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Gregg County spending plan about $800,000 smaller

By Glenn Evans
July 27, 2013 at 10 p.m.

Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt will lay out a $47 million proposed spending plan for fiscal 2013-14 on Tuesday that's almost $800,000 smaller than this year's budget.

That's largely thanks to having made capital expenditures for large projects this year. Those will require $5.6 million less local tax money than this year's capital outlays, such as the terminal renovation at East Texas Regional Airport and the George Richey Road extension.

The budget proposal, so far, has developed during discussions between the judge, as chief administrator for the county, and department heads and fellow elected officials each charged with submitting their own spending plans.

Tuesday will be the commissioners court's first look at the overall plan, which must win approval by the start of the fiscal year Oct. 1. The meeting is at 10 a.m. on the third floor of the Gregg County Courthouse.

The judge noted this is his 11th budget writing season since taking office in 2003.

"Everybody knows what everybody is expecting," he said. "They know my philosophy: We're not going to spend more than we take in. If we need to, we'll cut expenses. If we need something, we need to see clear-cut cases of why we need to go do it."

The county's budget that expires in a couple of months was drawn as a $47.8 million spending plan. Stoudt's draft proposal for next year is right at $47 million.

The judge was blessed with wiggle room this past week when the 2013 property values were certified at 2 percent higher, overall, than they were for the 2012 tax year. Preliminary values issued in May had shown a 6 percent drop.

His budget does not include money for a courthouse parking garage he and commissioners are considering. The court spent $150,000 this year to commission a needs study for the public/employee facility and to otherwise push the ball along, but Stoudt does not anticipate a county expenditure during the coming year.

He has loosely estimated the parking garage will be a $5 million project, including a pedestrian bridge to the courthouse from the proposed site where county employees now park off East Whaley Street.

"We're not going to put that money in this budget until we're in the following year," he said.

Stoudt also left out a number for an animal facility that is being considered by the city of Longview as a partnership with the county and its other cities.

"I told them we would be partners going forward with that," Stoudt said.

<h3>Budget basics</h3>

The county's 26¼-cent tax rate should remain stable, the judge said.

"We're not going down, we're not going up," he said. "We've got the lowest tax rate among counties our size, 200,000 population and lower, and the fifth lowest in the state. We're doing pretty well."

The Texas Association of Counties consistently verifies that ranking.

Stoudt plans a 2 percent cost of living increase for county employees, noting the Consumer Price Index is up 1.8 percent to 2 percent.

"We are also working toward a base pay program," he said, indicating a policy change to start all new employees at the same pay. Now, employees generally enter a position at the pay level the last occupant had, thus inheriting that person's seniority status.

"We're going to put that in policy once and for all - I'm trying to," he said.

Stoudt added staff size will not increase, promoting a standing policy of taking a closer look at the need for positions that don't get filled reasonably fast and scrutinizing request for new slots.

The county's three road and bridge departments, which account for slightly more than a half-cent of the tax rate, rise $414,000 for Pcts. 3 and 4 but are down overall, Stoudt said.

Pct. 1 Commissioner Ronnie McKinney, Stoudt said, required less because he already moved costs that would have occurred next year into the budget that expires Sept. 30.

"So he's going to be coming in under what he spent this year," Stoudt said. "I really give hats off to the commissioners."

<h3>Still unknown</h3>

Commissioners agreed earlier this month to move $241,000 into their self-funded health insurance package available to their about 575 employees.

The move locked in rates for two and three years, depending on the category. But the court and its insurance consultant agreed it is not known what impact the federal insurance exchanges under Obamacare could have when they arrive in October.

"There's a lot of unknowns coming down the track on this (federal) insurance program," Stoudt said. "If (employees) pull out a program that's better than we're providing them, we not going to get as good (of a program)."

Stoudt said his numbers are likely to change once he presents the budget to the court. His instruction, he said, will be for commissioners to talk with elected officials and department heads, and it will be decided later if workshops are warranted.

Public hearings on the tax rate are proposed for Aug. 27 and Sept. 4. A public hearing on the budget is expected Sept. 9, when the court is scheduled to adopt the budget and tax rate.



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