The Harrison County Commissioners Court on Wednesday scheduled a series of public hearings to discuss the proposed tax rate and county budget for the upcoming 2019-2020 fiscal year.

County Judge Chad Sims filed the proposed budget last Friday. It’s now posted on the county’s website at www.harrisoncountytexas.org for the public’s viewing.

“You can see in our (proposed) budget that was filed last Friday, our proposed tax rate is .3548 (cents per $100 assessed valuation),” Sims said, noting the increase is just a half cent more than last year’s adopted rate, which was .3498 cents per $100 assessed valuation.

Two public hearings have been set for 9 a.m. Aug. 19 and Aug. 26 to discuss the proposed budget and tax rate.

A third public hearing was set for 9 a.m. Aug. 30, to consider adoption of the budget and tax rate. All hearings will be held in the Commissioners Courtroom on the second floor of the historic 1901 county courthouse.

“This consideration to approve the proposed tax rate does not preclude us from adjusting it in the future, before the end of this month,” Sims pointed out after entertaining questions from commissioners about the rate.

In addition to the adoption of the proposed tax rate and county budget, public hearings will also be conducted on Aug. 30 to consider the county clerk’s proposed Archive Fee Plan; the district clerk’s proposed Technology Fund Plan; and proposed salaries, expenses and other allowances for elected officials for the new fiscal year.

Sims noted with a property tax collection of $22.8 million at a new rate of 35 cents, the county’s budget is going up $1.6 million, which is a 7.54 percent increase from last year.

“6.8 of that is an increase from property values,” he pointed out. The rest, which is almost three quarters of a percent, comes from the half-cent proposed tax rate increase.

He said about $1.2 million of the $1.6 million will benefit some top priorities.

“The appraisal district tax value increased 6 percent, which was nice and healthy for us,” Sims shared. “Most of that came from industrial and commercial evaluations, which is great as well.”

Additionally, oil and gas increased, which is especially nice for East Texas, said Sims.

Top Priorities

The county judge said the top four priorities they plan to spend the funds on are the sheriff’s office, maintenance at the 1963-model courthouse, healthcare costs and road and bridge.

“The sheriff’s office is getting new vehicles. Also we’re increasing their auto maintenance,” Sims said, noting about $321,000 will be designated to the sheriff’s office for that purpose.

“We’re doing some permanent improvements at the newer courthouse — the 1963 model,” he added, noting about $300,000 of that will be used to replace the outdated air conditioning systems, which are mostly 1963-model ACs.

“We can only do one floor at a time. That’s all about we can afford,” Sims explained. “We just don’t have that much money in our budget to fix everything all at once.

“So our plan is to fix it, as we can, one floor per year, so next year we’ll be doing it again for the next four years until we get all the air conditioning system (replaced).”

A total of $250,000 will be earmarked for healthcare for the county’s 300 employees.

“Healthcare costs have gone up $250,000 on 300 employees, which is really not that bad,” said Sims. “That’s probably less than most folks enjoy.”

About $140,000 will also be devoted to the road and bridge department for new vehicles.

Other priorities include: $92,000 for increased utility costs; $50,000 for indigent legal expenses for Child Protective Services and child support matters; another $50,000 for inmate medical care; and $45,000 to purchase a new transport van for juvenile services.

“They needed a new van. They’re driving a 1999 van out at Willoughby,” Sims said of the juvenile detention center.

With the tax rate increase of a half-cent, Sims said that means property taxes will only go up about $7 for a $100,000 home and about $74 for a million dollar home.

Because the county budget will not exceed more than an 8 percent increase from last year, the county won’t have to call an election to vote on the proposed tax rate increase.

“If you go over 8 percent, it has to go to a vote and voters have to approve that increase,” Sims explained. “So we’re not going up that much. It’s only 7.54; so anything above 8 percent triggers an election.”

Reviewing the proposed budget, Sims told the News Messenger one thing he was disappointed about was being unable to give employees raises for the new fiscal year.

“After I put in all our necessities there just was not room left for that; and I’m disappointed in that,” the county judge said. “That is a priority of mine.

“I know that generally the county staff is underpaid,” he said. “There are some great folks here, hard workers and I want to make sure they’re paid well. So that will be a priority in every budget that I have in seeing what we can do to improve that. I just couldn’t get it done and that’s where we are.”