0824 local commissioners court

The Cooke County Commissioners Court - (left to right) Leon Klement, Adam Arendt, Judge Steve Starnes, Jason Snuggs and Gary Hollwell (not pictured) set the county's 2022 general fund budget at $30 million Monday, after considerable discussion about seven percent employee raises for employees. The county property tax rate will drop one cent per $100 of assessed valuation, and the budget will be augmented with federal American Rescue Plan Act money, but around $9.5 million from the county's roughly $20 million general fund balance.

Cooke County will rely on a mix of local property tax dollars, its general fund balance and federal stimulus money to pay its bills next year.

The county’s commissioners court approved a $30 million budget for fiscal year 2022, which starts Oct. 1. It includes both a seven-percent raise for county employees and a one-cent drop in property tax rates from this current fiscal year. There will be two new ambulances added to the county’s fleet.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Leon Klement was the court’s lone vote against the budget. He noted the seven percent for employees and wondered aloud if that wouldn’t “put too much pressure on local businesses” to raise their wages. He said five percent seemed more proper.

The other commissioners took polite exception to that. Precinct 1 Commissioner Gary Hollowell and County Judge Steve Starnes each noted that county employees got no raise last year, not even cost-of-living, due to economic uncertainly over COVID-19.

Hollowell added that the money was coming from federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars, thus allowing the court to hold the line on taxes for next year – the property tax rates will drop from 42 cents to 41 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

“I’m okay with it, too, because it’s ARPA money,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Jason Snuggs. “… That was tough last year when we said we weren’t doing anything (for employees).”

Klement was sympathetic, but stuck to his position.

“But it’s still somebody’s money,” he countered, which Snuggs conceded.

Starnes also spoke to how Cooke County’s public safety wages lag behind the City of Gainesville and well behind the salary-and-benefit packages paid out around the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex.

“We end up being the training ground for the metroplex … we had a significant growth rate this year, so we should share that with our employees,” Starnes said.

In other business, the county will stage an election this November to determine whether or not Indian Creek will have an emergency services district to better fund its volunteer fire department. County officials has hoped to do the election next spring, but the Texas Secretary of State’s has overruled the plan and instructed them to do it this year.

The department was established in 2012. The Indian Creek fire district, 62 square miles (39,680 acres) housing 4,000 residents and Lake Kiowa, has had an uptick in calls in recent years. The district’s governing board relies on an annual subsidy of $11,500 from Cooke County and proceeds from various fundraisers.

The lack of steady revenue and volunteers have lead the district’s board to seek permission to establish the emergency services district. Doing so would allow the establishment of a property tax levy of up to 10 cents per $100 of assessed valuation under state law to finance fire and emergency operations.

The fire department has had trouble, like many rural departments around the U.S., in recruiting and holding onto volunteers. According to the district’s website, there are just four volunteers available to handle most of the calls, with another 15 whose availability varies.

The Indian Creek fire district board is scheduled to meet Monday, Sept. 13, at 5 p.m. at its main station, 550 Kiowa Dr. West, Lake Kiowa, to discuss next steps. Subsequent meetings will be held the second Monday of the month.

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