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County threatens to slash jobs to fund raises

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DIANA BUCKLEY
Ellis County Press
WAXAHACHIE — When voters overwhelmingly approved pay raises for Ellis County Sheriff's Department employees, they didn't expect the result to be fewer deputies.

Yet County Auditor Mike Navarro told the Ellis County Press the salary increases will come at the cost of 40 county jobs if the pending tax rollback election is successful.

'(The rollback) would not stop progress on any of the county's building projects,' Navarro said. 'They issued a tax anticipation note, plus garnered a grant from the state, and a $5 million bond election a couple of years back. We cannot use those monies for any type of operations expenses. They can legally only be used for those projects.'

According to County Judge Al Cornelius, even more jobs may be at stake.

'The estimate right now is 40 to 45 jobs,' Cornelius said. 'No, we won't consider lowering any salaries. We just had a referendum when voters voted to raise salaries. You get to a point where people can't support their families.'

Top paying jobs in the county for the budget year 2001 include Court at Law Judge Bob Carroll at $109,300, County Judge Cornelius at $72,480, the county commissioners at $50,822, and Chief Deputy Sheriff Charles Sullins at $51,546.

Navarro said elimination of jobs is the most logical way to cut expenses. 'The largest portion of the budget is personnel,' he said. 'The rollback would cost about $2.3 million. We would have to cut operating expenses, too.'

According to Navarro, the county commissioners will have to decide what expenses to cut.

'I don't get a vote on which operating expenses to cut,' he said. 'But my instincts tell me they will move operations from other cities, such as tax collection, consolidate everything in Waxahachie.'

The methodology for cuts has not yet been determined, but everything is on the chopping block. 'Everything, every department,' Cornelius said emphatically. 'From taxes to roads, bridges, Sheriff. Offices in outlying areas would all be returned to Waxahachie. No one is immune.'

Navarro says the tax increase approved by the Commissioners' Court this fall represents an increase of 8.8167 cents per $100 of property value. 'The average value of a homestead is $85,744, (according to) the appraisal district. That would be a total of $75.60 over the course of a year,' Navarro said. For a home valued $100,000, the increase would be $88.17 as opposed to last year.

Commissioners raised property taxes in 1999 as well. 'The increase last year went from .29976 to .331331, which is a difference of 3.157 cents,' said Navarro. 'The county stayed stagnant from ‘93 to ‘99 with the same tax rate.' Residents felt a double sting in 1999 when property valuations also went up significantly.

Sheriff Ray Stewart could not be reached for comment, but sources say he is sick at heart over the commissioners' threat of lost jobs. Attrition, largely attributed to low salaries, has been a constant problem in the department, which spends money training deputies only to have them leave for higher paying jobs. Employee burnout is expected to cause the same problem if too few employees are hired.

Cornelius said widespread opposition to spending decisions by the commissioners' court, such as the building of the new jail, have nothing to do with the rollback. 'Emotions might have something to do with the people spearheading it,' he said, 'but the average citizen understands the need to move forward.'

Cornelius also denigrated the presentation of facts by John Tabor and others in the rollback movement. 'I hope the citizens will not be mislead by figures that are not official and have not been researched,' Cornelius stated. 'They need to make up their minds if they want to do without services.'

Tabor was not surprised by the comment, or by the threat of cuts. 'They are using scare tactics, that doesn't surprise me,' he said. 'They are both bureaucrats, and that's fine.' 

According to Tabor, the county's budget 50 calls for new deputies to be hired next year, although the jail will not be finished for a year and a half. Additionally, increases in property valuations are expected to generate over $2 million, and even if the rollback succeeds the county will receive a two-cent tax increase, generating another $1 million. 'There's still room to cut,' Tabor said. 'That's $3 million more than they got last year.'

Tabor does feel that the county's over-extension in building projects is at the root of the dramatic tax increases. 'They seem to be padding the budget,' he said. 'It might be because in a couple of years there is a balloon payment due on the tax anticipation note. But evaluations and taxes going up this dramatically several years in a row is out of line and absurd.'

A few years ago, voters overwhelmingly denied a bond issue to build a new county government center. But immediately after reelection, the county judge and three of the four commissioners voted for the tax anticipation note and obligated taxpayers to a building project worth more than $17 million.

'The tax anticipation note is designed for an emergency like a fire or a flood in a government building,' said Tabor. 'It was not designed to get around the taxpayers. They have not been forthcoming with the public on what they are doing.'

According to Tabor, rollback petitioners are doing extremely well in the gathering of signatures.

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