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Budget hearings get little public response

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RUSTY WELLER
Ellis County Press Managing Editor
WAXAHACHIE - Ellis County residents spoke not one word on the next year's proposed budget, and only five had anything to say about a staggering 20-percent property-tax hike.

While the best communication occurred on the sidewalk after Monday's two public hearings, the lack of public comment caused more than one observer to remark perhaps Ellis County's citizens will do their talking at the ballot box.

Since no residents signed up to comment or ask questions, County Judge Al Cornelius gaveled the 10 a.m. meeting closed just one minute after it began. Then by a 3-2 vote the commissioners promptly approved the $51,523,611 budget, which includes $1.3 million for a 30-percent pay raise to Sheriff's Department employees in case the measure passes Nov. 7's vote.

Commissioners Ron Brown and Hallie Robinson voted no, but the budget was approved when Judge Cornelius threw his support to Jerry Holland and Ron Waller.

Of the five county residents who had something to say about the proposed property-tax rate increase, which is about to soar from $0.33139 to $0.419498, four mentioned Sheriff's Department raises during the 23-minute second public hearing. The property-tax hike, fueling talk of a rollback vote, is expected to be approved at a Sept. 25 meeting.

Ellis County GOP Chair John Tabor accused the court of 'committing a complete fraud.' He first asked why the commissioners did not negotiate when Sheriff's Department representatives proposed to spread their requested raise over three years. Judge Cornelius replied, 'No one ever approached me about spreading this raise over three years.'

'The citizens are fed up … it's time to make a change,' said Bristol's Roy Callender. After reminding the commissioners of the Boston Tea Party, he remarked, 'As commissioners, you've come to a standstill with the citizens.'

Callender pointed out, should voters reject the Sheriff's Department raises, the commissioners will have the $1.3 million to use on construction projects. 'The commissioners court is playing a cruel joke on the county,' he said.

Commissioner Holland later told the Ellis County Press Callender's son is a deputy, and the commissioner took issue with those who claim a defeat of Sheriff's Department raises at the ballot box would produce a windfall for the financially strapped commissioners.

'The (raises) money would be set aside for next year so we won't have to go to taxpayers again,' Holland said. Judge Cornelius has discretionary controls to apply the funds to other purposes, 'but he can't touch it next year.'

Jim Hobbs of Midlothian wanted to know what taxpayers will get for such a steep hike: 'The proposed rate is going up so much, what will we see for it? Will the Sheriff's Department get raises?'

Leroy Koonsman of Waxahachie spoke against the tax increase, saying: 'It's a catastrophe that anyone would increase taxes that much.'

Holland had questions for several of the speakers, asking them if they had protested tax increases in their communities. After the hearings, he waded into a group that included several speakers and discussed the issues at length.

Holland declined to answer if he thought voters would approve the Sheriff's Department raises. Instead he said it was up to the deputies to sell the issue to the voters to obtain the money earmarked in the budget.

The argument over raises was a distraction from another main reason for the drastically increased tax rate - the county's major construction projects which previously had been rejected by citizens at the ballot box.

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