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County Judge Firth addresses budget challenges, redistricting

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Posted: Friday, August 12, 2011 12:00 pm

By Lauren Cabral

The Cove Herald

Coryell County Judge John Firth visited the Copperas Cove Morning Exchange Club early Wednesday morning at Lil-Tex Restaurant to give a "State of the County" address, where he spoke about the county's budget challenges, redistricting and the prospect of building a new county jail.

Firth said the property tax rate in the county has been flat at 42.28 cents per $100 valuation for the past three years, and commissioners decided Monday not to raise it even though the county is facing budget difficulties.

"County commissioners recognized we've got to do everything we can to keep the tax rates low and basically keep money in your pocket," Firth said, adding Coryell has one of the lowest tax rates in Texas.

He said local jurisdictions were facing financial burdens thanks to unfunded mandates from the state government, something that has hit the county particularly hard in the areas of indigent defense and court-appointed attorney costs.

"The state Legislature chose to pass down the benefit and didn't pay for the benefit," Firth said. "All they're going to do is push down their tax burdens to local taxpayers," he said.

He said the county was looking at joining a public defender program out of Lubbock to decrease those costs.

He told the club commissioners had decided to include a 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase for county staff in the 2012 draft budget, something they hadn't received in the last three years.

However, he said, employees with dependents would be paying more for medical insurance because of rising health care costs.

"For most employees, they're going to get less money in their paychecks," he said.

Redistricting

Firth spoke of the county precinct redistricting processes, which changed existing lines so Copperas Cove was split into four precincts instead of three, before updating the club on state and national redistricting decisions, which still await approval from the federal government.

On the state level, Firth told the group Coryell would remain in Texas House District 59, to which San Saba and McCulloch counties were added. The Texas Senate, however, moved Coryell to District 24, represented by Sen. Troy Fraser.

Coryell will be in Congressional District 25, joining counties from Hays in the South to Johnson in the North and part of Travis County.

He said that because of the change in districts and Rep. Lloyd Doggett of District 25 choosing not to run in the 2012 election, "It's going to be a really important congressional race we're going to be following next year."

Firth also spoke about the prospect of building a new county jail, which could be decided in a November bond vote.

He said the inmate population has exceeded the 92-bed jail's capacity, and though the county's current system of transporting residents to McClennan County Jail is cost-effective, it may not be an option in the future.

Firth said that in 2010, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards said a larger facility would be needed, and supported the construction of a 242-bed jail.

In May 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offered a $21.9 million Rural Development Loan for the construction of a new jail and law enforcement center, but the conditions are not binding, and acceptance of the loan will be decided by voters in November, if commissioners decide to place the bond item on the ballot.

If approved, the county would repay the loan over 40 years.

Firth said the timing of the loan was good, since federal interest rates are at historical lows. He said the rate and low construction costs were incentives to pass the measure, but should not be the only factors voters use to make their decision.

"The reason we do this should be because it makes sense for Coryell County," he said.

Exchange Club member Jim Rudd asked if savings from not transporting inmates out of the county would be enough to pay for constructing a new jail, to which Firth said no, but the jail could save money in the long run.

"It's going to have to be new money from either taxes or other means," Rudd said after the meeting. "It makes me concerned about the tax rate increase. It's something to think about."

Joey Ellis, Morning Exchange Club president, said it was important for Firth to address the club so members could keep up with what's going on in the county.

"He's a fighter for what we need here and he's not going to stop fighting, and it reminds us we all need to fight," he said. "We all need to get into the fray and talk about the issues."

Contact Lauren Cabral at lcabral@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7476.

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