It is budget time again for Milam County, and as always it will be a difficult task for Commissioners Court to determine the final figures. Forget what you may have learned about budgeting in the real world of business. Budgeting for county government is a horse of a different color. Not because county officials want it that way, but because the state constitution and legislature have made it that way.
By law the Commissioners Court during the budget process must attempt to determine exactly how much revenue the county will receive and how much it will spend to the nearest penny during January 1 through December 31, 2015. Mind you they have to do that before the end of September, or the 2014 budget and tax rate will automatically be adopted for 2015. It's the law.
We all know how volatile our economy is. Somebody shoots someone in an oil producing country halfway around the world and gasoline prices in Texas jump ten cents. I can tell you from experience it is extremely hard to predict what things are going to be like in 2015 at this point in time. I can tell you from experience that predicting the future is not an exact science.
There will be a lot of options for the Judge and Commissioners to consider this year just as there were last year. The Judge chose the option of raising taxes in spite of the fact that Commissioners offered several different options during the budget hearings to avoid the tax increase. Two Commissioners, Muege and Fisher, even voted against the 2014 budget because they felt there were options to raising taxes.
One thing that we need to see during the budget process is consistency. Judge Barkemeyer has been quoted in the various media outlets in the county discussing the uncertainty of the revenue situation for 2015. He has stated that the loss in valuation of Luminant of close to 70 million dollars will be offset by a 30 million dollar increase in mineral values for this year. Then he is quoted saying it will be offset by the 20 million dollar increase in mineral valuation.
It is hard for me to understand why the chief financial officer for the county would not be aware of the real figures. Actual figures for the certified appraised values for 2014 used to figure the 2015 budget show an increase in mineral values for Milam County at just over 12 million dollars. Close to eight million less that the Judge has stated to the media. These same figures are available to him and I sure hope he refigures mineral values to reflect the real increase.
Another area that I have been watching is the Judge's monthly financial reports for the county. Hard to tell what is really going on when you compare what is said in Commissioners Court and then what is said in the media. His court report for July seemed to be predicting doom and gloom. Sales tax revenue down, income from housing prisoners off and other area of county income below projections. However, he did indicate expenditures were about 10 percent below budget and this would help make up the lost revenue.
Then it is printed in the local papers that at the current pace the county could wind up adding 220,000 dollars to the general reserve. What gives here? For the last couple of years the Judge has praised the department heads for coming in under budget. Question here is are they coming in under budget, or are they over budgeting for the departments? From my experience I would say over budgeting. It is just the nature of the beast. The restrictions placed on the budgeting for counties forces courts to err a little on the plus side to insure that the budget makes it through the end of the year.
Lastly, the Judge has referred to an 800,000 dollar plus reserve we currently have, and that we will add another 200,000 plus to it this year. So his personal agenda of building a reserve of a million dollars is in view. Now the question is does he continue on his personal agenda and raise taxes again, or does he look at other options such as using some of the some of the reserve to balance the budget. In his reelection campaign he promised four more years of the same, so I bet we see another tax increase.
The final word as to whether or not the tax payers will help achieve the Judge's personal agenda lies with the Commissioners. If you are concerned talk to your commissioner and let them know what you think. One thing that is consistent is that three always beats two in commissioners court.