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County's COLA raises won't buy cola

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Although the new fiscal year won't start until Oct. 1, Bandera County Commissioners have begun their attempts to squeeze every last drop from each taxpayer penny paid.

Prior to the first budget workshop on Thursday, July 11, commissioners grappled with the perennial question of whether to grant raises to elected officials. During the afternoon session, discussions centered on block grants traditionally granted to nonprofit entities within the county.

By a unanimous vote, the court decided to give all county employees - save themselves - a cost of living increase (COLA) of 1.24 percent, which would increase the county budget by $7,900. The current COLA is determined using statistics from the United States Department of Labor.

Although willing to sacrifice a slight raise for the sake of holding the line on the budget, Precinct 2 Commissioner Bobby Harris noted, for the record, that commissioners are the lowest paid elected officials in the county. "Our annual salary is $22,939 plus $7,200 in travel expenses," he said, noting that the $7,200 does not include gas, insurance and maintenance on the commissioners' private vehicles.

Also, for the record, County Judge Richard Evans, told the court that the State of Texas had just authorized a $125,000 raise for district judges - a piece of news that gave commissioners pause. The court also approved $420 for a cell phone for Precinct 2 Commissioner Bob Grimes.

In addition, Harris suggested that, at this time, all nonprofits applying for block grants from Bandera County be allocated their full asking amount. "The moral thing is on us as county leaders to decide what kind of community we want because the bad road is real bad," he said. "We can reduce the funding later when we get to see the other numbers."

However, as commissioners noted, representatives from the various nonprofits should be prepared to present a full budgetary accounting when discussions continue after tax rolls are certified and projected revenues solidified.

Evans agreed with Harris' statement that the budgetary process was backwards. "The last thing we do is to determine revenues, but a preliminary budget must be filed the end of July," Evans said. But, he added that a preliminary budget is just that and can be changed. Evans also noted that all block grants are subject to modification, including removal, if necessary, at a later date.

On a positive note, Evans said county revenues would be slightly above those collected last year - and certainly not less.

Keeping the miniscule "raise" granted to county employees in mind, Grimes took exception to recipients of block grants that gave employees what he believed were substantial raises.
Referencing one organization, he said, "In this budget, for example, salaries and benefits have gone up 21 percent from last year."

At that point, the court reached a tentative consensus that offered $280,172 in block grants, up from last year's $252,825. Block grant recipients include AACOG-Alamo Regional Transit, Boys & Girls Club of Bandera County; Bandera Honors Veterans; Bandera Sports Complex, Silver Sage Community Center; CASA, Kids Advocacy Place, Federated Library System of Bandera County, Hill Country Cares, K Star, Sister City Partnership and Medina River Protection Association. The last four organizations are paid for out of special funds that are not taxpayer driven.

This was the first time a representative from the Sports Complex had approached the court for block grant funding. Justifying the request, Randy Adkins said, "The sports complex is good for city and county youth, but this year we're in a fight because we have a lot of expenses," citing, as one example, newly installed lights. Adkins, a member of the board of directors, also indicated that recent fundraisers had not been successful and that it had been necessary to dip into the sports complex budget to make up the differences.

Those who spoke against including the Sports Complex in the block grants said that the complex offers no transportation and participants must pay for uniforms and fees. "The Sports Complex is not available to all children in the community," said Roz Brown, adding that children who attend the Boys & Girls Club cannot afford to go to the Sports Complex.

In response, Adkins said that fees, including those for uniforms, are routinely waived for less fortunate youth in the county. Most of those attending the workshop, however, agreed that the waiving of fees was generally not public knowledge.

Evans suggested that the Sports Complex build a coalition with the Boys & Girls Club.

As it stands currently, the Sports Complex is set to receive $3,000 rather than the $10,000 requested. However, as Precinct 4 Commissioner Doug King noted, "We know these numbers will be massaged and a lot will get cut."