By Mike Smith
The Duncan Banner
The Stephens County Excise and Equalization Board has the final say on a new county budget, but on Wednesday a lot was said and nothing was finalized.
Two of the three members — Todd Churchman and Gary Ledford — expressed concern about a $120,000 funding increase sought by Stephens County Sheriff Wayne McKinney. He wants the money to hire three deputies to provide more security at the Stephens County Courthouse.
Churchman said the county could not afford McKinney’s request and he questioned whether pay raises again this year were fiscally prudent. All agreed courthouse security should be enhanced, but there was no consensus on what should be done or who should pay for it.
The board ultimately decided to explore more budget options — some giving pay raises, some not, some paying for enhanced security, some not.
The costs of four options will be computed before board members meet again Oct. 4. The options are:
— no raises and no additional money for security personnel.
— 5-percent raises with no security personnel.
— no raises but money for two security personnel.
— 3-percent raises with two security personnel.
Even if they decide on one of those four scenarios, however, it would have to go back to the Stephens County Commissioners and then back to the Excise Board before hitting the books.
So it will be at least several more days before a new budget is approved to replace the one that expired June 30.
“This gives us time to look at it a little harder,” Ledford said.
There is normally about a month lag time between official annual county budgets, with funding at previous levels continuing until a new spending plan is approved. But this lag time already has lingered much longer.
County commissioners recommended an $8.3 million budget that would give pay raises to most employees funded from the county’s general fund — it’s primary checking account. Those employees got 5-percent raises last year, as did most courthouse workers who are funded through fees and other accounts.
Under the recommended plan, first deputy officials in courthouse offices would get 10-percent pay raises with all other employees getting 5 percent. Elected officials would not get raises, nor would sheriff’s employees.
McKinney said he had more pressing funding priorities than raises, and under the plan recommended by commissioners, his general fund budget would be increased from about $611,000 to $731,000. He said the extra money would pay for three deputies for courthouse security, something he says is badly needed.
During a joint-meeting between commissioners and excise members on Aug. 26, McKinney brought an attorney with him who said he was prepared to file suit against the boards unless they worked with the sheriff on his budget request. The lawyer said the boards had violated budget-making laws.
But Churchman, a former county commissioner who has feuded with McKinney on budget matters in the past, said Monday the recommended budget would spend all additional tax revenue coming in this year. Increases in property tax values haves added about $300,000 in extra funds to the county’s revenue pot this year.
“I don’t think it’s prudent for any business or household or government to spend every penny that comes in,” Churchman said.
He said McKinney had enough personnel to provide extra security, as has been done during high-profile trials. He also said there was about $75,000 in a courthouse security account that could be tapped.
Churchman has noted in the past that McKinney has two cash-generating accounts that combined have grown close to $2 million. McKinney said he already uses those accounts to pay for some personnel, equipment and gasoline even though those costs should be paid through the general fund.
“The key is offices having enough money to operate without being excessive or extravagant,” Churchman said.
He suggested $200,000 of this year’s extra tax revenue be put in the county’s emergency fund to for upcoming courthouse maintenance needs. There is about $4 million in the fund now.
Excise member Larry Loveless began the meeting by saying county commissioners knew more about specific spending needs and he was satisfied with their budget recommendation.
Ledford suggested appropriations to give 5-percent raises to all county employees paid via the general fund, including those in the sheriff’s office. If the sheriff thought courthouse security was a higher priority, Ledford said, he could use the money for that instead.
He said courthouse officials he talked to were split about 50-50 on the need for enhanced security. There might be a deputy needed on the main and second floors, but there was no way to make the building 100-percent safe, he said.
He also balked at fencing in the southwest parking lot and only allowing authorized vehicles — something McKinney wants to do.
“That needs to be public parking out there,” said Ledford. He said sheriff’s vehicles already take up many spaces.
At one point during the meeting, Stephens County District Attorney Jason Hicks popped in and reiterated his call for tighter courthouse security.
At the very least, he said, the building should be limited to one public entrance and people should have to pass through a metal detector and have any bags checked. He said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has analyzed the building and recommended enhanced security.
About a week after the fatal drive-by shooting of Australian Christopher Lane on Aug. 16 and resulting charges against three Duncan teenagers, Hicks and McKinney told county commissioners more security was a vital need.
Hicks said some of his office employees had fielded frightening phone calls that week and an employee spent one day clutching a security alarm device.
“What everyone hasn’t seen is the phone calls and the e-mails we have gotten,” Hicks said, adding at least one threat was directed toward him and his family.
Hicks has noted that during a preliminary hearing held for suspects charged in a series of convenience store robberies in Duncan, the three teens later accused in Lane’s death attended. One had a backpack and kept going in and out of a courthouse restroom and frequently reached into his pockets, Hicks said.
County Clerk Cindy Kaiser told Excise members some women in her office are scared and there have been a few strange incidents, including a man who came in, sat down and just looked around.
Hicks said all three courthouse floors should be secured, but it was up to others to decide how many people that would take and how it will be funded.
“If something happens in the courthouse, the liability will be astronomical,” Hicks said.
Neither McKinney nor anyone from his office attended the meeting and efforts to reach him for comment were not immediately successful.