Photo:  Jo Ann Foster of Orangefield speaks against pay raises for Orange County commissioners during Tuesday’s commissioners’ court meeting in Orange.

By Dave Rogers

For The Record

In the face of heated rebukes from a trio of citizens and a barrage of criticism on Facebook, Orange County’s three senior members of commissioner’s court voted down a proposed raise for 18 elected county officials Tuesday.

“The sheriff’s department, I can’t live without. But I can live without you,” Jo Ann Foster of Orangefield told County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton and the four commissioners.

“And didn’t every single one of you, when you ran for office, say you were running not as a job but to help Orange County and to make Orange County better?

“So stop saying you deserve the money, because you don’t. You’re there because you said you wanted to help Orange County, not to work your way up the ladder.”

Foster made it clear she had no problem with the other elected officials, including Sheriff Keith Merritt. However, law requires commissioners to lump all elected officials together in a salary proposal.

The commissioners entertained an hour’s discussion that included comments and questions from three citizens, three elected department heads or judges, and Lori Ardoin, human resources director – who stressed elected officials hadn’t had a raise since 2009 on or off a neglected Elected Official Pay Matrix.

Then Commissioner John Gothia made a motion to accept the July 25 proposed elected official pay increase.

For the 18 elected county officials whose salary is not set by the state, the projected raises in salaries and allowances averaged $10,000 each, ranging from $230 increase for one constable to $18,820 for Carlton.

But Carlton said July 25 he would defer any raise until 2019, when he started his next term – if he is able to win re-election. Commissioners Jody Crump and Barry Burton, each of whom is also up for re-election and would have gained more than $8,200 with the raise, also had signed papers to defer any increases until 2019.

Tuesday, Burton, Carlton and Crump each voted against the elected official pay raise, while Commissioner Johnny Trahan, who seconded Gothia’s motion, joined Gothia on the losing side of a 2-3 vote.

Burton proposed a compromise: A 3-percent raise for the 18 elected officials, plus a phone allowance of $60 per month.

But that motion died for lack of a second.

“I believe it was [all politics],” said Vickie Edgerly, five-term district clerk, said. “I truly feel like [Burton’s] last-ditch effort was thrown out there simply because there’s a re-election situation.”

When Ardoin proposed the elected officials’ pay raise amounts July 25, commissioners and other elected department heads said they would only vote for or accept raises if their employees and other unelected department heads were able to get pay raises.

On Aug. 2, the county’s 250 unelected, non-union employees received a 5-percent pay raise to go in effect Oct. 1.

“I’m disappointed,” Edgerly said. “I’m very disappointed that the pay matrix for elected officials that was put together nine years ago hasn’t been followed.

“That’s the reason why the committee came up with a pay matrix for all the employees many years ago, because [giving raises] becomes so very political.

“We [the other elected officials] get caught up in that. It’s disappointing but after this many years of working here, you just become numb to it after awhile.”

County proposes 2017-18 budget online

Orange County’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year projects to take in $2.6 million more in property taxes from a year ago while projected 2017-18 expenditures exceed projected revenues by $5.8 million.

The budget, which is required to be posted by Aug. 1 of each year, appears on the county website at the bottom of the county clerk’s page.

The proposed budget is only a starting point for the fine-tuning that is taking place weekly through next month at county commissioner’s court meetings.

The final budget for 2017-18 is due Oct. 1.

County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton said several weeks ago he wants commissioners to reduce the county tax rate from the 54.4 cents per $100 valuation mark taxpayers have been billed the past four years.

The calculations on the proposed budget include the 54.4 cents per $100 rate, with the additional income it generates a function of increased property values in the county.

Carlton explained that during his tenure, commissioners have always been conservative on their revenue predictions and liberal on their expense predictions.

In both budget years completed under Carlton, 2015 and 2016, he said year-end county revenues have exceeded expenses by $5 million, allowing the county to rebuild its emergency fund balance.

Additionally, the proposed budget sets aside $3.5 million for capital outlay – including $700,000 for a new gradall hydraulic excavator and $500,000 for a new precinct barn.

“We’ll try to cull out about $2 million” from the $5.8 million deficit in the proposed budget during the next month’s meetings, Carlton said. He added commissioners might make some of the proposed capital outlay expenditures with money left over from the 2016-17 budget.

The proposed budget listed online shows a positive change of nearly $4 million in the beginning fund balance for 2017-18 from that of 2016-17 – from $11.6 million to $15.5 million.

Besides payroll, pension and benefits cost increases connected to last week’s 5 percent raise for non-union county employees, other big ticket increases include a proposed $500,000 increase to the county’s economic development corporation and pay boosts to both sheriff’s employees union members and county elected officials.

Tuesday, commissioners voted against the proposed $175,000 pay hike for elected officials and a raise for deputies is up in the air with their ongoing contract negotiations.