Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt has one word to describe the county’s 2022-23 budget process: tough.
The budget has to be in place effective Oct. 1, and commissioners will have to vote on it in August, he said.
One of Stoudt’s concerns is a recent state law called the Texas Property Tax Reform and Transparency Act. It requires cities, counties and other taxing units to receive voter approval before levying 3.5 percent more property tax revenue than the previous year, according to The Texas Tribune. Community colleges, hospital districts and units with the lowest rates — of 2.5 cents per $100 valuation, or less — must do so before surpassing 8 percent revenue growth, the Tribune reported.
“The bill was really written for bigger urban areas,” Stoudt said. “Unfortunately, it’s gonna have a tough effect on smaller communities, smaller cities, smaller counties in terms of revenue.”
Stoudt said the theory behind the bill was to reduce a taxpayer’s burden, but he believes the law needs to be looked at again with consideration for smaller cities and counties.
On the expense side, Stoudt said he anticipates the new fiscal year to be challenging, “more so than ever before.” He referenced the recent decision commissioners made to reject bid proposals for construction of a new parking facility downtown across from the courthouse.
“I can’t over emphasize this enough — everything is going up (in cost),” Stoudt said.
Inflation also is affecting county employees’ personal budgets with cost-of-living skyrocketing — something that also will need to be considered in the new budget.
Changes to employees’ insurance benefits package are set to save the county close to $2 million, Stoudt said.
“That’s a good thing but... it’s tough for the people that have to absorb that, as well,” he said.
Stoudt anticipates the county will have to dip into its reserve to balance the new budget. He added that the county is going to have to look at its purchasing process and what it can afford to put off and not buy for 2022-23.
“We’re gonna be looking a lot more at the needs versus the wants,” he said. “And then on top of all that, business goes on as usual. We still have courts to operate. We still have to maintain our records, our jail, which is a tremendous cost center.”
The county received $24 million in federal relief funds and used a large portion of it to reimburse its reserve fund.
Federal relief money also is planned to be used for some “very exciting projects,” according to Stoudt.
One such project is the county’s partnership with East Texas Council of Governments to expand broadband in rural areas of the county, Stoudt said. In 2019, ETCOG began work on the project to develop a rural broadband plan for Gregg and other counties in the region.
“This is gonna be absolute rural areas where there is no broadband access,” Stoudt said. “We need to get fiber in the ground, and it’s gonna be expensive.”
He said he expects to bring the project before commissioners soon.
According to Stoudt, the county must have federal relief funds allocated by no later than the end of 2023, and the funds must be spent no later than 2024.
“I’ve been in this business a long time, and I’d say this is probably the toughest budget we’ve faced,” he said.