County Commissioners review 19-20 budget

The Lamar County Commissioners’ Court on Monday approved the budget for the coming fiscal year. Pictured, from left, are county clerk Ruth Sisson, Commissioner Lawrence Malone, Commissioner Lonnie Layton, Judge Brandon Bell, Commissioner Ronnie Bass, Commissioner Kevin Anderson and auditor Kayla Hall.

In a last ditch effort to get round-the-clock, guaranteed fire services to Lamar County residents, the Lamar County Commissioners’ Court narrowly passed an amended budget that will include $125,000 for negotiations with the Paris Fire Department.

The commissioners approved a Fiscal Year 2019-20 budget of $27,759,902 in total expenditures, $16,651,082 of which will be spent in the general fund. In revenue, the commissioners allotted for $21,532,336, with $39,209,968 in total available funds when including the current fiscal year’s leftover amount and transfers in.

Discussion once again arose over a proposal originally presented to the commissioners in August to contract with Paris Fire Department for assistance, at a cost of roughly $200,000 per year. Until Monday, the proposal seemed dead in the water after County Judge Brandon Bell said he thought the cost of the partnership was too high, a sentiment shared by most commissioners at the time.

Commissioner Ronnie Bass on Monday proposed seeking a contract that includes both Paris EMS and Paris Fire Department, and he proposed using $125,000 from the general fund for negotiations, bringing the total amount budgeted for the contract to $500,000. Currently, Lamar County contracts for services with Paris EMS for $375,000.

The amendment passed 3-2, with Commissioner Lonnie Layton and Bell voting against it. Bass and Commissioners Kevin Anderson and Lawrence Malone voted in favor.

“First and foremost, I’m concerned with the wellbeing of our citizens,” Bass said after the meeting. “That’s why I did this because I think more needs to go into keeping the people safe.”

County auditor Kayla Hall said that if negotiations fall through and a deal with Paris Fire Department cannot be reached, the $125,000 will sit in the budget, unable to be used until next year, and the contract with Paris EMS will remain at $375,000.

The budget itself also was approved on a 3-2 vote, again with Bell and Layton opposed.

“That change increased spending,” Bell said after the meeting. “If that money had been there to spend, I would’ve put it in my proposed budget, but I didn’t think it was healthy for our budget to do that… Our outside auditors tell us we need to make sure (the general fund) doesn’t get too low, and that did increase spending.

“That’s a significant amount with our budget, and we have to be pretty tight.”

There are some aspects of the budget Bell is proud of, including raises of at least $1,000 for every county employee across the board.

“Our goal was to correct some imbalances in positions i’ve been told have been going on for years,” the county judge said.

A significant amount of money was locked in unfunded state mandates, which are expenditures required by the state but that the county must pay for on its own, Hall said.

“There are so many of those,” Hall said. “The biggest one we had this year was the state legislature decided to give raises to every county court at law judge, but decided not to fund that so that counties had to put up north of $23,000 for that raise.”

Overall, Hall said, it’s difficult to calculate the total amount spent on unfunded mandates as several of them are interwoven into other departments.

“Take the jail, for instance,” Hall said. “You could say that the nursing contract in there is related to unfunded mandates because we’re required to have nursing, but there are pieces you can’t exactly pinpoint … because you can say, ‘Well this is an unfunded state mandate but we’d do it anyway.’”

The commissioners also voted to approve the property tax rate of 39.4 cents per $100 valuation, unchanged from the tax rate in FY 2018-19. Bass provided the lone dissenting vote on the tax rate.

Despite the rate staying the same, the budget for the coming fiscal year will raise more total property taxes than the current fiscal year’s budget by $721,676, or 5%, as property valuations throughout the county rose about 8%.

Bass voted against the tax rate, he said, because he thought more money should be spent in areas like street repair and public safety with less spent in others. He couldn’t vote against the budget, though, because he said doing so would ostensibly be voting against his own budget amendment.

One area in particular he thought should have seen less budgeted was in the amount set aside for Lamar County Courthouse repairs.

“The real reason I voted against it is there are some things in the budget I don’t think we should’ve spent that much money on,” Bass said after the meeting. “I’m concerned there’s so much revenue in there, and I didn’t think it’s fair to the taxpayer that there’s not more they can see outside these walls. Our roads are getting bad, fire protection, we need more deputies — that kind of thing.”

Tommy Culkin is a staff writer for The Paris News. He can be reached at 903-785-6972 or at tommy.culkin@theparisnews.com.

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