Johnson County Commissioners spent most of Monday fielding budget requests from county department heads and elected officials. The county’s new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
Commissioners on Monday also looked forward to the 2021 fiscal year and discussed a new law, set to take affect that year, which many predict will hamper the ability of counties and cities to grow and provide basic services.
“Keep in mind that in [the following fiscal year] the 3.5 percent cap under Senate Bill 2 is going to restrict us in the future on how we spend our money and that’s going to be a challenge because growth is already here and more is certainly coming, “ Johnson County Judge Roger Harmon said.
As to Monday’s requests and the budget they’re working on now, commissioners stressed that any and all decisions will have to wait until next Monday when they get reports of the property tax rolls, which will tell them how much revenue is available for the upcoming budget year.
In anticipation of the new tax cap law taking affect the year after, Commissioner Larry Woolley asked County Tax Assessor Collector Scott Porter and Auditor Kirk Kirkpatrick to prepare two sets of numbers for the upcoming budget, one under current conditions and another as if the tax cap were already in place.
“I hope that will give us a picture of what we’ll be dealing with next year and give us a year to plan accordingly for the budget year after this one coming up,” Woolley said. “Because I certainly don’t see the growth of the county slowing down anytime soon.”
Harmon, no fan of the new tax cap law, referred to the raises commissioners approved in the current budget year for Johnson County Sheriff’s Office employees last September.
“For those sheriff’s employees sitting in court today let me give you a picture of what that [tax cap] is going to look like,” Harmon said. “The state came in and said if [a county or city] has growth of 3.5 percent over the past year and the county accepts a rate over that they’re automatically subjected to a rollback and it automatically goes on the ballot the following November for the voters to vote whether you get to keep that or lose it.
“Well, let me tell you, the mindset of all voters right now is we’re taxed enough as it is and they’re not going to approve that.
“I served on the school board and we went through a rollback. We ended up cutting employees and programs out of the schools in Cleburne because of that rollback.”
The effects of the new cap remain unknown, but don’t look good, Harmon said.
“We have Austin telling us that they know better how to run our county than we do,” Harmon said. “That is poor judgment on their part in my opinion. But that’s a horse of a different color.
“Last year, which is the budget year we’re in currently, we raised more revenue, $3,699,156 in revenue, than the budget the year before that. That was 8.16 percent growth. Had the tax cap been in effect then we wouldn’t have been able to do the raises we did for the sheriff’s office this year.”
Sheriff Adam King said he too is trying to make heads or tails of the new tax cap.
“More growth is coming,” King said. “I’ve seen estimates as high as the county doubling in population in the next 10 years. And, if we need to double our services, I don’t see how we can do that under this cap.”
Harmon said he and other county and city officials have repeatedly told state legislators just that.
“I worked on our legislative committee in Austin this year and the previous five sessions and that’s what we told them,” Harmon said. “But they know better than we do.
“But we’re going to have more than 3.5 percent growth in this budget year coming up and I’m predicting from here on out. Now, what I mean by that growth, it doesn’t mean a 3.5 percent tax increase. It means increased valuations.”
The cap, increasing property values and new laws governing annexation have set the perfect storm brewing for trouble ahead, Commissioner Rick Bailey said.
Johnson County voters in November approved new rules limiting the ability of cities to annex. Under the new rules, residents in the areas under annexation consideration would have to vote to approve such a move.
Annexation in most cases being unpopular with those affected, Bailey and others on the court said it is unlikely that cities in Johnson County will be able to grow through annexation in the future to any great degree. Which, they said, will increase the demand for services in the unincorporated areas of the county.
“The new subdivisions coming in, and there’s a ton of growth and more on the way, they’re looking at the unincorporated areas,” Bailey said. “Because land in the rural areas is generally cheaper. Plus the fact that the requirements for roads and building are not as strict and not as expensive as building within the cities.
“So, as the growth moves forward, that’s going to mean more road miles for the county to maintain, more work for the sheriff and more for all the county departments.”
Several commissioners commented on skyrocketing property values of late, values which the appraisal district, not the county sets.
Much of that is market driven, Woolley said, given that Johnson County is a hot spot for development and growth.
Although they can’t control property valuations, commissioners said they hope to decrease the county’s property tax rate in the new year if possible to bring tax payers some relief.
Bailey said he would also like to see the court pay off the remainder of the bond, which is about $2 million, on the renovation of the Guinn Justice Center, which occurred in the early 2000s. Doing so, Bailey said, would cut the tax rate by 2 cents.
Harmon said the legislature needs to find alternative ways fund public education other than simply through property taxes. Otherwise, Harmon said, Texas’ booming housing market will not be able to sustain indefinitely.