Last year, thanks to county growth and revenue increases, county commissioners were able to cut the property tax rate by about 10 percent.
The COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty coupled with county revenue decreases of more than $1 million have left the county in a different position this year as the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year approaches.
The hope among commissioners is to leave the property tax rate of 42.5 cents per $100 of valuation unchanged. Commissioners, as of their Monday meeting, said they believe that remains possible.
County department heads last week presented proposed budgets for their departments, budgets that in many instances included requests for new employees and/or equipment.
County Auditor Kirk Kirkpatrick on Monday said funding such a budget would require an increase of almost a penny. Those calculations, Kirkpatrick said, included equipment but not personnel requests.
Kirkpatrick added that an option remains available to commissioners. Commissioners last year tapped county reserve funds to pay off the note on the purchase and renovation of the Guinn Justice Center. Doing so played a role in allowing commissioners to lower the tax rate.
Another note from about five years ago, issued to pay for software programs, has a balance of about $2.4 million, Kirkpatrick said. Commissioners could once again use reserve funds to pay that note off, which should allow them to leave the current tax rate unchanged.
Commissioners will continue budget talks during their Monday meeting.
“Put all the requests in the budget and we’ll see what it’s going to take to fund it,” County Judge Roger Harmon told Kirkpatrick. “Then we’ll look at what we have and cut to get to where we want to be. Because of what’s happened to our economy I’d like to adopt the same tax rate that we had this year.”
Commissioner Rick Bailey agreed and said that, with many out of work because of economic and COVID-19-related reasons, a tax increase is the last thing county residents need.
“So many of our residents are just hanging in there right now,” Bailey said. “I think they deserve everything we can do from our end to help them.”
COVID-19 cases appear to be holding steady and perhaps declining, Johnson County Emergency Management Director Jamie Moore said, while still urging caution.
“The numbers look like they’re starting to flatten out, and that’s good news,” Moore said. “But it’s too early and we still don’t have enough data to predict if that’s a trend yet.”
Cumulative positive case numbers in Johnson County total 1,716 as of Monday, Moore said. Hospital admissions have decreased 32 percent statewide since July 22 and demand for testing has decreased locally as well, he said.
The positivity rate of those tested remains above 20 percent statewide, Moore said, which is not so good.
Moore said he’s also aware of the discrepancy between state and county fatality numbers. The county lists 10 fatalities while the state lists 30.
“We get case data everyday and there’s still only 10 in there,” Moore said. “The additional 20 the state tells us that we have, they at one point last week provided a list of names but no addresses. So we really don’t know where those people are so it’s hard to put them on our list.”
At least one fatality credited to Johnson County involved an Ellis County resident, for example, Moore said.
“We can’t assign these unfortunate deaths to the place they need to be without additional data and, at this point, the state hasn’t provided it,” Moore said.
Commissioner Larry Woolley said it’s important to point out that the release rate — those who tested positive for COVID-19 but have since been released — continues to climb.
“Two weeks ago we were at 84 percent,” Woolley said. “Since then we’ve hovered at about 86 percent.”
Promising numbers, Commissioner Jerry Stringer said, who added that he still sees people congregating in large groups.
“If you get tested and find out you don’t have it then go to a restaurant and sit with 27 other people that night or go to a big box store on the way home that test is no longer valid because you’ve had a chance to get it since then,” Stringer said. “I also wish that people understood that just because you’re family or good friends doesn’t mean you’re safe to be around them. That’s one of the biggest areas it spreads, among family and friends.”
Data proves that out, Moore said.
“Unfortunately we could still see these numbers increase and when they do increase they increase very quickly,” Moore said. “It only takes one person. Which is why social distancing, wearing masks at times and all the other mitigation steps are still important until we get the number of cases down.”
County Elections Administrator Patty Bourgeois told commissioners to expect a busy election season this year. In addition to the presidential election, local city and school board elections will be held alongside the general election this year. Those races, traditionally held in May, were postponed earlier this year out of COVID-19-related caution.
Cleburne voters will find their local races listed at the bottom of the general ballot. Voters in other area entities will vote for those races on separate ballots, Bourgeois said.
Early voting for the Nov. 3 election has been extended by a week, Bourgeois said. Early voting runs from Oct. 13-26. Grant funding, not county tax dollars, will pay for the extra week, she said.
Because of those and other complications with this year’s elections, the county plans to hire additional clerks and judges, Bourgeois said.