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By PHILLIP WILLIAMS/Correspondent
GILMER–After a lengthy public hearing, Upshur County Commissioners Court on Aug. 22 voted 3-1 to tentatively approve raising the county tax rate by more than two cents, and tentatively approved a $1,200 pay raise for all county employees and elected officials.
The court approved County Judge Dean Fowler’s recommendation to raise the tax rate from the current 56.98 cents per $100 valuation to 59.5 cents, but the vote to do that and grant the raises is not final since the court will vote on setting the budget and tax rate Aug. 31.
The Aug. 22 vote came after the court rejected 3-2 a proposal by Pct. 3 Commissioner Frank Berka to retain the current tax rate and give a $675 pay raise. Fowler cast the tiebreaking vote against that motion.
Even under the current tax rate, taxpayers whose property valuations were increased would pay more taxes than last year–and Fowler said his proposal to raise the rate would add yet another $25 in taxes on a home valued at $100,000. The judge meantime expressed appreciation to citizen Myrtle Skinner for pointing out that county taxes are lower than school and city taxes.
The votes followed a 72-minute public hearing in which some elected officials requested raises for their workers, while some citizens among the dozens present voiced support for increasing taxes, and none expressed opposition.
“If we’re gonna raise taxes, we may as well. . .raise them to the maximum rate” which state law allows without requiring a tax rollback election, Fowler argued. He said the county had only actually raised taxes once in the past 15 years because, although the tax rate itself had gone up some years, taxable valuations had fallen then.
Included in the tentative vote were budget provisions adding $50,000 for road oil, $15,000 for a part-time clerk in Pct. 1 Justice of the Peace Wyone Manes’ office, and funding for two additional jailers.
Pct. 4 Commissioner Mike Spencer (who had seconded and voted for Berka’s unsuccessful motion) joined Pct. 2 Commissioner Don Gross and Pct. 1 Commissioner Paula Gentry in supporting the tax hike and pay raise. Berka opposed it while Fowler, who normally votes only to break ties, did not vote.
Before that, court members had floated varying ideas on the tax rate and raises. Among officials seeking a pay raise for her workers was District Clerk Karen Bunn, who said three employees in her office qualified for food stamps and that her workers’ gross pay (before deductions) was only $1,025 every two weeks. (After the meeting, she said the take-home pay is less than $900.)
She said one member of the commissioners court, who she did not identify by name, had stated that a position in Bunn’s office was a good job if the worker had a husband.
Just before she spoke, Gross proposed raising the tax rate by one cent and giving all workers and elected officials a $1,000 pay raise although “I probably won’t take it.” He praised county employees as a “hard working group of people. They’re very deserving” of a raise.
But Berka, saying he had been told that workers had received no raise in 13 years, said his proposed $675 hike could be granted “withour burdening our taxpayers any more.”
He pointed out that even at the current 56.98 cent rate, those whose valuations increased would pay more than last year.
After the public hearing portion of the meeting ended, Fowler suggested raising the rate to 59.5 cents and giving all workers a $1,800 raise, which he said would leave around $170,000 in the county’s reserve funds.
The judge said he favored the 59.5 cent rate whether the court gave $675, $1,000 or $1,800 raises.
But Berka stuck with his proposal, which he said would retain the current tax rate when valuations may increase again next year. “Next year, we’ll really be able to do some good,” he argued.
When the divided court rejected Berka’s motion, several in the audience, which included several county employees and officials, applauded.
Meantime, still unresolved after the hearing was what the city and county will do about the court’s recent controversial vote to fund the Upshur County Library at $167,000 this fiscal year on the condition that the city of Gilmer take over operating it. However, by Monday, that situation may have been nearing a resolution (see separate story.)
City Mgr. Greg Hutson, who rejected the proposal, presented alternative ideas to the court Aug. 22 and said the city council would discuss the issue that afternoon at a meeting. (The council subsequently approved a resolution that day affirming the city and county’s 2004 agreement “transferring sole ownership and operations of the library building and land to the county.”)
The city once paid 25 percent of the library’s budget, but stopped doing so years ago due to financial problems. The county meantime contends it does not own the library property, an argument that apparently stems from an error in the deed for the 2004 transfer that resulted in the city still partly owning the building.
In a written statement given this newspaper just before the commissioners’ Aug. 22 meeting, Gross said “I do not like paying the insurance on property that Upshur County does not own” and that if the library burned, the city would get the insurance check for more than $2 million.
“I truly do not believe anyone in either the City of Gilmer or any official in Upshur County wants to see the Upshur County Library close their doors,” Gross wrote, reiterating that position during the hearing. He said he believed the city owed the county for insurance proceeds the city collected years ago when the old library (which had become the Library Activities Building) burned.
“If the city of Gilmer owns the property, they should take some responsibility in that ownership or turn the ownership over to Upshur County,” Gross said. He said that at some point the property’s ownership was “to be transferred (to the county) but a problem occurred and the process was not corrected.”
During the hearing, Fowler said “it was never our intention” to close the library and that the county was seeking a resolution to the issue. Spencer said the resolution involved a “big negotiating process.”
Mary Laschinger Kirby, one of several members of the Friends of the Upshur County Library in attendance, told the court that when the city gave the library property to the county (years ago), “somebody did not do the actual deed transfer.” Completing that would give the county ownership, she said, and “I urge that (be done). . .and let’s just keep the matter simple.”
She acknowledged that when the fire destroyed the old library in 2004, the city only paid part of its support, “but they kept the whole shebang (insurance proceeds). And there has been tension between you (the court) and the city every since.”
Hutson then said the county at one point forgave the city $118,000 and took sole possession of the library. He said city officials are still discussing what to do with the $155,000 in insurance proceeds, but that he had told Fowler he was “sympathetic” to the county’s view on that.
If the city paid the county that $155,000, it would be in years-long installments because “there’s no money in the (city) budget to do anything this year,” Hutson said.
The city manager then said the city did things that benefit the county, including overseeing the Yamboree Park and operating the Gilmer Civic Center, a facility he said had lost more than $477,000 in the past 10 years. He also noted the city maintains Lake Gilmer, although it is not in the city limits.
He said that for the city “to consider what you guys have proposed,” (operating the library), the city needed something in return, such as help with the park, civic center and lake or “sharing of your economic sales tax” for the library.
“It really feels like the commissioners court is dumping on us,” Hutson complained. “We don’t have the money.”
But Fowler responded that “there’s some things we do for the city, too,” including maintaining the county jail, which is “extremely expensive,” and having the sheriff’s office do dispatching for city police from 12 midnight to 8 a.m.
Berka, meantime, said he had visited Hutson, but never received a survey of the library property which the city had promised to have done.
Replied Hutson, “That whole block (where the library is located on Texas 154) is screwed up” and the surveyor must survey it all. The city will pay for it, he added.
He also said he would obtain a corrected deed after the survey is completed.
Berka, who first raised the issue of who owned the property months ago, said the court had not intended to “dump” the issue on the city, but “this has been an ongoing problem that nobody has addressed.”
Said Spencer, “Our goal is to get it under one roof and one authority.”
Berka addressed a recent complaint by Hutson that the city helping pay for the library would be double taxation of city residents since they would pay both city and county taxes to support the institution. The commissioner said city libraries in Gladewater and Pittsburg received no county funding.
When a reporter then asked if the county was still providing funding to the Lee Public Library in Gladewater, Berka acknowledged he had misspoken because the county gives it $1,000. (The library, in the Gregg County portion of the city, receives no funding from that county, but serves Upshur residents in a city partly located in Upshur County.)
When Berka pointed out that the county had offered $167,000 for the library this year on the proviso the city operate it, Hutson responded, “But there’s no discussion (on what the county would pay) in years after that.”