BY PHILLIP WILLIAMS
GILMER–Upshur County Commissioners Court voted 4-1 Friday to “take no action” on a proposal by Court Appointed Special Advocates to impose a 50-cent annual “child safety fee” on each vehicle’s annual registration.
By state law, the fee, which would be paid when a vehicle or trailer is annually registered at the county tax assessor-collector’s office, can be utilized only for child safety programs. East Texas CASA Executive Director Shelly Smith told commissioners she was seeking part of the funds specifically for her organization, whose trained adult volunteers represent foster children’s interests in court, but that the monies could be shared with other entities.
She appealed for the fee on grounds that the volunteer non-profit CASA is only serving 45 percent of children in foster care in Upshur County, and “we are not fully funded to have any growth” since the county government provides no financial support. Smith observed the number of children legally removed from homes for unfit conditions in the county has been “tremendous over the last six months.”
In addition, she said the fee, which would have been effective Jan. 1, would allow more services for youngsters and that her organization saves Upshur County taxpayers thousands of dollars in attorney fees which would be used for foster children.
Smith further noted that revenue from the vehicle registration fee could be given to cities, the sheriff’s office and an area child advocacy center, as well as CASA, and suggested having agencies apply for the money and say “what they’re gonna do with it.”
Commissioners, however, argued the proposed fee was actually a tax and that contributions for such programs should be voluntary. Only County Judge Todd Tefteller voted against the motion not to act, while Precinct 1 Commissioner Paula Gentry, Precinct 2 Commissioner Dustin Nicholson, Precinct 3 Commissioner Frank Berka and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jay W. Miller voted for it.
The court, however, unanimously approved CASA’s request to give citizens called for jury duty in the county the option of donating their pay to the organization on a donation form.
Smith had told commissioners they could levy a child safety fee of either 50 cents, $1 or $1.50 per vehicle, and that a poll showed “your citizens seem to be in support” of a 50-cent fee. “You determine what child safety programs” receive the revenue, she added, asserting that a 50-cent levy would raise a minimum of $17,000-$18,000 annually in Upshur County.
Tefteller, a longtime Gilmer attorney, said CASA is “something we get an advantage from” and that the local district attorney and sheriff’s offices would be involved with the proposed fee.
In addition, Gilmer City Mgr. Greg Hutson told the court he worked with police departments in the Dallas-Ft.Worth Metroplex before coming here, and that they gave out child safety car seats. “That’s a great program to have,” he said.
Gentry responded that the county extension service has a program for that.
Tefteller then said the county’s court system is dealing with the “breakdown of the family,” that some children need shoes and clothes for school, and that volunteers helping needy children “don’t always have the money for gas.”
County Road Administrator Andy Jordan, who said he had dealt as a foster parent with CASA for seven and a half years and praised the organization, told the court, “As far as paying for it, that’s your business.” He said that if the fee was imposed, though, he would like to use it to help the county’s child welfare board.
Replied Smith, “I would highly encourage that” as “We use the child welfare board in every community we work in.”
Berka, however, objected to the proposed fee, saying donations for children should be “voluntary” and that he opposed an “additional tax” which citizens did not vote on. Citizens in the audience then entered the debate.
Dan Miles Jr., a CASA volunteer, supported the “50 cent a year” idea, but another citizen, Eddie Turner, said that while “I love children,” some taxpayers were “having trouble buying license tags already.” Another citizen, Ron Cook, supported the fee as only costing citizens four cents monthly.
Said Tefteller, “I think everybody’s for the kids.” When people are forced to pay, however, “it kinda gets touchy.”
Gentry then branded the fee “an additional tax,” adding “I’m not against helping,” but “it should be a voluntary thing.”
She said the Texas Department of Transportation has a mechanism for helping youngsters and that “not one person I’ve asked where I’m living” wanted to have to pay the fee Smith proposed.
Responded Smith, “I don’t like the word tax” being used to describe her proposal. If the court uses that argument, she said, it should repeal the road and bridge fee tacked on to annual vehicle registrations since a prior commissioners court imposed that (without an election on it), and residents have no choice but to pay it.
“The road and bridge fee is no different from a child safety fee,” Smith asserted.
But Jordan objected that “there is a difference” because everyone in the room uses roads, but not everyone has children.
After Berka requested the court take no action on the proposed fee, Tefteller said “I don’t think 50 cents a license plate would hurt anybody and personally, I’d be for it.” He added, however, “I don’t think there’s a consensus” of the court to approve it, although “nobody doubts what CASA’s doing.”
Before the court approved the motion to take no action, Gentry said she would get with TxDOT to see if she could obtain some kind of funding for children.
Berka, asked by a reporter if the motion was tantamount to rejecting the requested fee, replied it was to take “no action.”
After the vote, Tefteller told Smith she could tell people “I talked the judge into it, but not the rest of them.” The court then quickly approved the donation option for prospective jurors just before adjourning.
After the meeting, Gentry contacted this newspaper and said the proposed fee was “not just 50 cents” for every person. She said it would “hit some people really hard” because “if you own multiple things (such as tractors, various types of trailers and motorcycles), then you’re paying (a separate 50-cent fee) for everything that you own.
“I don’t want it (the vote) to come across as the court doesn’t want to support children,” Gentry added, but “We have to represent the taxpayer.”
She said that other than governmental vehicles, the fee would be 50 cents per “anything that hits the road”–including farm trailers and utility trailers (in addition to cars and trucks). The fee could cause trucking firms or “any kind of business where you have multiple vehicles” a “substantial increase” in their costs inasmuch as a business with 100 trucks and trailers would have to pay 50 cents on each truck and trailer, Gentry argued.
In other business Friday, the court approved recording County Auditor Connie Williams’ certification of additional revenue received after the start of the current 2018-19 fiscal year, and adopting a special budget for it.
The revenue was $5,478 received from truckers and loggers for road repair.
The court also accepted Eagle’s Perch for the two-year waiting period before it is added to the county road inventory, when it becomes eligible for county maintenance.
Commissioners also accepted for recording the plat for Eagle Estates phase 3, block 1, a subdivision in the Diana area, and authorized $3,866 purchase of a copying machine for the auditor’s office from TLC Office Systems.
The court also approved several routine items, ranging from budget amendments to recording documents and the payroll. In a collective vote to approve all the items, Berka said he was abstaining on the payroll, leading Tefteller to say the “motion passes (with) four and a half” votes.
Berka has traditionally abstained on voting to approve the payroll, having said workers are paid before the court authorizes it.