If there’s two words that can rankle property owners to the bone, it’s “tax increase.”
But just as a necessary spoonful of medicine might be bitter going down, so it can be with swallowing higher taxes.
That’s the case in Gregg County, where a proposed property tax hike for the new budget year would mostly fund needed pay increases for law enforcement.
County Judge Bill Stoudt was blunt in explaining why the tax hike — which would be the first in 18 years — is needed.
“We have proposed a restructuring of the salaries of the command staff, patrol and jailers,” he said, adding that salaries of county law enforcement have fallen behind other area agencies. “We’ve lost people to the cities because they pay more. We are 50 jailers short today because the starting salary was $32,000, and we’re moving that up to $37,000.
“That part of the equation is going to be costing more money, period.”
The proposed tax rate would go from 26.25 cents per $100 valuation to 29.75 cents per $100 valuation, which is an increase of 13.3%. About 2 cents of the 3.5-cent increase would go toward law enforcement salaries.
Protesters to the proposal might point to the county’s robust reserves as a solution to pay for the higher salaries.
That fund is about $40 million, according to Stoudt, which amounts to about 40% of the budget. (Official reserve fund recommendations call for 25% to 30% of the budget.)
Stoudt brought up several reasons for not using reserve funds for the raises. One of those reasons is keeping a healthy savings account makes it possible for the county to advance road projects with the Texas Department of Transportation. He also mentioned that the county has been forced to use reserve funding the past several years, and he doesn’t want that to become a habit.
Stoudt’s arguments make sense.
The strongest reason is it’s just bad business to pay for recurring costs, such as salary raises, by dipping into reserves.
Stoudt also cited other areas that are contributing to the need for a tax increase: cost-of-living adjustments for non-public safety employees; higher health and liability insurance costs; higher costs for indigent legal defense; higher costs for unreimbursed indigent health care; higher overtime costs in the jail as a result of staff shortages; and increasing jail costs.
The judge asked if “milk and bread” cost more than 18 years ago and then answered his own question: “The answer would be yes. The problem we have here is most of the time you would say, ‘You’ve got to control your costs.’ The costs we’re dealing with are difficult to control.”
Final approval of the tax rate will be considered after a public hearing scheduled at 9 a.m. Monday in the commissioners courtroom at the Gregg County Courthouse.