Commissioners face sobering economic realities

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MELISSA FREEMAN / Robertson County News

Though Robertson County is far from experiencing the economic deficits it saw in the mid to late nineties, it is no longer riding on a wave of minerals-driven economic prosperity.  With natural gas both cheap and, for the time being, abundant, the price of gas and the demand for lignite coal are significantly down, driving county property appraised values down by about 1.3 billion in the last three years.  
In a special called meeting on Monday, County Judge Jan Roe laid out the economic picture to the County’s four commissioners—either cut your road and bridge budgets by as much as 15% or consent to a four to five cent increase in taxes (a four cent increase on residential property appraised at $100,000 translates into a $43 increase in county property tax).  As Commissioner (pct. 4) Robert Bielamowicz summarized it, “I guess we go home and decide whether we want to be chewed out for fewer services or higher taxes.”
Before grappling with a possible budget crisis, the panel approved a new postage machine for the election office and decided not to re-institute a burn ban at this time.  Outside burning will probably be allowed for a few more days with the drought index just short of the cut off level that mandates a burn ban.
The County approved an invoice listing of $103,245.78 and went into its budget workshop.   
Roe explained that in the two previous years, the County’s offices and law enforcement had already been cut to the bone, and she did not see how they could be cut much more.  However, the county lost $358 million in appraised values this year, $966 million over the two years prior, in the industry and minerals category.  The loss in mineral and industrial values was actually 1.5 billion with slight increases in residential values making up a small percentage of the loss.
Though commissioners Bielamowicz and Keith Nichelson (pct. 3) strongly disagreed with the appraised values (values are set by Capitol Appraisal in Austin), Roe indicated that there was little the county could do.  Those low appraisals translate into a loss of over $1.1 million to the county in property taxes in the up-coming year if tax rates remain the same.  Property values are now as low as they were in 2007, Roe explained.  That year, taxes were also higher than at any time since 2007—48 cents on every $100 of property value.
The years 2008 through 2010 were boom years for the County.  During that time, gas exploration and lignite coal power plant development were on the rise and the Railroad Commission which certifies oil and gas wells and their value could not keep up with new drilling.  Tax revenue from any wells not appraised in time for the August-September County budgeting process (in other words, extra tax revenues not budgeted by the beginning of the fiscal year in October) went into a reserve fund that now is being used to re-construct the Historic Courthouse and Jail.  None of those construction bills are being paid out of the County operating budget, explained Roe.  
What is in jeopardy in 2013-2014 are improvements to roads and bridges—most anything past basic maintenance.   Commissioner Nichelson pointed out a 15% cut might have effects beyond improvements. His mowing equipment is falling apart, he said, and draconian cuts to his budget would make it impossible to replace that equipment.  Cutting grass on the side of the roads is a safety issue and considered basic.  
Commissioner Keith Petitt (pct. 1) said he would go back and review his budget again.  At least, several commented, the County does not have to borrow money as it used to do in the mid-nineties when it had no reserves to operate on during the months of August and September-the last months of the fiscal year.  The grim reality remains, however, that some hard choices have to be made Friday morning, August 2, at 9 am, when Commissioner’s Court re-convenes.
 This Chart was submitted by Roe to demonstrate the appraised property values from 2007 to 2013.

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