by Crystal Gottfried
Comal County Commissioners held their second of two public meetings on the proposed 2007 county budget and tax rate at the courthouse in New Braunfels on Monday, and a total of four attendees who were not a part of local government showed up.
County Judge Danny Scheel was pleased with the turn-out of interested taxpayers because there were four more than showed any interest last year during the budget process.
At the first public meeting last Thursday evening, President of Emergency Services District 3 Keith Lewis addressed Scheel and commissioners and expressed his concern about the lack of taxpayer input into the budget preparation process and the adoption of tax rates.
“This area has seen such an influx of new people, it’s put extreme pressure on country resources,” Lewis told commissioners. “The Canyon Lake Fire/EMS responded to 80 fires in July this year – our normal rate is about 30. But that aside, what can we do to make sure that people are fully informed about what local government is doing?”
“The ESD had a public hearing about our tax rate hike last week and no one attended,” Lewis said. “But I think that the onus is on us in local government to make sure that our message gets out to the taxpayers that we affect. What money has the county set aside to do this?”
Scheel was right on the question.
“We have done everything under the sun to get people in the community to be interested in the budget process,” said Scheel. “We have three out of 100,000 residents here tonight. When we have an election, we only have 6 (percent), 10 (percent) or 12 percent of the people come out to vote. Even when we make it easy on them with early voting and polling places all over the county, they don’t come out.”
Lewis pressed his point about getting the word out to taxpayers.
“The Fire/EMS district put out a report card about our promises made and our promises kept and mailed them to about 13,000 people who pay taxes to the district;” he said. “Can the county do something like that? People who don’t know about local government say, ‘No one informed me.’”
Scheel said that commissioners have already gotten a lot of “flack” from taxpayers whenever they do a mailing.
“People complain to us that we’re wasting tax money on postage,” he said. “It costs about $50,000 to $60,000 for a county-wide mailing.”
Local resident, T.D. Thomas, has been attending county meetings for years. He also spoke at the first public hearing last Thursday.
“I appreciate the damn fine job each of you has done,” he told the court. “I’ve served on a board of directors of a corporation that’s listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and I’ve watched you all. I support the tough job of this court.”
At Monday’s public hearing, resident Betty Gilbert addressed the judge and commissioners by asking them to consider shortening the time it takes for the new expensive properties being developed all over the county to start paying their taxes.
“I heard that it takes about two years for new properties to begin paying their full share of the county taxes, so you should develop a way to pro-rate the taxes to help them catch up,” she said.
Scheel responded that the county was working hard in another area and that is to attract good, clean businesses to the county, because these have lower “maintenance” costs like law enforcement, than do residential rooftops.
Gilbert also wanted to know why county employees were getting another 7 percent raise again this year.
“I never saw a 7 percent cost of living raise every year when I was working in the corporate world,” she said.
Scheel told her that county employees were not getting a cost of living raise this year.
“Historically, county employees have been paid below the regular pay scale of comparable jobs, so last year, we gave the lowest paid employees an increase,” he said. “This year, we are only giving merit raises. We can’t play catch up with salaries that the surrounding counties pay their employees, and we don’t want to be the training ground for employees for other counties either.”
Elected officials will not receive a pay increase for 2007. That has been an issue for the commissioners because they are appreciative of the dedication of the current force of Constables. However, because of the rollback issue this year, commissioners say that most constituents would disapprove of any kind of pay raise for elected officials.
Scheel said that County Auditor David Renken, his staff and the county’s department heads and elected officials have worked hard to hold the line on spending.
“Each year we’ve tried to keep the budget as low as possible because we’re aware that there is no way we’re going to be able to reduce spending,” he said. “With the growth that we’ve seen in Comal County, the costs are going up every year.”
After reviewing the $43,017 worth of adjustments that were made to the 2007 budget at last Thursday’s regular court session, commissioners voted unanimously to adopt the $30,606,888 budget as amended.
Comal County Tax Assessor/Collector Sherman Krause presented the Truth in Taxation report on the proposed 2006 tax rate of $0.315202 per $100 of assessed valuation; a drop from last year’s rate of $0.353747.
Krause also advised the commissioners about the effective tax rate of $0.291830 and the 2006 rollback tax rate of $0.315202 per $100 valuation.
The effective tax rate is the rate at which the county could collect the same amount of taxes as in the previous year. State law allows counties to raise the tax rate by 8 percent each year before taxpayers could ask for a rollback. The proposed new tax rate is exactly 8 percent higher than the effective tax rate.
Recent property value increases are expected to help the county raise about 7.9 percent more tax revenue than in 2006 even though the proposed tax rate of 31.5202 cents per $100 of assessed valuation is nearly 4 centers lower.
Without taking into account the county’s homestead exemption or the “over 65 tax freeze,” the owner of a home with an appraised value of $100,000 would pay approximately $315 in county taxes next year.
Also following through on the county’s obligation to meet Truth in Taxation laws, the proposed budget for 2007 and the proposed tax rate for 2006 to fund it are published in area newspapers several weeks prior to the commissioners’ actual vote to adopt them.
Scheel announced that commissioners will vote to adopt the new tax rate at a special hearing on September 11, at 10:00 a.m. at Commissioners Court.
The entire 2007 Comal County General Fund Proposed Budget can be viewed at the county’s website at http://www.co.comal.tx.us as well as in the New Braunfels Public Library and the Tye Preston Memorial Library.