As the 2019-2020 budget process continues, the Ellis County Commissioners Court is looking at several capital projects, lowering expenses and planning for future needs.
The court hopes to have the budget completed by Aug. 31. The new budget goes into effect Oct. 1.
County Judge Todd Little said the court invited all of the county’s elected officials and department heads to be a part of the process by asking for their input.
“We sent out a budget packet and asked all department heads to submit a budget back to us that reduced maintenance and operations budget by 5-percent,” Little said, noting that officials were asked to identify unnecessary waste and or funds that went unused in their budgets this cycle.
“Most of them did – and they felt like there were areas where they could cut here and there,” Little said. “We are always planning for the next downturn. In government, if you are not intentional about cuts, they will never happen. We are in a situation where we have to spend less than we make. Ellis County is in a unique situation because we have got a lot of growth coming.”
Capital projects on tap
In this year’s budget, the county is looking at several capital projects that would help manage that growth. The first is the new Ellis County Court at Law No. 3, which was approved during the recently concluded 86th Legislature.
“We were successful in getting the County Court at Law 3 approved through the state Legislature,” Little said. “The new court will begin January of 2021 so that is going to be an expense that the county is going to have to consider (with) court reporters, court coordinators, and court security. It is going to be in the new courts and administration building.”
Little noted that, because of its burgeoning growth in population, the county loses its exemption from having to administer a Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program in 2021.
“Ten school districts have signed resolutions to support that initiative because our population is above 125,000,” he said. “We are going to be required to provide that. We have got to be up and running in about 18 months.”
Communications is another priority being addressed, with Little noting that the county is considering an 800 MHz digital radio system to ensure sheriff’s office personnel are able to communicate on the same system.
This would increase safety and provide better protection for deputies when they are out answering a call, Little said, noting that the cost to move from the current 100-200 MHz system to an 800 MHz one is an estimated $6.8-$7 million.
At this time, Little said he’s unsure if the new communications system would be funded through the general fund or go before the voters as a bond to be approved.
The county also wants to relocate the Pct. 2 Justice of the Peace and Constable offices from the existing facility off of Interstate Highway 35E to a new one. The building has served several roles in the past, including one as a restaurant and also as a post for the Texas Department of Public Safety.
“Any new building we want to build needs to be a 25-year or 40-year deal,” Little said. “We want every new building to have a voting location, some type of a community room and for these new buildings to have the proper security, so the JPs and their staff don’t have to worry when they have citizens come in and handle their business.
“The building would be similar to the sub-courthouse in Ennis,” he said. “We also want a tax office at these locations. As the county grows, we are going to need places for people to pay their taxes. I believe that would come with a fully equipped drive-thru as well.”
As a long-term item to consider, Little also said the county wants to own a building that would house the JP 4 court, tax office and constable. Currently, the county leases a facility for these offices.
County employee salaries
As part of its budget process, the county is reviewing salaries of county employees so as to make them competitive. This would help retain existing staff as well as attract qualified people, Little said.
“When you are looking around at counties comparable in size to Ellis County, I feel that there are certain departments that are not paid competitively with these other counties,” Little said. “What happens is we’ve become a training ground and they move on to better counties because they can get more money.
“We are not going to be the training ground anymore,” he said. “I think that applies to our sheriff’s office, as well. We are going to get patrol salaries up and competitive with other departments.”
House Bill 2 and the tax rate
Another point of discussion for the commissioners court members is House Bill 2 and what it means for the county’s tax rate. The measure was passed by the 86th Legislature, with part of its provisions changing the threshold at which citizens can petition for a tax rate rollback election.
“Our tax rate is a growing point of discussion this year because we are growing so much,” Little said. “Our appraised value has gone up so much that we are going to have to reduce the tax rate to stay underneath the rollback rate. That is something that is going to happen this year.
“House Bill 2 … essentially is a trigger that forces us to reduce our tax rate,” Little said. “We can only collect 3.5 percent more revenue in 2021 than we can in 2020. That starts in October of Oct. 1, 2019, and the next budget we will have has to be below that 3.5 percent.”
After July 25, the county will have all of its certified property values and will know what its revenues will be, Little said.
For questions about the budget, Little said he can be reached at his office by calling 972-825-5011 or by emailing email@example.com.