Gregg County Commissioners’ Court this week adopted a proposed budget and tax rate for fiscal year 2019. Monday’s vote came despite calls from two citizens to consider lowering the rate.
At times, the discussion became tense, as it has in previous budget discussions this summer, when taxpayers questioned County Judge Bill Stoudt’s proposal to maintain an unchanged tax rate rather than lowering the rate.
“Make no mistake that we have a surplus and I’m glad that we live in a county that is rich. But the intent is to get more over the next 13 months,” said Gregg County resident and business owner Peter Saccoccio. Court documents show the county will net increased revenue in the amount of $511,596.
Saccoccio cited a Sept. 4 Longview News-Journal article reporting no complaints from the public regarding Stoudt’s plan to maintain the tax rate. The 2019 budget calls for channeling some of the extra revenue generated by increased property values into the county’s reserve funds, pumping them up to $50 million by Sept. 2019.
While the tax rate will not change, property owners may pay more tax thanks to a two percent increase in value.
“It’s not that the general public doesn’t care. It’s just they’re beat down to the point it doesn’t do any good to say anything. I can sit here pounding on this podium until I go home and you’d vote on it anyway,” Saccoccio said, striking the podium to emphasize his point.
“How many people have called you and said ‘Yes, increase my budget. Yes, increase my taxes. Yes, let’s stack up more money?’ The whole point of government, it shouldn’t be complaint-driven. This is my point today,” Saccoccio said. “When we need ‘x’ amount of money and tax valuation brings in this much more money, reduce the taxes to equal what you need.”
Saccoccio also took issue with some proposed pay raises for county positions, claiming those who replaced retiring officials would, in effect, be getting a pay raise before accomplishing anything in their new post. He asked the court to consider whether the public wanted to continue the practice of maintaining the tax rate while property values boost revenues.
When Saccoccio began to discuss high taxes on property he owned in other counties, Robert Davis, the court’s legal counsel, cautioned public comments could only pertain to agenda items.
“We appreciate you standing up, but this is public comments and if a citizen wants to stand here and talk for an hour, this commissioner is willing to sit here and listen to him. You got that?” Precinct 2 Commissioner Darryl Primo said to Davis.
Davis repeated Texas law mandates public comments focus strictly on agenda items. Saccoccio willingly took his seat and Stoudt asked for any additional public comments. No further comments were offered and the court passed several motions with no issue, including an order to terminate the Gregg County burn ban thanks to recent rain and an approved purchase of a rescue tool to be used at the East Texas Regional Airport.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the court opened the final public hearing on the tax rate and budget before taking a vote. The hearing allowed public comments and Jeremiah Hunter, of Longview, spoke. “I wanted to agree with other comments that have been made in other sections that, unfortunately, we are facing a situation of taxation by valuation,” Hunter said. “Judge, I appreciate your explanation about the decision not to use reserve funds to pay for the proposed budget increase but I do respectfully disagree. The county has a lot of reserve funds and, while the explanation you gave me made sense from a business perspective, it does not make sense from a taxpayer perspective.”
Hunter, who has voiced similar concerns at previous commissioners’ court meetings, explained his disapproval of the county collecting surplus funds due to tax increases as a result of increased valuation and echoed Saccoccio’s criticism of raising pay rates for newly elected officials. He called on the court to lower the tax rate.
Stoudt responded to Hunter’s remarks.
“Let me make a comment on the elected officials’ pay increase. Number one, it’s voluntary. They do not have to take it. Number two is, after this budget is approved, I’m going to bring back the court for consideration. We just did a payroll policy a year ago on employees where when you rehired somebody when they left, they went back to a lower level. I’ll be coming back to court to ask that we do the same thing on elected officials. Elected officials, I agree with you, shouldn’t be treated any differently,” Stoudt said.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Gary Boyd also made a comment. He explained he had also wondered why the county held such large reserves until he considered the unforeseen costs of projects, such as building a bridge or repairing a road. Those costs, he said, can “become a bottomless pit” and can’t always be quantified, justifying a large amount of money in reserve.
The board then voted to adopt the proposed budget, tax rate and to ratify the property tax increase. Each vote came with a tally of 4-1, with only Primo voting “no.”
Following the meeting, Hunter explained he wanted to see a lower rate because taxpayers are feeling the squeeze while being taxed by multiple entities. He said he paid taxes to Pine Tree ISD, the city of Longview and Gregg County.
“When everybody raises taxes by five percent, you’ve got a 15 percent increase,” Hunter said. “Governments are not supposed to hold a bunch of money in reserves. They’re supposed to hold as little as possible. $40 million is too much. That’s more than enough.”
Stoudt explained increased revenues were being used to fund county expenses and to reduce burden on the taxpayer by keeping the tax rate unchanged for 16 years.
“We have the lowest tax rate of counties of our size in Texas. For the last four years, we had no increase in revenues. No one complains when there is no extra valuation revenue,” Stoudt said. He emphasized his plan to bring a motion before the court to ensure newly elected officials wouldn’t have inflated pay rates.
“Say you make $45,000. The person that comes in when you retire won’t start at $45,000,” Stoudt said, indicating new officials would begin their service at lower rates of pay. “The court can change this. Elected officials shouldn’t be treated any differently.”
He added the county’s reserves helped fund projects while keeping debt out of the budget.
“In the last year, we’ve paid for probably $40-50 million of projects in cash and we’ve accrued zero debt,” Stoudt said.
The judge added the commissioners’ have not had pay increases for five years, the county currently has had the lowest tax rate among its peers since 1997 and the tax rate has decreased three times since 2007.
“We’ve got the tax rate down to the lowest we can live with,” he said. “You can play politics with the tax rate all day long but it’s not the smart way to run a county.”