Thursday, September 5, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

Travis Commissioners working their way through FY2014 budget

There were a couple of surprises among the routine motions Wednesday as Travis County Commissioners Court began the tedious three-day process of going through and approving each line of the county’s Fiscal Year 2014 preliminary budget. But County Judge Sam Biscoe halted the process in mid-stream, leaving questions about funding on some items until later in the year.

In addition to making final decisions on the proposed FY 2014 property tax, proposed pay raises for classified county employees, and funding the county’s Public Integrity Unit, the court also heard about a massively understaffed, under-supervised county tax office. Biscoe also hit the court with the potentiality of the county having to foot legal fees in the investigation surrounding allegations of abuse against Gov. Rick Perry and litigation against District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg.

The preliminary budget for all funds for the coming year is more than $844 million, with a general fund projection of about $609 million.

The court’s lone Republican, Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, voted against much of the day’s approved items citing excessive government spending.

The county’s planning and budget team – led by County Executive Leslie Browder and sat directly in across from the five-member court to walk them through each issue. Some expected items were dealt with on the first day of the budget markup process.

After months of discussion about the proposed 3 percent wage increase for classified employees, the court voted 4-1 to approve the item which constitutes a $5.7 million chunk of the budget. Daugherty – who has requested his compensation remain the same as his FY 2010 salary of $90,109 – voted against the increase.

The court approved 4-1, with Daugherty opposing, a 2 percent cost of living increase for retirees who have not received an adjustment since FY2011.

The state’s Public Integrity Unit – which Gov. Rick Perry stripped of its $3.7 million-per-year state funding earlier this year following District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg’s DWI arrest and conviction – is now officially set to receive $1.8 million of FY 2014 funding from a hodge-podge of Travis County sources, including monies from the DA office’s forfeiture fund as well as money previously earmarked for security, the retiree cost of living adjustment, and vacant positions (which will be eliminated or filled at a date later than originally set.)

Biscoe also prepared the court for more financial fallout from Perry’s veto of the unit funding.

“The governor is being investigated by a court-appointed lawyer,” said Biscoe, referring to an impending special prosecutor review of the action. “The other litigation is against our DA. Our problem is those two requests involve attorneys’ fees from the outside that a state district judge may well have the authority to order us to pay.” There is no way to know at this time how much the legal fees would be. “It could be anywhere from $1 to several hundred thousand,” Biscoe said.

Further promising to chip away at the budget is a need for more supervisors at the county tax office.

We didn’t just wake up one morning and decide let’s ask for 30 people,” said County Tax Assessor/Collector Bruce Elfant. About 80 percent of the county’s budget is made up of what the tax office collects in property tax, motor vehicle registration, and other revenue. The department requested a $3 million allotment to be phased in over three years. The court agreed to budget for 6.5 new full-time employees and a later reassessment of the situation.

“Even if we’d gotten the whole budget approved, we would still not be comparable with other counties,” Elfant said. “We are so far below other counties in terms of oversight. Most of the $3 million is for a layer of supervision we don’t have. We have managers and supervisors but the same number we had 20 years ago, while the responsibility for the office has grown tremendously.”

County Auditor Nicki Riley supported Elfant’s cause, telling the court that because of seasoned county tax employees retiring and resigning, she’s concerned about the quality of the workforce.

“I feel very concerned that we’re losing a lot of institutional knowledge very quickly,” she said. “There’s a lot of lower-level people and a lot of higher level people. I feel like there’s a huge gap in between. I would suggest having new positions that are mid-management.”

Biscoe said he could buy into Riley’s suggestion. “The problem is that the auditor and the tax assessor are both new,” he said. Both Riley and Elfant have held their current positions for about a year. “And so I don’t assume new people necessarily have better ideas. They have different ideas. To the extent possible, I want to accommodate that.”

Meanwhile, Elfant told In Fact Daily tens of millions of dollars are being funneled through four unsupervised satellite offices each day. There have been issues with internal and external theft. “We need more audit resources,” Elfant said. As for the six new positions, “It’s about half a million dollars, and we appreciate it. We’re going to take what they’ve offered us and we’re going to implement it.”

The Court is scheduled to approve its final FY2014 budget during its regular meeting on Sept. 24.

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