By Greg Peak
LIVINGSTON – Tighter budgetary controls were put into place Tuesday by Polk County Commissioners, who were bracing for the loss of $600,000 in revenue during the remaining months of the current budget cycle.
During their regular meeting, County Judge Sydney Murphy asked for and commissioners agreed to a more austere hiring practice when a job vacancy occurred during the coming months.
Murphy noted county policy requires commissioners to approve hiring of each new employee unless there is an emergency situation that would prevent the department involved from providing minimum services. She noted that in recent years, all departments have been using the emergency provision to hire all new employees.
"I doubt that any commissioner can come up with the name of any employee that has been hired because they are being bypassed," she said, adding that practice will have to end.
She noted that on average, each county employee costs $40,000 a year in salary and benefits and the expected $600,000 loss of revenue translates into 15 employees.
"We've got to reign in spending so we have to go back and do what the policy actually says," she added.
Murphy added that she also is asking all department heads to cut or avoid spending as much as possible until the commissioners can get a handle on the loss of revenue.
She noted that while they are now expecting a $600,000 loss of income, the actual amount could climb as high as $1 million.
The loss of revenue is due to changes at the IAH Adult Detention Facility located near Livingston, which houses illegal immigrants taken into custody by the U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In the past, the county received a per capita fee for the inmates housed there that ran up to $1 million a year.
Murphy said recent changes imposed by the Obama administration to release the inmates has greatly reduced the number being held at the IAH facility to the point the county now expects to lose $600,000 under the current budget.
"Right now we don't know how much income we are going to lose so we have to prepare for the worst," she said, noting that just because the departments have money allocated to spend in their individual budgets, does not mean the county will now have the revenue to cover that total.
"We're going to have to tighten up until we see just how big an impact this is going to have," she said.
During the discussion, Sheriff Kenneth Hammack noted that it could cause problems for his department if they had to hold off on offering jobs to new deputies until commissioners can approve them.
"I thought that as long as I had the position budgeted, there would be no problem," he said.
Murphy noted that the IAH funds also were budgeted under revenue and indicated commissioners now have to adjust the expense budgets for all departments to compensate for the loss.
Murphy did assure Hammack that because of the nature of his department, the emergency hiring provisions in county policy could still apply and said when the situation arose, all he would need to do is come by her office so she could "sign off" of the new employee.
In related action, the commissioners approved changes to the budget for the sheriff's department and county jail to incorporate changes made last month in order to come up with funds to hire six additional jailers. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards cited the county for not having enough jailers to handle the number of inmates housed in the local facility and the county was forced to hire more personnel.
Murphy noted that the county's maintenance supervisor, Jay Burks, also agreed to not fill a vacancy on his staff and to make other cuts to help cover the costs of the new jailers.
During the meeting, commissioners also:
-- Approved a job description for the new pre-trial services coordinator and approved a resolution in support if an Indigent Defense Discretionary Grant. Murphy noted that the county court at law and district judges found the grant, which would be used to hire an indigent defense coordinator. Both the pre-trial and indigent services coordinators would be tasked with helping reduce the number of prisoners being held in the Polk County Jail.
-- Rejected the purchase of a computer update for the Polk County Museum at a cost of $848.72. Murphy reported that the current computer at the museum was still working and commissioners indicated it would probably have to remain in use for another year or two.
--Approved a State Homeland Security Program grant for $49,300 to purchase digital communications equipment for the Mobile Command Post.
--Discussed minor modifications to the route of Plant Road in Corrigan and learned that the bids for the project are now expected to be opened on April 24.
-- Approved the base and alternate bids for the replacement of the Polk County Courthouse's roof. Commissioners approved a base bid of $355,000 and $12,500 in alternates to set a maximum guaranteed construction cost of $367,500 on the project. The Texas Historical Commission has awarded the county an emergency grant of $204,000 for the project and the balance will be paid using local funds.