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Lee Library may get funding from Upshur County - after being cut out two years ago



GILMER--The Upshur County Commissioners Court appears poised to restore some funding for the Lee Public Library in the Gregg County part of Gladewater, as a majority of the court indicated support for it during a work session last Wednesday on the 2013-14 budget.

In a controversial cost-cutting move, the court eliminated funding for the library about two years ago, and support for restoring it is not unanimous since the county has faced major financial difficulties since then.  Meantime, supporters of funding the library in the past argued that although it was in Gregg County, many Upshur Countians used it.

Upshur County Judge Dean Fowler expressed support for restoring funding Wednesday after the court's two newest members, Pct. 1 Commissioner Paula Gentry and Pct. 3 Commissioner Frank Berka, said they wanted it. Gentry proposed giving $1,000, and Berka proposed awarding $2,000.

Pct. 4 Commissioner Mike Spencer objected that "We don't have the money to do that," and Pct. 2 Commissioner Cole Hefner pointed out the court had cut the budget in the past for the Upshur County Library in Gilmer. (No increase is proposed in the county library's funding so far in this year's county budget).

But Fowler told Spencer and Hefner, "I'm going (along) with them" (Berka and Gentry) on favoring restoration of Lee's funding.

Gentry proposed using savings from the vacancy of the county fire marshal's office for the library donation. The court has not replaced Paul Steelman, who resigned that position earlier this year.

While running for commissioner in 2012, Berka made a personal donation to the library after the court eliminated funding for it.

During Wednesday's discussion, Hefner addressed complaints from Gladewater area residents about their county services, asking what services that such areas as Ore City and Simpsonville receive that Gladewater doesn't.

Berka, who represents much of the Gladewater vicinity, pointed to the large amount of tax revenue which comes from the area, and said Gladeites "rarely see patrol (by the sheriff's office)" and don't receive much county road work.

Fowler meantime announced the court will consider raises for all county employees as he and commissioners spent nearly four hours Wednesday discussing and revising his proposed $10.9 million budget for the coming 2013-14 fiscal year.

The court has not yet finalized the budget nor tax rate, but any raises would be the first given county workers in about seven years. There was no discussion of the level of any potential raise to take effect Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins.

Near the special session's end, Fowler also said his proposed budget was "basically exactly the same" as the current one, although $300,000 lower because the current budget contained that amount of funding for courthouse renovations required by the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Fowler additionally said near meeting's end that the proposed budget is based on a tax rate of 52.23 cents per $100 valuation, (compared to the current 51.22 cents), but he added it was a "little premature" to disuss the tax rate. 

He said 52.23 cents is the "effective" tax rate--the level required to raise the same amount of revenue as the current rate, but using new valuations established by the Upshur County Appraisal District.

Last year, the court voted 3-2 to approve a 4.21-cent hike in the tax rate, and Fowler said at the time that would pay off the county's debts and the hike would only be for the current 2012-13 fiscal year. 

Hefner pointed out at Wednesday's meeting it was understood when the county paid off a loan, a 3-cent portion of the hike would "fall off the rate." Then Hefner added, "And this (proposed rate of 52.23) is making it (the rate hike) permanent (instead). Right?" 

"Yes," Fowler acknowledged.

Several months after approving the supposed temporary tax hike, county officials discovered that a nearly $1 million shortfall in county funds was projected, so the commissioners court slashed the current budget by about that level in mid-fiscal year. In addition, two of the court's current members, Berka and Gentry, were not in office when the court approved the tax hike last year.

Hefner voted against the tax increase, which Fowler and Spencer supported. Then-Pct. 3 Commissioner. Lloyd Crabtree cast the other vote for the tax hike, while then-Pct. 1 Commissioner James Crittenden opposed it before both left office at year's end.

As the court Wednesday went over Fowler's proposed budget department-by-department, the judge recommended only relatively small portions of the controversial major increases Sheriff Anthony Betterton requested in the separate budgets for the county jail and sheriff's office.

Hefner said Betterton sought $537,500 more, $282,500 of it for the jail budget and $255,000 for the sheriff's office budget.

Fowler said he approved a $34,000 increase for the jail--$20,000 for prisoners' food, $6,000 in employee retirement matching funds, $5,000 for inmates' prescription drugs, and $2,000 for transporting prisoners. The judge said the jail population has increased.

He said he also recommended a $115,000 hike in the sheriff's office budget--but since that included $90,000 for two new school resource officers at New Diana ISD and $20,000 in retirement match, "basically, I increased his (Betterton's) budget (for the office) $5,000."

Said Hefner, "The way you proposed it is okay with me, tentatively." But Berka expressed concern the proposed gasoline budget for the sheriff's office was inadequate, and Fowler agreed to check into that.

On the matter of inmate food, however, Berka said, "I've been told those people are eating like kings down there." And Hefner said he didn't understand "why we can't get it (food costs) down."

Fowler replied the jail population was up.

In another major part of Wednesday's budget session, Road and Bridge Administrator Andy Jordan asked to add two full-time employees and give $1 hourly raises to his workers to bring their pay in line with other counties. 

He said they are among the lowest-paid county employees, although they pick up fallen trees in rain and work in 100-degree temperatures. He also said one worker with five children is taking home only about $6 hourly despite his certification in dealing with hazardous materials.

Despite seeking more workers and the raises, Jordan said his proposed budget was $92 lower than the original proposed budget for his department last fiscal year (before he took office).

Hefner and Spencer expressed support for increasing the Road and Bridge budget, and Berka said he didn't want it decreased. Hefner said the R&B budget is $400,000 lower than it was a decade ago.

In other aspects of the budget discussion Wednesday:

--Gentry proposed a pay raise for herself, saying she should earn as much as a Justice of the Peace. (Between the time she won the Republican nomination for her office last May, and the time she took office Jan. 1, the court reduced commissioners' pay by about $10,000 annually in the 2012-13 budget.)

--After hearing appeals from several residents of Pct. 1, and from that precinct's constable, Gene Dolle, for a $4,600 increase in his budget, all four commissioners approved his request by consensus.

"I don't have the money to put gasoline in my car. . .If I'm not mobile, I can't accomplish much of anything," Dolle said. He also cited his work on behalf ot the county, and several residents cited how active he has been.

Several other elected officials also appeared before the court to discuss their proposed budgets.