First let‘s all have a collective congratulations for ridding the county of some of the public officials that were causing the problem, then let’s talk about dealing with the approximately $6.4 million deficit Liberty County faces next budget year.
Anyone keeping up with the local news knows a public workshop was held by the Liberty County Commissioners Court two weeks ago in Liberty to discuss the problems of borrowing and spending by previous administrations. But first let’s face the facts; several of the people in those previous administrations were in that meeting. They were (and still are) a big part of the problem taxpayers face today.
When we read a quote by County Auditor Harold Seay that says, “I’ve tried to get us back to a balanced budget which we haven’t had for years but we’ve been taking money out of the fund balance each year” - We can look past his politeness and pinpoint that is still around that caused the problems.
When we read a quote by County Judge Craig McNair that says, “I’ll get to the point: it’s grim. I know some of you are looking at what you can buy or expand, but this is not the time. Now is not the time to buy equipment but to maintain it” - We know he still has some of the same public officials salivating over another scheme to increase their budget at taxpayer expense as we have had for years.
Commissioners Fontenot, Hunt, and Brown were already lined up at the public trough to start their pet projects when this meeting started – and the proposed expenditures they were transparent about then are of course not the only ones taxpayers need to be concerned about in 2011.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Todd Fontenot infamous for being the first commissioner in history to demand an office and a reserved parking spot at the courthouse - has uncorked his new project. Fontenot requested $81,000 to build a new barn facility in order to reduce drive time and fuel expenses. He said that materials and equipment could be stored at the new facility instead of transporting it back and forth from the current location. Fontenot is obviously hoping voters have forgotten the very public protest the local Republican Party had when he pushed to stretch his precinct across the six miles between Liberty and Dayton. Several citizens stood up and testified that Fontenot’s plan would cost more in fuel and travel time than was practical. In fact, he was told publicly that if his plan passed it would cause financial hardship on taxpayers eventually and that he would become enemy number one in any bid he made for re-election. (Todd Fontenot had better get ready for a battle and to start looking for a new job) The Fontenot name is doomed to the same place as the Zbranek's name.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Melvin Hunt who has always bragged that his roads are the best in the county at the same time he came to Commissioners’ meetings with his hand out for more money, has been making deals and allowing, if not orchestrating, borrowing schemes that would exclude the taxpayer from being able to vote on them. Hunt said that any additional money that his department receives will be spent almost entirely on roads. Hunt has been very clever in using taxpayers’ money and spending it where people that helped him get re-elected told him to. What will Hunt do? Will he be intimidated by the DA?
Commissioner Precinct 4 Norman Brown requested a pay increase for two of his employees. He also requested this year’s budget be increased from $136,000 to $145,000 for next year – for fuel – and from $35,000 to $45,000 for lease equipment. Good ole Norman has a habit of requesting a quarter of a million dollars around election time to temporarily blacktop and patch constituent roads and his buddies all barter for votes for something they want. The taxpayer is left holding the bag in this process. Norman could have used that money for fuel and patchwork rather than votes, but his priorities are not necessarily ours. (Norman Brown has clearly demonstrated he is still a Democrat; he has shamelessly bastardized our local Republican Party)
The absence of former Commissioner Lee Groce and former County Judge Phil Fitzgerald and their failed Walmart scheme-like ideas and FEMA ventures will no doubt make tax relief at least a possibility in the coming years. But the presence of these others may mean that it will be a battle to meet the demands of our economic times without bludgeoning the taxpayer with higher bills.
Those who have wondered when our newly elected Republicans would begin changing things may not have long to wait. All of the big spenders mentioned above were Democrats. Commissioner Brown switched parties and is at least officially a Republican, but it remains to be seen if he will switch his thinking along with his party affiliation.
County Auditor Harold Seay predicted that next year, the county’s fund balance could be reduced to between $10 and $13 million. That is only the most recent result of the spend and tax Democratic regime voters just partially defeated in the last election. The fund balance is an amount of money set aside by the county for emergencies and as a financial cushion. That still leaves us looking at about a $6.4 million deficit between our expenditures and our revenue.
County Judge Craig McNair, District Judge Chap Cain, District Judge Mark Morefield, and County Court at Law Judge Tommy Chambers (all Republicans) have been working on some big money saving plans, including reducing the reducing amount of time non-violent offenders spend in jail while awaiting trial. And including reducing the amount of time they spend in jail (using probation to monitor any bad behavior). The amount of savings from these ideas could add up to a couple of million dollars, but still leaves the need for a more conservative approach in other areas. County Clerk Paulette Williams said that she found $32,000 in her budget that can be returned to the general fund. District Clerk Donna Brown has also found significant savings in her first five months in office as has Judge Chambers. Chambers office had to bite the bullet and spend money on a court reporter in order to ensure proper court records and therefore justice (and also to avoid potential lawsuits against the county) - but he has also significantly reduced the amount of money the county will spend on public defenders. Encouraging defendants who request a public defender to pay what they can on their defense bill should more than account for the additional expense of a court reporter in the long run. County Court-At-Law Judge Tommy Chambers said that his department will end the year under last years budget, a first in Liberty County history.
Liberty County voters may have cleaned part of the courthouse just in time as our economy continues to be on shaky ground. An opportunity to bring more a conservative, more business-like approach to county affairs comes up again in November 2012. Even if the economy has improved, it will be a great opportunity to continue to add new people and new ideas to help us continue to build a more successful and fiscally responsible community.
Liberty Dispatch will be watching and reporting…