Williamson County ups property tax rate; deputies criticize budget


The Williamson County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved a slight increase in the property tax rate that would raise taxes for the average homeowner with a homestead exemption by about $165.

Tensions rose in the court meeting when the district attorney criticized the budget process and the county judge spoke against a request from a law enforcement group for more deputies.

County Judge Bill Gravell was responding to a news conference the Williamson County Deputies Association held outside of the meeting on Tuesday morning, criticizing the court’s decision not to hire 22 new deputies. The judge initially had offered the new positions to the sheriff’s office, but the budget office cut from the proposed budget, said Sheriff Mike Gleason.

The court decided Tuesday to hire four new deputies when it approved the $390.4 million general fund and road and bridge budget on Tuesday.

Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick said during the meeting that the commissioners only gave him a few minutes to present his budget requests at a workshop. “There is one opportunity for a public official to be heard at a workshop with 75 people,” he said. “How is that public discussion about the budget process?”

He said the Commissioners Court had eliminated hearings where public officials could make presentations about their requests to the public.

“Just because you have the bully pulpit doesn’t mean you have to be a bully,” Dick told the commissioners.

He did not respond to a request for comment about his budget needs but an assistant district attorney last week told commissioners that two new special prosecutors were needed to handle child sexual abuse cases.

Commissioner Terry Cook had recommended one new prosecutor for the district attorney’s office at an Aug. 22 meeting but commissioners did not approve her request. She also had recommended that Dick’s stipend from the county be raised from $18,000 to $47,000 but the commissioners also rejected that.

The district attorney is paid by the state but also can receive a stipend from the county. Dick hasn’t had a raise since he was elected to office in 2016 and the raise was based on the median salary for other district attorneys in the area, Cook said.

More: Williamson County proposes tax rate, to decrease bill by $107 for average homeowner

Assistant District Attorney Cari Warner told the commissioners during public comment on Tuesday that she was “offended” that they had approved a position to handle traffic tickets but “don’t see fit to give the DA’s office people they are requesting for crime victims.”

Commissioner Russ Boles responded to her saying, “Would you be surprised to know that since 2018 the court has approved nine new positions for the DA’s office and have increased the budget by 70%?”

Gravell said during the meeting on Tuesday that he was surprised about the news conference being held outside by the deputies union.

“I have not had one conversation with the Williamson County Deputies Association about a staffing crisis,” Gravell said. “Since we have invested $5 million in salaries this year, the number of vacancies has greatly dropped to just two for law enforcement. What I would like to know is why is there a staffing shortage when their calls for service have dropped.

More: Williamson commissioners propose $372.9 million budget; plan includes new jobs, raises

“Since 2019, the number of calls placed in (computer-aided dispatch) has dropped 25%,” Gravell said. “The number of incident reports dropped 18%. The number of arrest reports declined 46%. The number of citations and warnings dropped 55%.”

Deputy Charles Duvall, the president of the deputies association, disagreed with Gravell’s figures.

“We got our studies from Williamson County, and they show the actual call volume has gone up “as far as actual calls for service and major calls for service,” he said. “We’ve had more suicides, murder suicides, homicides and drownings this year than I’ve seen in my eight years of service.”

Duvall also said that the sheriff’s office had only added 10 additional patrol deputies since 2010 despite the fact that the county had added nearly 250,000 new residents. “According to Williamson County, there are an estimated 53,000 new homes slated to be built in this county in the next year,” he said.

“Our response time to major, priority calls — these are home invasions, assaults, drunk drivers — is actually worse than (the Austin Police Department),” Duvall said. “Our staffing levels are much worse. APD is short 500 officers and have 1.5 officers per thousand, we are short 445 (officers) and have .78 deputies per thousand residents.”

Duvall also said that Cook had asked commissioners last week to approve 11 new deputies this year for the sheriff’s office and 11 new deputies next year, but the commissioners had rejected her request. Cook is the only Democrat on the court. The other three commissioners and the county judge are Republican.

“As long as the Republicans of the Williamson County Commissioners Court do not support the men and women of the sheriff’s office, the WCDA cannot continue to blindly support Williamson County Republicans,” Duvall said.

The court decided to hire four new deputies and a new criminal attorney for the county attorney’s office after Commissioner Valerie Covey requested it on Tuesday, bringing the total number of new employees in the budget to 45.

Covey also requested a $10 million addition to the budget to pay for right-of-way for the county’s long-range transportation plan, which the commissioners approved. The money will come from savings the county has.

Under the approved tax rate of 37.7 cents per $100 valuation, the average homeowner with a homestead exemption will pay about $165 more than last year because the tax rate has increased and property values have risen.

The average homeowner with a taxable value of $360,112 after a homestead exemption will pay $1,357 under the new tax rate, which has increased about two-tenths of a cent. The average homeowner paid $1,192 last year with a taxable value of $317,403 after taking a homestead exemption. The property tax rate last year was 37.5 cents per $100 valuation.

The new tax rate will also generate $23.3 million in tax revenue from new commercial and residential properties, a county official said.

Read More: Williamson County ups property tax rate; deputies criticize budget

2023-08-30 11:05:50

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