County looks to plug leaky finances
By Dave Rogers
For The Record
Commissioners looking to refill the coffers of Orange County’s rainy-day fund discussed better record keeping and collection efforts during a workshop session with department heads Tuesday.
“We’re not looking to levy new taxes, but just collect what we ought to be collecting,” County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton said.
But much of the 70-minute back-and-forth focused on the need to up the county’s economic development game.
New business and industry would bring new residents, new commerce and increased sales tax revenues and property values.
“We’ve got to grow the county. Economic development is our only option,” said John Gothia, Precinct 3 commissioner.
Barry Burton, Precinct 2 commissioner, reported that Jessica Hill, executive director of the Orange County Economic Development Corporation, had been approached in the last two months by businesses looking to spend $12 billion on 16 new projects.
But the commissioners agreed potential business investors are looking for the county’s cooperation.
“These companies come with their hand out,” Gothia said. “If you’re not willing to work with them for the long-term gain for us, then they’ll go somewhere else.”
Hill said the EDC’s annual 2017 budget was about $160,000. She said the City of Orange spends $1.4 million a year on its EDC and Port Arthur has budgeted $4 million.
“We need to be proactive, not reactive,” Jody Crump, Precinct 4 commissioner, said.
Carlton proposed that the county move $500,000 from its “legal fund” to economic development to be used “if the right project comes to Orange County.”
Gothia liked the idea.
“That $500,000 is short of what we need, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Gothia said.
Johnny Trahan, Precinct 1 commissioner, was, like Gothia, elected last year on a platform focusing on a greater emphasis on economic development for the county.
“Look at economic development as an investment with return vital to our growth and vital to our county,” Trahan said.
The county’s fund balance took a $3.2 million hit from a lawsuit judgment in January. Tuesday’s was the second brainstorming session commissioners held in the last seven days.
Among ideas discussed were making sure that fees for county services were in line with similar counties in the state, examining the appraisal district records to make sure they’re accurate and to do a better job of collecting delinquent taxes.
Burton said the county was owed between $4 million and $6 million in back taxes.
Carlton said the county charged its cities $54 a night to hold its prisoners in the county jail while it cost the county an average of $85 per prisoner.
“Jail is one of the services we don’t charge enough for,” Carlton said.
Other ideas included improving the county’s ability to locate, apply for and administer public and private grants; and to review the county’s policy on property tax deferrals.