Friday, August 3, 2012

Commissioners budget talks reveal info shortage

Tensions apparent in seeking numbers

Waco – A low grade rumble between two factions on the McLennan County Commissioners Court emerged Tuesday, and continued in budget worshop sessions through the week.

On the one hand, there is a historical majority on the Court which controls the flow of information, keeping at least two members guessing at all times on important budgetary and contractual issues.

On the other, members of the second class are starting to stand up for their right to know more and have a better understanding when it comes to spending the taxpayers' money.

The boogey man under the bed? Oh, that's the common sense trepidations that exist in the back of every player's mind about the item we don't like to talk about.

What if? That is, just what if, the private corporation that operates the Jack Harwell Detention Center decides to pull out because its board decides it's not making enough money?

How would McLennan County satisfy the debt service on a $50 million jail it can't fill, a debt service currently paid by fees paid for inmates housed there by CEC, Inc.? A big part of those fees come from taxpayers subsidy in the form of McLennan County prisoners housed in the Jack Harwell Detention Center at a cost to taxpayers of $45.50 per day.

Debt service. It's an interesting term. It means the monthly payments on revenue bonds the Commissioners Court issued without taxpayer approval, payments for which they are responsible – or else. Or else what? Risk a poor bond rating under which the taxpayers will pay a lot higher cost to bankers for the use of money to finance any more elusive schemes in corporate welfare in which their elected representatives would like to take a fling and give them a bath.

Facing a $121.7 million proposed budget that will require a either a 7.9 percent tax rate increase, that is, a hike from 46.43 cents to 50.09 - or a $3.4 million spending cut to avoid higher tax rates, Commissioners are being asked to make key decisions without the numbers and the contracts before them for their review.

The problem: A one million dollar shortfall in outside care exenses to have CEC, Inc., house and care for county prisoners at the county-owned, privately-operated Jack Harwell Detention Center.

The matter is one of a delicate nature because bond rating agencies look at the amount of reserve budgeted to cover any otherwise unanticipated shortfall in debt service funding.

In that case, the Commissioners Court closed its downtown jail in the Courthouse Annex for a $1.1 million refurbishment they thought was ordered by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. They learned much later – too late – that, in fact, the closure was never ordered, that the jail was in compliance. Just another rip-snortin' stampede, another exercise in cowboy capitalism at the public trough. Yee-Ha!

County Auditor Stan Chambers was at pains to explain to County Judge Jim Lewis that he was recommending a 6-month reserve fund, and not a 3-month program. The Judge said he didn't think a 3-month reserve would cover the need, though Mr. Chambers repeatedly stated he was not recommending that amount.

The signs of tension are clear, and growing. Taxpayers are as hot as the sidewalks in the 104 degree afternoons of August over any rate increase, as well as an across the board increase in valuations of residential and commercial properties assessed by the McLennan County Appraisal District.

The U.S. Treasury has made a dollar worth that much less with its incessant orders to print more currency based on the recommendations of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.

The further diminishment of a dollar progresses, the higher the assessed valuation of real property climbs. International bankers call it competitive devaluation; homeowners call it an assault on the means of personal wealth – home ownership. Any old hoss trader would call it a sorry deal.

Minority members of the board, including Kelly Snell and Ben Perry, say there are spots where the $9 million in budgeted funds that were left unspent in the previous year could be cut, but the question is, where?

A relatively minor dispute erupted over a deferred decision to continue using the services of Public Power Procurement (P3), a non-profit corporation consisting of various local governments that negotiates for the lowest electrical power rates.

The agenda item so confused Commissioners, they weren't exactly what they were voting for – or against. It required the interpretation of the Commissioners Court's attorney, Mike Dixon, to unsnarl the question.

It was straight forward enough. A yes vote would have cancelled the County's membership in the corporation. A no vote would keep the Conty in the coalition, ready to accept the negotiated price.
The bottom line, once the issue became stymied by the 2-2 split decision of Ben Perry and Lester Gibson voting nay and Judge Jim Lewis and Joe Mashek voting yeah – Kelly Snell having abstained - Commissioner Gibson protested: “We've been bamboozled.” Commissioner Perry also complained, saying “The agenda item was improperly entered all along.”

One may hear an audio recording of the discussion here:

In the matter of the $4 million increase in “personnel services,” the bulk of which includes outside care of jail inmates and the resulting longevity benefits, FICA, health insurance, and other personnel costs, several Commissioners sought historical figures showing the past expenses and how the budgets were brought into balance to handle the resulting expenses.

County Judge Jim Lewis protested, scolding County Auditor Stan Chambers. He said “If we're going to be sharing information, we need to share with everyone.”

Mr. Chambers countered by saying they came to him for the figures, and he supplied them. So it goes.

An audio recording of that discussion may be heard here:


  1. That old wheel is round.

    1. Budget cuts,ha,ha, look at Shell and PERRYS BUDGET AND CONTINGENCIES.