As the legislative session begins, the biggest thing counties face now, according to local and area officials, is escalating unfunded mandates.
“Statewide, costs have increased more than 20 percent since 2011,” said Marion County Judge Leward LaFleur, citing figures from the Texas Association of Counties.
Thus, as an effort to stop lawmakers from further shoving the financial burden onto counties, Marion County passed a resolution to oppose all unfunded mandates.
“As of date, unfunded mandates have cost local taxpayers $116,400 a day to house state parole violators known as blue warrant inmates in county jails, $298.3 million to repair county roads damaged by state-permitted oversize/overweight trucks just in 2014 and 2015 alone, (and) $8.8 million a year in order to keep DPS troopers in local communities,” LaFleur said, noting in 2016, taxpayers in 76 counties paid for those officers.
Additionally, $66 million annually is given to fund appraisal district budgets.
“The cost has risen more than 17 percent since 2011,” LaFleur said. That includes $2.4 million a week to collect motor vehicle fees and taxes for the state of Texas, which is an increase of more than 20 percent since 2011. It also includes $225 million a year for court-appointed criminal lawyers in 2017.
“County expenditures have gone up almost 150 percent since 2001,” LaFleur indicated.
Approximately half a billion each year is spent for adult and juvenile probation programs. Such statistics show why a resolution to oppose unfunded mandates was necessary, the commissioners court believes.
“Unfunded mandates drive up our property tax bills, drive up the size and cost of county government, removes accountability from government spending, takes away local taxpayer control, cost all Texas taxpayers billions of dollars, and force property tax increases that strain all counties in Texas budgets,” said LaFleur.
“Marion County feels this very hard. I know other county judges here feel it as well,” he said.
The resolution approved Monday notes that Texas counties are responsible for the operation and management of many various governmental programs as required or authorized by the state; and that some county government programs are fully or partially supported with funds disbursed by the State of Texas, pursuant to the state appropriations process.
The resolution goes on to say that the review process may result in a reduction, or cessation, of state financial support of county government programs causing an unforeseeable disruption and reduction of the county budget and operations.
As a result, “substantial funding is mandated from county taxpayers and diverted every year from local services for the benefit of the citizens of Marion County to support these mandatory financial obligations imposed by the state of Texas.”
For the most recent year, for instance, Marion County designated $70,193.31 to support the appointment of attorneys in criminal cases and $33,181.14 to support the appointment of attorneys in Child Protective Services (CPS) cases.
“This used to be paid for — 100 percent — by the state of Texas,” LaFleur said of both expenses.
Marion County taxpayers also had to pay $151,516.11 to fund the operations of the Central/County Appraisal District, which operates at the direction of the state, to appraise all real property and certain personal property for the purposes of assessing property taxes. The county also spent $45,409.67 to support the services of Texas Community Supervision and Corrections Department, which is adult probation and the juvenile probation department; and $750 to provide support staff, office facilities, utilities and equipment for locally-stationed Department of Public Safety troopers.
“These and other state mandatory services require $301,050.23 from Marion County property taxpayers and equals to six percent of the county tax rate,” LaFleur said.
Commissioners feel it is in the best interest of the state’s counties and their taxpayers to support and favor passage of legislation in the form of an amendment to the state’s constitution that would expressly prohibit the imposition of a mandatory governmental program on counties, whether by an act of the Texas Legislature or a state agency or by executive order, unless the state has fully funded and disbursed all necessary funds to enable counties to operate the governmental program, the resolution states.
Pct. 4 Commissioner Charlie Treadwell made the motion to approve the resolution; Pct. 2 Commissioner Joe McKnight seconded it.
“This is something we’ve been working through for a long time, through TAC, for the counties to bond together, that’s the only way to fight this,” McKnight said.
“We will be sending this to our State Legislature, since they are in the 86th legislative cycle right now,” LaFleur said.