LIVINGSTON – After working with the "smaller departments" to cut payroll expenses, Polk County Judge Sydney Murphy told commissioners Tuesday she had been able to reduce the projected budget deficit from $1.4 million to just under $1 million.
During the meeting of the county commissioners, Murphy said the savings would come through not replacing employees who retire or leave for other reasons, converting some positions to part time and moving some positions to a lower pay grade.
The effort to cut spending is the result of losses of income, primarily through the IAH Adult Detention Facility located near Livingston. In the past, the county received a payment based on the number of inmates being held in the private detention center but due to changes in federal guidelines, the number of prisons had dropped. The latest projection is that the county will lose about $850,000 in income during the coming budget year that begins Oct. 1.
The prison houses mostly illegal immigrants being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as well as prisoner being detained by the U.S. Marshals Service. Under the new federal rules, not as many prisoners are being detained by ICE as in recent years.
Murphy has warned county officials that unless cuts can be made, there could be employee layoffs in October when the new budget year begins.
During Tuesday's meeting, she noted that there might be some additional savings that could be found in the larger departments but right now they would need to increase the county's tax rate by three cents to cover the projected $1 million deficit.
"Somebody better be ready for some cuts before we increase taxes," Pct. 3 Commissioner Milt Purvis said.
Murphy noted that the figures she was presenting to the commissioners are still "very preliminary" and urged them to go over the numbers to see if any additional savings can be found.
County audit report
Due to issues in the district clerk's trust fund accounts, the county received a "qualified" report when the outside audit of the 2014 budget year was presented.
Robert Belt of the accounting firm of Belt Harris Pechacek LLLP told commissioner that the audit was unable to obtain needed information regarding the trust accounts, particularly the account set up to hold money generated through the sale of property seized for the nonpayment of taxes.
That account currently is the subject of a criminal investigation being conducted by the Texas Attorney General's Office and Belt told commissioners that it probably would take a forensic examination or something "like an archeological dig" to go back through all of tax sale transactions to determine what has happened in that account.
Former District Clerk Kathy Clifton resigned on May 21, the day after officials with the Texas
Attorney General's Office executed a search warrant to obtain records from her office.
A new district clerk, Bobbye Richards, has been appointed by the county's two district judges and is set to be sworn into office on July 1. She was present during Tuesday's meeting and was introduced to the commissioners.
Other than the issue in the district clerk's office, Belk gave the county and overall favorable report on its 2014 budget year. He noted the fund balance in the general fund increased by $500,000 and rose to over $7.1 million. The road and bridge department's fund balance climbed by over $1.2 million, increasing to almost $3.3 million.
The fund balance is the money that is held in reserve for emergencies and Belt said the balances in both the general and road and bridge funds was healthy.
In his report, Belt said beginning next year, governments will begin to have to list their pension liabilities as part of the audit report. He noted the pension numbers are included in the audit footnotes but will now have a more prominent place in the report.
He noted that Polk County's pension liability currently stands at about $4 million and said the county was in "good shape" in that area, especially when compared to other counties.
During the meeting, commissioners:
-- Approved a request from the Burke mental health program to provide a county "match" for a grant it will seek to fund a Polk County mental health deputy to be assigned to the sheriff's office. Sheriff Kenneth Hammack told commissioners that if the grant is awarded, it would allow Burke to hire a mental health officer who would be assigned full time to his office. The specially trained officer would serve mental health warrants and perform other related duties. Normally, the county would put up 25 percent of the cost of the officer as their march but Hammack said that providing the officer with a vehicle, gas and oil would cover that amount. Due to cuts in his prisoner transportation staff, Hammack said he currently has a car that can be used.
-- Authorized submitting a request for public assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) due to the damage to county roads caused by the severe rainstorms in May. Emergency Management Coordinator Larry Pitts was designed as the primary contact for FEMA and Assistant Coordinator Courtney Comstock was named as the secondary contact.
-- Approved a memorandum of understanding with the Texas A&M Forest Service allowing both Pitts and Comstock to join the Pineywoods Regional Incident Management Team. By joining the team, the two emergency management officials will undergo additional training and could take part in assisting in emergency situations in other parts of Texas and the United States.
-- Authorized building modifications to the Polk County Museum. Murphy explained that the Polk County Historical Commission was contracting with Southwest Museum Services to fabricate and install new museum exhibits at a cost of $155,000. The money is being paid by the historical commission and no additional funds are needed from the county.