The Cooke County Commissioners Court approved a proposed budget and tax rate Monday.

The Commissioners approved the proposed budget 3-2, with County Judge Bill Freeman and Precinct 2 Commissioner Steve Key in opposition.

“I don’t think it’s right to pay 3 percent when we can afford to pay more,” Freeman said.

Freeman said based on his estimation the county could afford to give a 5 percent raise across the board to county employees.

The Commissioners then approved the proposed tax rate unanimously. The rate for fiscal year 2008 (which begins in October) is .4768 cents for every $100 valuation — less than the current year’s of .4867 cents, according to Freeman.

Those numbers would become effective later this summer if the Commissioners approve them following a public hearing on the budget (10 a.m. Aug. 20) and public hearings on the tax rate (the morning of Aug. 20 and 10 a.m. Aug. 24). Amendments to the budget may be made up until then.

A copy of the proposed budget, with Monday’s changes factored in, was not available by press time.

Freeman said the “most glaring” changes to next year’s budget proposal are several new positions: Two sheriff’s deputies, one county clerk’s part-time employee, a three-fourth time auditor’s office employee, an information technology (IT) department head and a human resources (HR) department head.

The Commissioners voted unanimously to delete the IT position from the budget, shaving off about $63,500.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Gary Hollowell asked whether computer services would be best implemented on a contract basis rather than by a full-time employee.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Virgil Hess said the county should chose either an IT person or an HR officer, but not both.

Hess suggested a part-time employee be added to court compliance officer’s position to assist with a department dedicated to bringing in revenue. Freeman said Workforce Texoma may be able to provide a part-timer “free of charge to the county.” Hollowell said an additional warrants clerk in the sheriff’s department may also assist in gathering revenue.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Al Smith said there is “ample evidence” the compliance officer’s department could use more funding.

The Commissioners voted unanimously to place money in the compliance officer’s contingency fund for a part-time employee, in case Workforce Texoma could not provide one.

Freeman noted all utilities costs, currently the responsibility of each department, would be transferred to the care of the maintenance department — taking the maintenance budget from about $19,000 to well over $100,000.

Even with the utilities charges transferred, Freeman said spending in the Sheriff’s Department is up $550,000 and take up one-third of the total county budget.

“Cooke County is no different than any other county in that regard,” Freeman said.

Key said he is concerned for the nurses at the Cooke County Jail, and said jailers have been the ones distributing medication to inmates.

“Are we putting ourselves in a more liable position (by not hiring an additional jail nursing staff member)?” Key said.

Key also noted overworked jailers and not enough overtime hours are available.

Freeman said a different hourly employee scheduling plan at the Cooke County Justice Center may solve that problem to a degree.

The Commissioners voted down a motion 3-2 to reduce the Sheriff’s budget to $50,000. The Commissioners voted down 4-1 a motion by Key to raise the sheriff’s salary to $65,000 from $46,700.

“It’s been talked about, and I think it needs to be out there,” Key said, explaining his motion.

Freeman noted 74.7 percent of the total sheriff’s budget was used to date, and a critical line item shows there is $67 left for ammunition. He said the jail used 88 percent for the current year to date.

Freeman moved the sheriff’s budget be set at $55,000, which passed unanimously. Hollowell hesitated before he voted yes.

On the District Attorney’s budget, the Commissioners also voted 4-1 (with Key voting no) to reduce the first assistant district salary by $5,000 and give that to the second assistant district attorney —causing no overall change to the total D.A. budget amount.

On payment for Cooke County Appraisal District services, Freeman said that is up 18 percent ($27,560) due to an increase in the Gainesville ISD’s tax volume. Saunders noted the county experienced a 9 percent growth in its tax base this year.

In other business, the Commissioners voted unanimously to appoint Jodi Bridges as deputy constable for Precinct 4. Bridges, a licensed law enforcement officer, replaces Tony Wier, who resigned for personal reasons according to Constable Tony Ward.

Insurance was also a major item of business Monday morning. The Commissioners voted unanimously to approve renewal of its Texas Association of Counties public officials professional liability coverage contract, and to renew the county’s health insurance contract.

“We had a real good year this year, and not a lot of claims,” Freeman said.

Prior to action items business, a representative from Nationwide Insurance Co. presented a proposed deferred compensation plan for Cooke County.

The Commissioners also unanimously approved an agreement for “actuarial shared services,” and voted to enter a contract with Gabriel Roeder Smith and Co. for actuarial valuation services in the amount of $4,500.

Shelly Saunders, county auditor, explained the service would look at every county employee eligible for retirement and see if they have worked enough time to qualify. She said other counties may spend up to $15,000 on similar services, and the county is getting a good deal.

Hollowell said the state law which requires an actuarial service be used could be considered an “unfunded mandate.”

The Commissioners then voted unanimously to approve ratifying the county judge’s signature on an inter-governmental agreement for case management software. A few meetings ago the Commissioners applied for a grant for $19,800 from the County Information Resources Agency.

In other business the Commissioners voted unanimously to:

• Ratify Freeman’s signature on a contract with Net Data for automation software.

• Accept a grant check from Wal-Mart Foundation for the Cooke County Library in the amount of $1,000 and a monetary donation from John and Barbara Callaway to the Cooke County Library in the amount of $200 to assist with flood damage to the building.

• Approve the county’s contracts with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

• Renew the maintenance agreement in the amount of $480 per year for the District Clerk’s office’s microfilm reader, which was purchased in 1998.

• Accept a donation from Steve Gaylord in the amount of $93 for Precinct 2.

• Bond Paula M. Moore as a jailer.

No action was taken on changing the Cooke County EMS employee hourly pay rates schedule, as discussed at the July 9 meeting.

No action was taken on the county’s disaster declaration. Ray Fletcher, emergency management coordinator, briefly reviewed financial relief opportunities for residences and businesses affected by recent flooding and heavy rains.

“It’s coming together,” he said. “It’s the complete package we could’ve hoped for.”

He requested Commissioners log overtime hours, equipment damage and material loss so the county can have a more specific figure of how much was lost in flooding.

The meeting adjourned at 2:58 p.m.

Reporter Andy Hogue may be contacted at andyhoguegdr@ntin.net

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