By Bill Spinks

After a lengthy series of public hearings and discussions during Tuesday’s bi-weekly meeting, the Ellis County Commissioners’ Court approved the proposed ad valorem property tax rate and budget for fiscal year 2020-21.

The court chose to adopt the "no new revenue" tax rate, which holds revenues at the level of the previous fiscal year. The county’s new total tax rate will be 35.0276 cents per $100 of taxable valuation, effective Oct. 1. This new rate is a decrease from last year’s rate of 36.0533 cents.

Of this amount, the maintenance and operations rate will be 30.0663 cents, the interest and sinking rate will be 1.9531 cents and the Farm to Market tax rate will be 3.0082 cents.

The court’s roll call vote was 4-1, with Precinct 2 Commissioner Lane Grayson voting against. Grayson said he supported the original proposal, whose rate had been 35.3128 cents.

The approved difference will come from a cut in the maintenance and operations rate. The lower rate will result in reduced revenues of about $127,000, which can be corrected with a later budget amendment.

The revenue to be raised from new properties in the county will be about $3.5 million, with an average homestead valuation of $226,000 for each home. The total assessed valuation of all property in Ellis County is about $25 billion, a near-doubling over the last 10 years due to business and population growth.

Even though the tax rate will decrease, the added value in the county will result in a $4.7 million increase in revenue, or a 7.62% rise from last year’s budget.

The vote on the new budget was 4-1, with Precinct 3 Commissioner Paul Perry voting no. Perry objected to receiving the finalized proposal during a holiday and said he hadn’t had time to review it.

Notable changes to the new budget are a $1.8 million increase in the road and bridge budget, a new dispatch in the sheriff’s budget, and a decrease in debt service due to bond payoffs. County Judge Todd Little said added amendments to the budget that was finalized at the end of July resulted in about $12,000 in reduced expenses.

Total general fund revenues will be about $61 million, of which Little said 85% will be derived from property taxes. The remainder will come from fines, fees, charges for services, and grant revenue. Of the expenses out of the general fund, Little said the greatest portion, 39%, will go toward public safety.

The assessed value within Ellis County has increased from $13 billion to almost $25 billion in just the last 10 years, Little said, because of business investment and an increase in the number of residents.

Little said the number of funded and unfunded mandates from the state has increased over that time. The cost of elections administrations and operations in each of the four precincts has increased. Over that time, Little said, the actual property tax rate has dropped because of higher values.

Other items

• Dale Cheek, who is retiring from the Ellis County Sheriff’s Office after 20 years, was recognized at Tuesday’s meeting.

• The court heard a presentation from the Midlothian Economic Development Corporation on the Earth Root Holdings project.

• The court, after a discussion, unanimously shot down a 5% raise for county constables for the next fiscal year, based on current economic uncertainties. The raise had been recommended by a 7-2 vote of the Salary Grievance Committee on Aug. 27. A less-than-unanimous vote by the committee, however, required action by the commissioners.

• The court voted to have the county not participate in deferment of FICA withholding as authorized in a presidential executive order, based on Ellis County auditor Janet Martin’s recommendation.

* Commissioners OK’d cybersecurity training for all elected officials and county employees who handle a computer through the Texas Association of Counties.

• Nine vehicles were declared as surplus through a vote of the commissioners.

• The court approved in separate motions the advertising and soliciting of bids for printed forms, wholesale gas and diesel, and convenience store fuel.

• Commissioners approved a three-tiered bid award for miscellaneous concrete work to J.C. Concrete and J&K Excavation (primary), Joe Muirhead Concrete Services (secondary) and Don Smith Concrete (tertiary).

• The court approved a plat of a 2.4-acre property on the south side of FM 2377, a plat of an approximately 8.5-acre parcel on the northwest side of Newton Road; and a performance bond acceptance for the 40.7-acre Bella Vista Subdivision on the north side of FM 875 and about 1,600 feet west of Skinner Road in the extraterritorial jurisdiction of the city of Midlothian.

• Approved consent agenda items included acceptance of annual audits for eight emergency service districts in the county; renewal of a contract with FPSI (Fire and Police Selection Inc.) for entry-level deputy sheriff employment exams; an amendment to a contract for software services with Swagit Productions LLC; and numerous budgetary line-item adjustments. A $7,425 payment to Dr. Leigh Nordstrom for 49.5 hours of work related to COVID-19 pandemic response was approved separately, as well as a budget amendment of about $1,700 for ballistic vests for the Sheriff’s Department from the forfeiture account.