Johnson County commissioners, in response to recent legislative action, adjusted court meeting rules of procedure, conduct and decorum during their Monday meeting. 

During the same meeting, County Judge Roger Harmon noted that the county, thanks to rising costs, sits behind the eight ball as budget talks for the upcoming fiscal year approach. Commissioners also chided state legislator’s penchant for “pushing unfunded mandates” on counties and cities.

 

Peoples’ voice

The commissioners court has always had rules governing public comment, Harmon said. The recent passage of House Bill 2820, however, changes some of those rules, County Attorney Bill Moore said.

“That bill, which passed this session, allows people to address any item on the agenda at the start of the meeting or during the meeting,” Moore said.

The court previously required attendees to sign up to speak before the meeting and such comments were generally heard during the public participation section of the meeting.

“A governmental body shall allow each member of a the public who desires to address the body regarding an item on an agenda for an open meeting  of the body to address the body regarding the item at the meeting before or during the body’s consideration of the item,” according to HB 2840.

The bill also curbs attempts by governmental bodies to avoid criticism during open meetings.

“A governmental body may not prohibit public criticism of the governmental body including criticisms of any act, omission, policy, procedure, program or service,” according to HB 2840. “This subsection does not apply to public criticism that is otherwise prohibited by law.”

Much remains the same otherwise, Moore said.

“If it’s not on the agenda, it’s not up for discussion,” Moore said. “That hasn’t changed. People can still talk about something not on the agenda during the public participation section. But then it would still be up to the court to decide whether that issue should be put on a future agenda for discussion. Although the court may respond with a statement of factual information given in response to an inquiry or recite existing policy in response to an inquiry. Otherwise, any  deliberation of or decision about the subject of the inquiry shall be limited to a proposal to place the subject on the agenda for a subsequent meeting.

“People also still have to sign up to speak before the court. It’s just that now they can do that after court starts if they want to address individual agenda items.”

The commissioners court, and other governmental bodies, may still “adopt reasonable rules regarding the public’s right to address the body,” according to HB 2840.

Such rules include retaining limits on a speaker’s time as well as limits on the number of speakers allowed to address an individual agenda item.

“As to the other part, I’ve always felt it’s a person’s right to criticize the court,” Harmon said. “So long as you’re not getting into personal attacks or foul language. Fortunately, in the majority of cases we’ve never had those issues.”

 

Budget concerns

“We’re fixing to start budget talks and have already had a lot of request,” Harmon said. “We don’t even know our [tax roll] numbers yet and won’t get them until July 25. But we’re already about $520,000 in the hole before we even start budget.”

The dollar total represents an increase in the county’s contribution toward employee retirement plans to 11.49 percent and an increase in county contribution costs toward employee health insurance, both of which commissioners approved on Monday. Insurance costs increased by about $350,000 while retirement plan costs went up about $170,000.

Johnson County’s number of long-term employees brings experience and stability, Harmon said, but also costs.

“We don’t want to get in a situation like Fort Worth or Dallas where they don’t have to funding to meet their longtime retirement funding needs,” Harmon said. “We pride ourselves on the fact that the county has always stepped up.”

County Personnel Director Randy Gillespie agreed.

“These are the numbers the actuaries say we need to be at to stay solvent to meet our future goals of retirement funding,” Gillespie said.

Harmon cautioned commissioners to remain aware of the costs incurred so far as the court begins budget talks in earnest next month. The county’s new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Commissioners voted to accept $109,059 in grant fund reimbursement from the state for indigent defense costs.

“Those costs come from the fact that if you can’t afford a lawyer the county will provide one for you,” Commissioner Rick Bailey said. “Unfortunately, the state’s reimbursement is only a small portion of the $1.5 million the county spends on that each year.”

Commissioner Larry Woolley added that the county incurs similar cost discrepancies when it comes to indigent health care and other state-mandated programs.

Harmon agreed.

“Austin passes a lot of expenses down to the counties,” Harmon said. “They keep putting unfunded mandates on top of unfunded mandates. I think if they’re going to make us do something they ought to give us the money to pay for it.”

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