Report: Smith County is on solid ground

Posted by Ellen Krafve - email

Released by Adrienne Graham of the Smith County Commissioners Court:

The 2009 State of the County Report reveals that Smith County is on "solid ground" according to County Auditor Ann Wilson.  The report reveals that revenue has steadily increased over the past two years, outstanding debt is low, and cost-cutting programs are yielding measurable results.

"The financial outlook for the County is very healthy right now," County Judge Joel Baker said. "It is still a time to be conservative, but we are on solid footing as we look to the future."

The flow of revenue into Smith County has steadily increased over the past two years at a faster pace than expenditures, which means the gap between revenue and expenditures has widened. In other words, the County is spending a smaller percentage of what it takes in each year according to the report.

Revenue v. Expenditures

The County collected $56.1 million in revenue in 2006, compared to $66.9 million in 2008. While expenditures also increased over the last two years, they did so at a slower rate beginning at $56.6 million in 2006 and $62.7 million in 2008. In 2009, expenditures and revenues are predicted to meet at about $68 million.

"Good long-term planning and responsible spending got us to this point, and it is critical to maintain these practices as we plan for the future of Smith County," Pct. 1 Commissioner Jeff Warr said.

The increased gap in revenue and expenditures over the past few years means that in 2009, when the effects of the economy catch up, Smith County will still break even. It also means that over the last two years, the County has been able to build up its operating fund balance.

"This is a good report, but this is no time to let up. We need to stay conservative in our spending," Pct. 3 Commissioner Terry Phillips said.

The report also shows that Smith County currently has $10.1 million in outstanding debt; a significantly lower amount than any other Texas county its size, Ms. Wilson said.

"We have done a good job in the last two years of planning for the future, which means that we are in a very steady position now, despite the economic hardships other governments are experiencing," Judge Baker said.

What is Working in Smith County

Mrs. Wilson says three County programs have helped to cut costs over the past two years: the implementation of the Alternatives to Incarceration Center (AIC), a Compensatory-time Oversight Committee, and revisions to the Indigent Health Care Program.

AIC helped save the County at least $1.6 million this year by helping low risk offenders get training, rehabilitation, and support in obtaining a job instead of paying to house them in the Smith County Jail.

The Smith County "Comp-Time" Committee was formed in 2006 to address "compensation time increases in several departments. Bi-weekly committee meetings and forward planning have reduced comp time logged by up to 60 percent in some departments. Finally, after revising the Indigent Health Care Policy in 2006, annual spending for Indigent Health Care services dropped from $2 million in 2006 to half a million in 2008.

"This goes to show that all department heads are thinking outside the box and taking action in innovative ways to save County dollars," Pct. 2 Commissioner Bill McGinnis said. "They go above and beyond in times like these, to make sure only the best practices are observed."

The Commissioners Court also recently passed a resolution in support of the County's "Go Green Initiative." The purpose of the resolution was simple: to encourage each and every employee to take responsibility in their workday decisions and make a positive impact on the environment by saving energy. On top of encouraging departments to go paper-free whenever possible and turn off lights in unused areas, County maintenance crews have begun installing motion sensitive lights in bathrooms and hallways in the Courthouse Annex  to cut back on energy use.

"We have a responsibility to the environment and to the tax payers not to waste electricity and paper when simple practices can save energy and resources for the County," Judge Baker said.

To ensure Smith County stays on solid ground, the Pay As You Go (PAYGO) program is being used to pay for County facility projects in cash. In February, the Courthouse received its first full cleaning in more than 50 years, and construction is also slated to start within a month on the Roosths-Murphey Building on Spring Street to create additional office space for the Smith County Sheriff's Department. Both projects are being paid for in cash by county PAYGO funds.

"The PAYGo program is a prime example of responsible spending. We are taking care of long-overdue projects without incurring any debt to the County," Pct. 4 Commissioner JoAnn Hampton said.

What Smith County is Working On

The County's largest budget challenge continues to be jail overcrowding. The cost of inmate transfers alone was $2 million in 2008. The county incurred an extra $2.3 million in 2008 for inmate medical assistance since the downtown jail does not have a full infirmary.

"So far we have lost a total of $13 million shipping out our inmates to different counties and pretty soon it is going to be $15 million. We could have paid for half the cost of a new jail with that," Sheriff J.B. Smith said.

The County is currently exploring cheaper, faster jail expansion options than those proposed and turned down in past bond elections. Some of those options include building an infirmary in the present jail or adding a possible one to two additional floors to the top of the current structure.

"We are taking ideas, exploring options and searching for a solution that will be cost effective and ensure that we are not revisiting the same problems in the future," Judge Baker said.

An alternative option, building a new jail at the site of the empty Goodyear plant, has been ruled out as an impractical and costly solution.

According to Curt Parde of HDR Architecture, Inc., the company assisting the County in its search for jail solutions, the Goodyear plant would not provide a suitable solution.

"During the master planning process for Smith County, we looked at a number of potential sites that were offered as options on which to build jail facilities.  With all of this taken into consideration, the costs were not low to renovate the existing Goodyear building into County jail space," he said.

Parde said the urgent need for jail space for Smith County is for beds that will house the higher security inmates. The higher security jail beds are expensive to build for a number of reasons. There are many special plumbing, electrical and HVAC requirements that have to be incorporated, and in the end, nothing is gained by using an existing industrial building according to Parde.

Tyler Economic Development Council Chair Tom Mullins said moving the jail out of the downtown area would also be detrimental to the local economy.

"If you look at the jobs associated with the jail business- jailers, adult probation and the court system- you would be taking between 400 and 500 jobs out of the heart of Tyler. This would be devastating to the Downtown economy and go against the City and County commitments to revitalizing downtown."

Mullins added that the Goodyear site is a prime piece of industrial real estate that was bringing in $22 million on the Smith County tax roll.

"If the County took over this property, we would lose any chance of regaining that tax revenue in the future," he said.

Spreading the Savings

Looking to the future, Smith County is rolling out new programs to continue saving money wherever possible. Smith County Purchasing Director Kelli Davis launched a campaign this month to spread the benefits of Cooperative Purchasing to smaller, incorporated cities within the County.

Coop Purchasing is the sharing of procurement contracts between governmental entities. Mrs. Davis has met with Ronnie Fite, City Manager for the City of Whitehouse, and the Bullard City Council. She plans to meet with many more municipalities before she is through.

"Cooperative purchasing agreements are just a way for the smaller, incorporated cities within the County to save money by sharing the same purchasing rates that the County gets on goods and services," Mrs. Davis said.

The Coop is open to all local governments, nonprofit's, and other political subdivisions. There is no cost to join the Smith County Purchasing Coop. Additionally, there are no hidden rules or agendas in joining the coop.

"Overall, we are in a good place. Responsible spending and oversight during the last two years has kept us stable during this turbulent time in the economy. Our continued practice of responsible spending and planning will ensure that Smith County's continued growth and prosperity long into the future," Judge Baker said.