Over the objection of County Judge Brandon Bell, Lamar County Commissioners added $750,000 to the county’s Road & Bridge fund in the 2021-22 budget and passed the highest tax rate allowed without voter approval at a meeting earlier this week.
After lengthy discussion, the judge staved off an attempt to add a seventh employee to each precinct work crew, something the commissioners say they need to keep up with an increasing workload brought about by a constant increase in county population.
Ultimately, the court unanimously passed a 36.08 cent tax rate per $100 valuation to support a $25.6 million budget, a $2.6 million increase over the 2021 budget of $23 million. The county’s general fund balance, estimated to be $14 million at the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, could drop to roughly $9.5 million by Sept. 30, 2022, as a result of an estimated $19.9 million in expenditures and $15.3 million in revenues, according to budget documents.
Commissioner Lonnie Layton joined Bell in opposing votes to the $750,000 transfer to Road & Bridge for Precincts 1, 3 and 4 as well as increases in the salaries of a couple jail detention officers and the sheriff’s administrative assistant. Both also voted against the budget, which passed 3-2.
“It is irresponsible to dip into fund balance as much as this change to my proposed budget necessitated, but I have but one vote on the court,” Bell said after the meeting.
The court unanimously approved a 1% increase to retiree pay at a cost of roughly $25,000, added $12,000 to the sheriff’s office budget for cellphones for patrol officers and approved $23,000 for fringe benefits for the addition of an auto task force officer through a grant that pays his base salary. The court also approved needed corrections in the judge’s proposed budget.
Earlier in the meeting, Tax Assessor Haskell Maroney and Lamar County Sheriff Scott Cass praised the court for its efforts to work together for the good of the county, and Cass encouraged commissioners to inform the public about the problems they are facing because of the rising cost of road materials and the labor needed to provide good roads for a growing county population.
“Y’all got your hands full trying to take care of these roads,” Cass said. “We all want good roads, and you need to let the public know of the problems you are facing because of what it costs to buy rock and oil and the manpower and equipment needed to do the work that is expected of you.”
“There’s more people in Lamar County than there is in the City of Paris, and people are moving out to the county more and more,” Cass continued as he addressed commissioners and an audience devoid of anyone from the public. “I just wish this place was full, but I hope you will take the opportunity to say what your struggles are.”
Maroney praised the court for its efforts.
“This is my 11th budget, and I will say that this is one of the easiest commissioners’ courts I have ever dealt with,” Maroney said. “Y’all are making some really tough decisions and you can’t correct everything at one time, but you’re making an effort to correct what you think are the major issues, and you’ve got us headed in a good direction.”
Commissioners did take the opportunity to talk about their needs.
Layton said he is overwhelmed by the growth in his precinct with a new subdivision in the far western part of the county and more growth expected.
“We’ve got the same number on our crews as 30 years ago, and I am having trouble just keeping up with the number of culverts we’re having to put in,” Layton said.
Kevin Anderson compared the road situation to that of a building contractor.
“If you told one contractor he had to build every house, do every remodel and every repair, that’s kind of what it’s like for Road & Bridge,” Anderson said. “If you told one contractor he would have to do all that, the first thing he would say is, ‘Man, I am going to need some more people.’”
Ronnie Bass said Road & Bridge needs to grow with the county to take care ofmissioner Kevin Anderson compared the situation to that of a building contractor.
“Without our road system, you’re not getting home, you’re not getting to work,” Bass said. “With these new projects, we are building roads to hold weight and it takes a lot of bed preparation work, a lot of ditch work, and a lot of different things that need to go into that road.”
Later in the meeting, Anderson proposed increasing road crews to seven workers and funding the increase by giving 0.005% more of the county budget to Road & Bridge, which currently receives roughly 20%, a move that would provide $220,000 for roads and enough for four employees.
“And just what department do you suppose we take the percentage from?” Bell questioned, naming the sheriff’s office and the treasurer’s office as possibilities.
With a tax increase out of the question because time restraints prevent a public vote to increase revenue more than 3.5% as required by state law, and seemingly no appetite for taking funds from other departments, the proposal to add another road hand to each precinct died.