.
County Judge Danny Chambers said, “Overall, it went really well for the county and for the employees. I didn’t see any downside, across the board.”
“We’re blessed to have the money,” Commissioner Don Kranz said after Tuesday’s vote. “I’m excited that employees are getting a raise.”
Wood said, “It was something we needed to do. It’s a good thing. We got that part behind us.”
Kranz also noted that making the purchase of the seven vehicles for the Sheriff’s Office now will make it possible to make future replacements on a more gradual, rotational basis. The approved vehicles to be purchased from Sam Pack Ford will include five 2017 Ford Interceptors and two 2017 Ford SSV (special service vehicles).
Seven vehicles with high mileage will be traded in, for a value of $27,500. Five have more than 100,000 miles and two suffer from ongoing high-expense issues, Chief Deputy Sheriff Dwayne Griffin told the commissioners.
Sheriff Alan West and Griffin told the commissioners that mileage wear and tear on a patrol vehicle is approximately three times that of a normal civilian vehicle.
The five Interceptors and two administrative SSVs will cost $342,028. They all will have four-wheel drive, and are equipped with necessary equipment such as heavy-duty alternators that can handle extended idling situations.
West said, “We’re excited our commissioners are working with us for our needs for the future, and to spread out the high mileage vehicles. In our line of work, 24-7 we’ve got officers on patrol.”
“We needed the vehicles to continue our support on the county, and we thank the court for assisting us,” Griffin said.
The Sheriff’s Office requested pay increases for bilingual employees in patrol, jail and dispatch by $50 per month if they gain official certification.
West and Griffin indicated they hope to eventually have at least one certified bilingual employee on duty for each shift, so that off-duty employees won’t have to be called in for that duty.
The bilingual certification pay raise passed, 3-1, with Kranz being in opposition.
West and Griffin also discussed a potential increase in Sheriff’s Office pay for employees who earn law enforcement certification above the “Basic” level, to $50 a month for Intermediate, $100 a month for Advanced, and $150 a month for Master level.
“This is just an incentive for our officers,” Griffin told the commissioners, explaining that it’s intended to “stop the revolving door” caused by officers leaving for better pay in other counties.
The commissioners took no action on that proposal.
They did, however, vote by 4-0 to increase pay for non-rotating night-shift (6 p.m.-6 a.m.) employees of the Sheriff’s Office by $100 a month.
A unanimous vote was cast approving a move of the items in the Somervell County Heritage Center currently downtown to space that has been provided in the Somervell County Library. Joan Taylor was named to be in charge of the move to the library. All items will be available to be returned to the original owners upon request, Judge Chambers noted.
The commissioners also voted, 4-0, for a new Emergency Response Agreement between the Somervell County Fire Department, the Sheriff’s Office and Luminant.