Waco – The County Judge has his work cut out for him in what will likely be an explosive public hearing about the budget and setting the property tax rate for 2013-14 at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, August 27.
Scott Felton is a banker, retired, brought back from the bench to take an aging jailer's place as County Judge after he made a hasty retirement when money troubles loomed on the horizon in 2012.
Judge Jim Lewis held court for more than 20 years after working his way up from a turnkey at the County Jail, moving, shaking, putting together majority votes on the five-man court with routine ease – until securities markets collapsed, the dollar plummeted, and like most businesses, the financial affairs of McLennan County, Texas, headed for the toilet.
When Lewis left, Felton stepped in as an appointee, and he faces an unpalatable task in budget balancing – to raise taxes to the “roll back” rate by 8.5 cents per $100 valuation – merely to balance an out of whack budget.
It won't cover the next year's shortfall, and he explained that in banker's terms to the local establishment daily newspaper, the Waco “Tribune-Herald,” in a very business-like, rock-ribbed Republican way.
Said Judge Felton, who admits he's a novice at local government, “Well, just being new on the court, I was surprised to see we had this declining fund balance. As a former banker, there’s a couple things you look at (to gauge financial viability): net worth and how much they’re going into reserves. It appears we’re going to have $12.5 million in the fund balance at the end of 2013. That’s a lot of money, but not relative to the budget, and if you’re looking at your annual expenditures in the $70 million range — well, that’s $6.5 million or so per month, so we really only have a couple of months of reserves at $12.5 million.”
The elephant in the living room that no one talks about is a privately operated, built-on-spec jail the Commissioners Court went out on a limb to finance with revenue bonds that require no voter approval - $49 million worth – to build a jail they can't fill with other peoples' prisoners. It' a for-profit scheme involving a ministerial duty, one prescribed by the Texas Constitution.
Last budget year, Legendary analysts looked at the previous 5 years of budget surplus for road and bridge precincts. The numbers were arrived at by taking reported expenditures (what they actually spent) from the amount budgeted. No such analysis has been undertaken since but at the time the difference in what they actually spent and what they told the taxpayers they needed was more than $24 million for the 5 year period.
How to meet the debt service? They fill it with their own “overflow” prisoners at $45.50 per day, financed from that reserve fund he just lamented spending.
How did they come to need an overflow jail? They closed a courthouse annex jail that houses some 350 prisoners, faked a consent order form the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, and brazened that out in the latest Sheriff's race of 2012 when it turned out to be a bald-faced lie.
The next softball question lobbed in from the merchants' daily sheet?
What was the biggest eye-opener he confronted as a newcomer to local politics and the exigencies of what has been described as a study in anarchy, the various constitutional offices of a Texas courthouse.
“I find it alarming the amount of statutes that drive a lot of our expenses, especially when it comes to our correctional institutions. For instance, there are ratios that have to be met in terms of jailers to inmates. The other thing is the amount of effort and process and money that it takes from the time someone is arrested till they go through the bonding process, then through the indictment process and then into the incarceration process. That’s an area I haven’t been exposed to at all. When I was talking about seeing this financial trend go the wrong way, I went to look at what was causing it.”
None of this happened in a vacuum.
Texas law bifurcates the bean counting task. The County Treasurer is an elected official, a post that by local option may be appointive and beholden to the Commissioners Court.
On the other hand, the County Auditor is appointed by the District Judges, the trial Courts of original jurisdiction.
So, when the long-term auditor suddenly resigned and retired in 2012, they hired a man out of an east Texas County who wasted no time prompting a Texas Rangers investigation of the County Tax Assessor-Collector's dealings in used pickup trucks purchased, then sold at very favorable rates to employees who used them to travel between satellite offices, thence home.
When the trial was over, the man, a seasoned Democrat, drew time and a lengthy period of community supervision.
And then there's the jail's staff-to-inmate ratio. According to multiple sources, the staff is down by 16 certified corrections officers, which might not cause an unbalance in prisoner ratio set by statutes prompted by an historic set of federal inmate lawsuits, but does play hell with days off, sick time, vacation and overtime.
McLennan County advertises openings in the jail staff routinely; people fill out applications, and just as routinely, no one gets hired.
It's kind of hard to commit to hiring new employees when you don't know what your budget will be.
Here are some samples of comments gleaned from McLennan County's own Facebook page:
Position: Correction officer/jailer
“What are the qualifications?
“Would love to but I have been applying for the last 15 years and never get selected for an interview.
“I've had an app in for a couple months, waiting on an interview.....
“Take your time filling this position, McLennan County. You're on a roll so keep it classy!
“Already applied. Just waiting.....
“Gee I wonder if I would Qualify?”