As the weather starts to cool (OK, we can always hope), a new season arrives. For many of you, it’s time to start planning hunting trips or fall foliage tours.
For me, it’s budget season. Analyzing, planning, and adopting the county’s budget is a 5-6 month long process. Data and assessments from each of the 37 departments are reviewed. The needs of the county are forecasted, prioritized, and finally after discerning wants from needs, a budget is completed. I work closely with each department head and with the county auditor, Mike Navarro to determine areas in the budget that may need supplemental funds, as well as which staffing and other line items may need adjustment.
After the budget is prepared and filed as a document of public record, I present it to the commissioners’ court for consideration and action. The entire process is governed by Local Government Code and the Texas Tax Code. This year, the 2013-2014 budget was filed for public record on Sept. 16. Public hearings will be held and a vote will be taken to adopt the budget on Sept. 23.
Currently, several county departments are stretched to the limit in terms of staffing. After several years of budget cuts, the strain is showing. Increased workload because of population growth is difficult to process with fewer people. For example, previous cuts in staffing for the County and District Clerk’s Offices have taken their toll. As more and more people call Ellis County home, the paperwork, filing of cases, and customer service requests have increased. Yet the staffing levels for the clerk’s offices have not changed.
As chief budget officer, one of my objectives is to fortify those departments that require immediate attention. Our taxpayer dollars need to be stretched and utilized in the most effective way possible as rising costs from road materials to Workers Comp and Unemployment claims impact the stress on our local government operations. Realistic assessment and balancing of priorities is critical.
While the proposed budget does not reflect a return to pre-recession staffing levels, it will ensure that some core departments that have made tough staffing cuts the last several years are bolstered to better serve the community. Funds that ultimately were not needed for operations in certain areas will go back into the general fund and will be reallocated to that end.
Public safety has always been a priority for commissioners’ court. Over the last four years, while other departments have been asked to reduce their costs, the sheriff’s office was allocated the lion’s share of budget dollars (approximately $17 million) in order to ensure staffing was available if necessary, and equipment was top notch. As we have supported the sheriff and his philosophy to that end, the efforts have been rewarded. According to Sheriff Brown, overall crime is down by 45 percent, which translates into less staffing needs for jail operations. A recent staffing analysis conducted by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards confirmed the adequacy of our staffing at 110 personnel. In other words, the salary funds previously allocated for positions that were never filled in the last four years can be returned to the general fund for effective use elsewhere.
Additionally, the sheriff has purchased more than 30 top of the line new vehicles within the last 24 months that are utilized for law enforcement purposes. At $45,000 a vehicle, the fleet is enviable. Based on the sheriff’s foresight to put the newest and fastest vehicles on patrol and rotate them to non-patrol positions after 120,000 miles, the commissioners’ court has the latitude to wait a budget cycle before addressing patrol fleet needs, and instead can address vehicle needs for constables and other county departments in the upcoming budget.
Contingency funds are kept in reserve and unanticipated needs can always be presented before commissioners’ court for consideration. The sheriff also has at his sole discretion more than $900,000 in Asset Forfeiture Funds and Seizure Funds. These funds come to the sheriff’s office because of drug stops, seized vehicles, and cash or other property that was confiscated as part of a crime. After proper legal procedures are followed, the law allows for these funds to be deposited into an Asset Forfeiture Fund maintained exclusively by the sheriff. These funds can be used for any legitimate law enforcement purpose. In the past, the sheriff has exercised his stewardship to purchase such things as vehicles and equipment.
I am looking forward to the new fiscal year, confident that Ellis County is heading in the right direction.
There are many indicators that positive things are happening in our community. Most everyone is aware by now that the county buildings on the west and south side of downtown square have sold. Plans to rehabilitate and refurbish these properties to provide new retail space for tourism related businesses and build-out loft apartments is welcome news for the revitalization of downtown Waxahachie.
Additionally, the county has invested in a new radio tower that will increase public communications reliability and safety, and provide a stable platform to continue improvement of the entire system. It is slated for completion in October.
Preliminary plans are also in the works to build a records storage and warehouse facility at the Ellis County Farm. Investing in our own property makes fiscal sense, alleviating the need to lease space at an approximate cost of $80,000 per year.
And finally, Representative Pitts recently announced that the Texas Legislature has approved a new District Court for Ellis County effective Sept. 1, 2014. In preparation, future projects will include finish-out of a multi-purpose jury room to accommodate jury panels and the new district courtroom in the Ellis County Courts and Administration Building.
While improvements are costly, funds have been set aside and others re-allocated to address the needs that will have a broad and positive public impact.
Every year requires maximizing our resources and planning for the future. I am proud to be your county judge and preside over the Ellis County Commissioners’ Court. Thank you for your faith and trust in my judgment, my integrity, and my ability to act as an honest steward for the enrichment of our community.
Carol Bush serves as Ellis County Judge.