Top of mind for the court and the county’s financial leaders was the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic on both the county and its residents.
“Holding us to a flat budget is important, meaning no increase over [fiscal year 2019-]2020,” County Auditor Ed Strudivant said at the workshop. “However, we’ve got some things that are beyond our control, ... which means that to accommodate that we would have to cut even deeper to make that happen.”
At the July 28 regular meeting of the court, commissioners expressed concerns about raising the property tax rate because so many residents are struggling financially due to the economic slowdown. Because of the pandemic, the county does not have to cap its property tax revenue to a 3.5% year-over-year increase, but the commissioners expressed this is a priority for them.
At the second day of the workshop, decreasing tax rates by about $0.025 was discussed, but proposed rates are still under consideration, Pamela Gubbels, Fort Bend County director of finance and investments, said in a July 31 email. The Fort Bend Central Appraisal District must complete the reports needed to calculate the parameters of the property tax rates for the county and drainage district.
The proposed tax rates will be discussed at the regular Aug. 11 court meeting, Gubbels said in the email.
The budget going into the workshop was $410,491,680, a 4.3% increase over the fiscal year 2019-20 budget, Gubbels said in the meeting. The main driver of this increase is from rising employee benefits, a $7.5 million price tag.
“Fort Bend County is self-funded in employee health insurance,” she said in the email. “Despite rising medical costs over the past few years we have not increased the insurance allocation in the past three years. This year, we had to do so.”
The increase is also the result of hiring additional positions to maintain new county facilities and parks, she said at the meeting. Health and human services and the medical examiner’s office also hired new positions.
In mid-April, Sturdivant estimated the county would see an $11 million-$14 million revenue loss because of the pandemic. Based on the county’s actions since then, the loss is now estimated to be about $5 million, he said at the workshop. Additionally, he projects property values will be lower for fiscal year 2021-22.
With this in mind, county departments were asked to reduce their budgets for FY 2020-21, Gubbels said at the workshop.
"It is a budget of needs and not necessarily wants," she said at the workshop.
The budget will likely increase by about $4 million due to some additions discussed at the workshop after the court consulted with county departments, but it includes no increases to salaries for either staff or elected officials, Gubbels and Strudivant said.
“If there were salary increases, this would not be the right time for that,” Strudivant said at the workshop. “It’s not the right message we want send to our taxpayers and the folks that live here in Fort Bend County.”