Two county residents shared these cost-cutting and money-making ideas with commissioners during a public hearing on the county’s proposed tax rate hike on Monday.
The mandatory hearing is the second and last before county leaders meet to adopt their proposed tax rate and budget.
Commissioners are scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 22, to adopt the tax rate and proposed spending plan, which will finance county government operations from Oct. 1, 2008, through Sept. 30, 2009.
The public hearing will be held in the commissioners courtroom, located on the first floor of the Bee County Courthouse.
Bee County residents Tom Healey and Jessy T. Garza were the only members of the public to speak at Monday’s public hearing on the proposed tax rate.
Healey said he has noticed a “distressing trend” by county leaders to raise the tax rate over the past two years but not high enough to trigger a rollback election, which would give county residents the right to vote on rolling back the tax rate.
He said commissioners have raised the tax rate by 3 cents — or up to the rollback rate — and dipped into their reserve fund and the hospital health care fund to make ends meet for the past two years. Eventually, he said, commissioners will not have enough in the reserve fund or the health care fund to help them overcome a deficit without raising the tax rate beyond the rollback rate.
“If I’m right, one of these days you will have to bite the bullet and raise the tax rate more than 3 cents,” he said. “If 3 cents (tax hike) won’t balance the budget and you have no money in the reserve fund and can’t get money from the health care fund, the county will indeed be broke and can’t pay its bills. So what’s the answer to that? The answer is you either have to face up to it and raise taxes and face a rollback election or you have to cut spending more.”
He said he knows the commissioners court has already cut spending.
“I know you’ve tried very hard,” he said. “And I know you don’t know where else to go or you’d have already gone there.”
Healey suggested commissioners consider freezing future hiring and consolidating jobs. He said commissioners could save money by simply not filling vacant positions and getting other employees to take up the duties of the employee who left.
Of course, all elected officials and department heads would have to agree to the arrangement up front and abide by it during the budget year, he said.
The 2008-09 proposed budget calls for taking $138,000 from the reserve fund and increasing the tax rate by 3 cents to balance the spending plan. The tax rate increase will generate about $354,000. The proposed budget also calls for taking $149,000 from the health care fund to finance an across-the-board pay raise for all county employees, including elected officials.
Healey also suggested commissioners consider leasing the Bee County Expo Center to a private business so that it could turn a profit for the county, close the Expo Center until the county is in a better financial situation, or simply sell it outright.
Bee County Judge David Silva assured Healey that commissioners have already made substantial cuts in personnel and turned several full-time positions into part-time positions. He said he himself shares a secretary with a justice of the peace, whose office is also in the courthouse.
Jessy T. Garza encouraged commissioners to become more involved in economic development in the county.
He said the city and county government cannot expect to rely on increasing property values, which this year alone has grown by $149 million thanks mostly to an increase in oil and gas production and exploration.
Garza said he is aware that the county has representatives on economic development committees and panels but said the county should also appoint representatives to subcommittees.
Silva assured Garza that the county is committed to economic development and is directly involved with the Bee Development Authority’s plan to offer tax breaks to new businesses that open shop at Chase Field Airport and Industrial Complex.
Garza also recommended commissioners draft a five-year plan that will help keep the county financially solvent and keep commissioners from eventually facing a tax rollback election.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Susan Stasny asked Healey and Garza if they would help head up a committee to draft the five-year plan. They nodded their heads in agreement.
Both Garza and Healey cautioned commissioners to avoid relying on sales tax proceeds to balance the budget.
Garza said sales taxes may drop if the ongoing mortgage meltdown reaches Bee County. He said the sale of homes is already at its lowest point in years.
Healey, who is a member of the Bee County Appraisal District Review Board, said taxpayers are complaining about the never-ending tax increases.
“I hear from an awful lot of taxpayers who come in and say they cannot afford to pay their taxes,” he said. “I tell them to go see you. You guys set the tax rate. There are a lot of people in this town hurting.”