SMITH COUNTY (TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH) - The county judge has whittled almost $9 million from department and elected official requests for 2014 but said more discussion is needed to settle three big items — salary increases for elected officials, more funding for Road and Bridge and new vehicles for some departments.
Smith County Judge Joel Baker said initial budget requests from countywide departments and elected officials had been reduced to about $2 million above expected revenues rather than $9.9 million in additional requests made by officials and departments when the budget process began.
Requests from various departments and elected officials topped $72 million versus 2013's $62.7 million revised budget, a 16 percent increase. The $64.3 million working budget would represent a 3.5 percent spending increase.
Revenues are expected to rise less than 1 percent, auditor Ann Wilson said recently. Baker and the court does not expect to consider a tax increase, which leaves department heads and elected officials to state their cases for funding and court members to discern needs from wants.
Baker said he hopes to have a proposed budget ready soon after the certified tax rolls are released in the next few weeks.
Department heads and elected officials are expected to give input regarding their budgets during that time.
Salary increases for all elected officials except county commissioners, such as the sheriff, constables and judges, are under consideration.
Baker said a salary survey of similar sized counties was done by the auditor's office and that increases of 20-30 percent would bring the offices to the median average of those counties surveyed. Employees, such as clerks, dump truck drivers and jailers, received raises of around 3 percent last year. He suggested pay increases ranging between 7 percent and 10.5 percent for elected officials depending on the office.
Commissioner JoAnn Hampton asked if county employees would be considered for a pay increase in this budget. Baker said employees had received increases in the past few years but that it would be a consideration.
"There are some instances where constables are making less than the deputies who work for them so we need to address the disparity in some of these offices," he said.
In a 2010 salary survey by the Tyler Morning Telegraph of 10 similar sized counties, Smith County sheriff was the lowest paid of the group. Sheriff J.B. Smith received more than $77,000 compared to 10-county average of more than $104,000.
The proposed budget also increases funding to the Road and Bridge department by $600,000 to $7.7 million but still remains low compared to its $10 million budget in 2009.
The court wants to "ease" back into a construction-maintenance program to address congestion and improve high volume roads that feed state highways.
Several departments, from constable offices, warrants division and the sheriff, have requested new vehicles to replace high mileage vehicles. Baker said he wants to look at the status of the vehicle fleet mileage, maintenance costs and determine which are most needed.
Baker said the budget is "close" and that some of the overruns could be absorbed via the county's reserve. But he wants to investigate the court's options, he said. He also said long-term infrastructure upgrades, including the judicial system software upgrade, estimated to cost $2 million-$3million, could be paid for in cash from the reserve as long as it left a balance above the court's reserve balance policy.
Commissioner Jeff Warr said there were also questions about how the new jail, which is expected to be finished by summer 2014 and will impact a few months of the 2014 budget, will impact future budgets. The sheriff is asking for 67 new jailers, but commissioners say efficiencies in the new jail should reduce inmate-to-jailer ratio needed to meet jail standards.
"We just need to have those conversations," he said, regarding staffing and funding needs for the jail expansion. "It's going to be a substantial amount but it was built to run efficiently."