Marion County residents are expected to see an increase in taxes for the upcoming fiscal year to fulfill unfunded mandates, particularly a telemedicine program to comply with the Sandra Bland Act.
“Our state representative has told us Sept. 1 (is the compliance date),” said Pct. 4 County Commissioner Charles Treadwell. “I just hope that the people, whenever they start seeing these increases, will ask the people in Austin did you vote for this Sandra Bland Act, because it just continues to add and add and add to the cost.”
The Marion County Commissioners Court recently approved to contract with SOC Telemed for a Telemed/Telemental subscription for jail standards pertaining to the Sandra Bland Act.
The Sandra Bland Act, passed by the 85th Texas Legislature, calls for jails to have telemental health services available to inmates, effective Sept. 1.
“The taxpayers are going to assume the burden just like all of us,” said Treadwell, expounding on how draining unfunded mandates are for rural counties.
The Act was named after Sandra Bland, who in July 2015, was found dead in her jail cell three days after being pulled over by a state trooper for a traffic violation, which escalated, resulting into her arrest. Her death was officially ruled a suicide.
Almost two years following her death, Gov. Greg Abbott signed the Sandra Bland Act into law, representing a significant advancement in criminal justice reform in Texas.
According to insighttelepsychiatry.com, the law includes a provision regarding prisoner safety that requires county jails to allow prisoners around-the-clock access to a mental health professional — either on-site or through telehealth consultation.
David Bien, representative with SOC Telemed, noted his company can expedite the implementation since the county already has the monitor and camera to set it up.
Bien noted that his company will charge the county $300 per consultation, and $150 for a follow-up consult. Based on an estimated average of four consultations per month, the county would pay a minimum of about $1,500 a month for the service.
“We have a one-time implementation fee of $5,000 and then there is a support for maintaining the card and software is $300,” Bien said, noting the support fee is included in the monthly cost. “At that point, the psychiatrist could make any recommendations if they need to be sent to the ER, if they need to be committed, (or) if they need to have medications.”
County Auditor Shanna Solomon advised the court to budget a minimum of $18,000 to cover the cost for service for fiscal year 2021. The one-time $5,000 setup fee will come from this current year’s budget, however.
Treadwell agreed to make a motion to budget $12,000 to pay for the use of the service for the rest of the current fiscal year and $18,000 to provide the service for the new fiscal year, beginning Jan. 1, 2021.
“Anything over that, that money will be sent to Austin for them to reimburse,” Treadwell said of the county being obligated to cover the unfunded mandate.
County Judge Leward LaFleur also expressed his frustration with the county being burdened by unfunded mandates.
“We want the taxpayers of Marion County to know that last year Austin spent at least $330,000 of their tax dollars in unfunded mandates,” Judge LaFleur said.
“So, with this, we’re going to pay at least another $18,000,” said LaFleur. “So I would probably estimate that next year’s budget, Austin is going to spend Marion County taxpayers’ money in excess of about $450,000 to $500,000 because this isn’t going to cost $17,000.
“When these folks figure out they could get out of their cells for 10 minutes, they’re going to do it once a day,” LaFleur suspects. “And if you got 39 people in the jail, and they do this once a day, $350 every time they go sit in front of this screen, and then $150 follow-up, if you do that 365 days a year, you’re looking well over $1 million annually that Austin is spending taxpayer money that we could be putting somewhere else like road and bridge department, any other services that taxpayers of Marion County get some kind of service.”
“So just like Commissioner Treadwell said, when the people of Marion County ask why this court has to raise their taxes it’s because the people in Austin pushed so many of these policies and so much of this spending down on us and don’t give us any way to fund it,” the county judge said.
LaFleur said he encourages residents to voice their displeasure to the State Legislature.
“They need to ask them, demand of them to repeal and forbid any future and past unfunded mandates that the people in Marion County and every county in this state are having to pay,” the county judge said.
Bien said his company estimated that, based on last year’s average, the county would need about four consults a month.
“If there’s more, then there’s $300 additional on each one; so it’s every single consult,” said Bien.
Election equipment, wall
In addition to providing the telemedicine services for the jail, another big ticket item for the new fiscal year budget is the purchase of new election equipment.
County Clerk Vickie Smith noted that the equipment will cost about $255,000. She’s hoping that a $120,000 CARES Act grant from the state will help offset the cost. She noted that the county already has $40,000 in the budget to help pay the county’s portion of the fee.
“If we get the grant, we’ll only be out $90,000 for the voting machines,” Treadwell indicated.
LaFleur said the equipment is very well-needed, considering the last time the county bought election equipment was about 16 years ago.
Another expense the county is anticipating is an estimated bid of $150,000 to fix the courthouse wall.
“The wall is going to be the huge, astronomical thing,” said Pct. 2 Commissioner Joe McKnight.
Judge LaFleur explained that the wall was added onto the jail in the late ‘90s. It’s attached to the elevator.
“It is having some foundation issues that need to be addressed before they get non-corrective,” said LaFleur.
PROPOSED BUDGET, TAX RATE
The proposed overall budget for the county this upcoming year is $6,656,809 for expenditures. The court approved to propose the same tax rate as this current fiscal year, which is 0.578067.
With the same tax rate, the county would collect $46,511 in revenue. A public hearing on the adoption of the new fiscal year budget and tax rate for the new fiscal year is set for September 9, starting at 9 a.m.
County Tax Assessor-Collector Karen Jones noted that since the properties are on a three-year reappraisal, only one-third of residents’ taxes will go up in value.
“If we left everything alone, stayed with last year’s rate, two-thirds of people’s taxes will go down a little, and one-third of the people’s taxes this next year will go up,” Jones explained. “And then the next year those people’s taxes will get revalued (and) will come down later.”
County Auditor Shanna Solomon followed up, further expounded that “doing nothing” to the tax rate doesn’t mean they won’t have to increase the taxes on the people whose property was revalued.
“It’s not considered do nothing; you’re going to have to raise the rate up,” she said.
“You will be increasing taxes because you will be increasing your money (in order to collect $46,000),” Jones agreed.
“If their value increased, their taxes will go up,” added Jones. “That will not affect your disabled, elderly, or frozen homesteads.”
Calculating the figures, Ashley noted that the proposal would increase the affected residents’ taxes by nearly $8.
“The difference between last year and this year is $7.23. That would increase somebody’s tax by $8.00 if we go with the current last year’s rate and bring in that $46,000,” he said.