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Commissioners emphasize accountability

County budget hearings to continue Thursday

BEAUMONT — The Jefferson County Commissioners’ Court took a “sharp knife” to the proposed department budgets for the 2015-16 fiscal year, scrutinizing each request and cutting away “unnecessary expenses” line by line in the Commissioners’ Courtroom Tuesday.

Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said if there are two things he and all the commissioners are united in this year — raises that can only be funded through the county reserves and raising taxes to balance the combined requests of each department.

“The one thing no one on this Court wants to do is discuss raising taxes,” Michael “Shane” Sinegal, Commissioner for Precinct 3, said Tuesday afternoon. “It all comes from our leadership and doing what we have to do — whether it’s a hiring and raise freeze or streamlining each department’s budget.

“And we did a lot of streamlining today — we had a sharp knife, and we did a lot of cutting. It’s a process that needs to be done, and it’s why these budget hearings are so important to county business. In each of these hearings, we can determine which of their requests belong in the ‘need list’ and which ones belong in the ‘want list.’ Because if it’s a want, it has to go. I have no problem cutting that out of the budget and not spending any dollars we don’t have.”

Sinegal said every commissioner is wary of the estimated $1.8 million needed from the county reserves in the 2015-16 year to balance the preliminary budget that’s being presented this week. That’s why personnel requests are off-limits until the county’s certified tax rolls come in, he said.

“We’ve collected all the personnel issues, and we’re holding off on them for now,” Branick said Tuesday morning. “On Thursday, the Human Resources department will be with us to help answer the questions we’ve had over the last two days. Each time someone has said they want to give this employee a raise or hire a new employee at a particular salary, we’ve asked what that tier of employee usually makes — what is the salary range for that exact position across other counties?”

“With the HR department in the audience Thursday, we can ask them about general ranges of salaries for each level and category of employee,” Sinegal added. “But we still won’t make any decisions then. It’ll just be general information for our knowledge, and then we can go back and look at all the individual department requests for individual employees with that salary range in mind at a later date.”

Branick said the county auditor will review the amended — but still preliminary — budget for each department Friday to get a more accurate look at the week’s progress. But any personnel items will have to wait until after the beginning of August.

“We’ll discuss them all at one time after the county auditor reviews where we stand now. Then when we get our certified tax rolls Aug. 1 from the Jefferson County Appraisal District, we’ll finally see where we really stand — what we can truly afford to do within our budget for each department and their employees. We cannot finalize or promise anything until we get those tax rolls. That’s why we have to hold off on these personnel issues.”

Sinegal said the budget hearings Tuesday went better than anticipated. The Jefferson County District’s Attorney’s Office withdrew several requests, eliminating a need to come before the Commissioners’ Court at all, and the constables “were exceptionally cooperative.”

“The constables can be a touchy subject, because they could always use more manpower — but we can’t always give them those extra hands on deck. I think they all came in thinking it would be hostile, but I think the Court bent over backwards trying to make it fair to each of them,” Sinegal said. “We took a hard look at each and every one of them individually and as a unit.

“For example, travel was out of whack when you looked at them all together. Some of them had a travel request of $13,000 to $14,000, and some of them listed travel at only costing $2,000 to $3,000. OK, something’s not adding up here. We had to make some hard decisions today, but we have to make it fair.”

Sinegal said it’s imperative the Commissioners’ Court “gets it right” the first time when dealing with budgets for elected officials, because the Court can’t make any changes to those budgets once they’re finalized.

“It’s important we take care of this now, because the only control we have over elected officials is in their budgets — and only at budget time,” he said. “Once the budget is approved, it’s up to the citizens to hold them accountable. So we have to do our part to make it an even playing field and make these hearings are transparent so our citizens know what’s going on. That’s why we encourage the public to come sit and listen to what’s happening in their precincts — so they know what to expect and what to look for in the upcoming year.”

The budget hearings will resume at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in the Commissioners’ Courtroom on the fourth floor in the Jefferson County Courthouse, 1149 Pearl St. in Beaumont.

Twitter: @crhenderson90