Pickens County citizens are making strides to hold their elected officials more accountable by signing a petition for deeper budget cuts.Citizens flocked to a third public hearing on Friday, August 31st to voice their opinions regarding a recent millage increase. The rate will rise to 6.90 mills, an increase of .581 mills above the county’s roll-back millage rate.
The county previously had two public hearings, one on Thursday, August 23rd and another on Friday, August 24th. The hearings were in response to a proposed raise in the millage rate as a result of a decade-long court case involving Young Life of Texas and the Pickens County Assessors’ Board over incorrectly assessed land. As a result of the court case, the county is required to pay Young Life of Texas a settlement of approximately $400,000 by January 15th.
At the beginning of the third public hearing, Sole Commissioner Rob Jones explained that the reason the county had decided to increase the millage rate was because it seemed to be the only option available to come up with the funds. Jones then informed the crowd that the county had already asked departments to cut two percent from their budgets, highlighting this data in a powerpoint
“By state law they give us a budget, and hopefully it’s a two percent cut back. We can ask them to go back and see if they can tweak it out two more percent. If they don’t want to, I have to accept their budget…If I refuse to give them what they want they can take me to mediation and through the court system force me as a county commissioner to raise your taxes to give them more money,”
However, when asked after the presentation if the county had been to mediation with any departments, Jones said no. The crowd then wanted to know how departments, such as the Board of Assessors, come up with their budgets.
In the previous hearings, citizens showed their frustration with the county’s Board of Assessors and Chief Appraiser Roy Dobbs on the grounds that the Board of Assessors and Dobbs continued to pursue the case with Young Life knowing that the judge would rule in favor of Young Life.
Wendy Lowe, Chairperson for the Pickens County School System and owner of a nonprofit organization called The Joy House, shared the same opinion with some of the citizens from the previous meetings. She explained why she thought Dobbs should be held accountable.
“I run a nonprofit organization. A nonprofit is a 501 (c) (3) as designated by the Internal Revenue Service. They make the determination that you are not for profit, not that you can’t make money, but no individual makes money from it,”
Lowe continued by saying that citizens need to know that the case had nothing to do with Young Life being a church, but instead everything to do with them being a nonprofit corporation. She added that she had even told Dobbs that Young Life was entitled to the same tax exemption as The Joy House because no profits were being taxed on the corporation. Furthermore, Lowe explained that as a member of the school board she understood the citizen’s frustration, but not Dobbs’ decision.
“I don’t understand why he did not heed advice and cancel the lawsuit when he had already years before given The Joy House the same write off and knew what the law said. My question is how do we hold him accountable and the Board of Assessors accountable,”
Responding, Jones explained that although three members of the Board of Assessors had already been replaced since the incident, by law, the only people that can hold the Chief Tax Appraiser accountable for any type of wrong doing is the Board of Assessors.
Other citizens in the meeting, such as John Miller, questioned Jones about the decisions that led to the tax increase.
Miller, a new resident in the county, asked why a special election had not been administered to vote on an increased millage rate. He went on to say that the only two possible scenarios that seemed to make sense now would be for either the county to hold a special election asking the citizens to vote on a one time surcharge tax to pay off the debt, or to demand all county departments to take a 10 percent budget cut to pay off the debt.
Here, Jones reminded the crowd that the county will soon change to a three person commission and that he had already taken a nearly $30,000 pay cut to allow for the new government. Jones said, though, he could not answer for the new board members.
The answer then led to Miller asking for the crowd to sign a petition demanding for the county officials to reduce their budgets.
A copy of the petition is below.
With the exception of Commissioner Jones, no other county officials were present at the meeting. Representatives of the Pickens County Sheriff’s Department, though, were present to respond to the matter.
Frank Reynolds, a representative of the Sheriff’s department, announced that on September 27th at 6:00 p.m. a town hall meeting will be held at the Pickens County High School to discuss the Sheriff’s office budget and all Pickens County citizens are invited.
After the meeting, FYN asked Commissioner Jones if the county would have another public hearing on the millage increase, as a result of the petition. Jones told FYN that at this time he did not know, but with the new information, he would take time to decide.
Now the question remains: will the sheriff’s department and other county departments make deeper cuts to their budgets?
FYN will follow this story as it develops.
See video from the third public hearing below.