Top Stories No. 1: County budget struggles

(Editor’s Note: Henderson County Now will be counting down the Top 5 stories of 2012, with one story each day starting Friday, Dec. 28 and ending Tuesday, Jan. 1. … No. 5 – Changes to Ag Child Labor Laws Dropped … No. 4 – West Nile Hits County … No. 3 – Nativity Scene Controversy … No. 2 – Redistricting Scrambles Election.)

It might not surprise anyone that our top story of 2012 involves money.

Henderson County Commissioners’ Court struggled through the summer with its budget for the coming year before keeping the current tax rate: .472658 per $100 valuation.

“We did come up with a budget that did not increase taxes. I think that is very important in this day and time, with all the people who are hurting trying to make ends meet,” County Judge Richard Sanders said at the time.

The decision was popular, but not easy.

Factors like slower than normal tax collections, declining revenue from the jail, and increases in health insurance and retirement created a deficit for the county. Even something as universally praised as the senior citizen tax freeze has had an impact. In 2013, the county will lose an additional $180,000 in revenue because of new senior citizens, said Pct. 2 Commissioner Wade McKinney.

In order to balance the budget, the county eliminated the equivalent of 14 personnel slots, some full time and some part time. Counted in human terms, eight people who were on the county payroll in 2012 are not there today.

“Everyone on this Commissioners’ Court took it very seriously,” Sanders said. “We tried to cut everywhere else you could possibly cut before we considered any personnel cuts, whether it be part time or full time. I believe we did that to the fullest extent that we could.”

Commissioners also warned that keeping the status quo with money did not equal the status quo on services.

In August, McKinney and Pct. 4 Commissioner Ken Geeslin issued a report detailing the relationship between income and cost within the county budget. The McKinney-Geeslin Report covered five years and included topics such as revenue, tax collections and tax rates, personnel costs by department, and the cost of road materials.

The two commissioners found what they expected: The shrinking “purchase power” of the Road and Bridge fund is cutting into their ability to repair roads and provide services to their constituents.

As Geeslin says only half-jokingly, “Unless we get some relief for Road and Bridge we’re going to have to have a part time clerk just to keep up with the call volume of the folks complaining about the lack of services. The way Road and Bridge has been able to stay afloat is we take money out of road material and we plug it in everywhere else, so therefore the amount of work (is down).”

The report covers five years, from 2007 to the present, McKinney said, “because that takes into account the (economic) crash and everything, and gives you a good balance.”

“Well, in that amount of time, gasoline has gone up 125 percent,” he said.

Diesel fuel, which is mainly what is used at the precinct barns, has gone up 68 percent since 2007. The price of material for the routine way the county maintains roads, which is also the least expensive (seal coat and pea gravel), has more than doubled over the past five years. Health insurance and retirement has gone up 26 percent and 23 percent respectively for workers at the precinct barns.

The McKinney-Geeslin report says income for Road and Bridge during that same time has gone up about 9 percent.

“We only have a couple of shots of getting the truth out there,” Geeslin said. “We live in a world of propaganda that is repeated and the truth seldom is repeated. I want the people of Henderson County to understand that we can pass a budget this year with no tax increases, but there will be consequences and I don’t want them to think the Road and Bridge operations are just becoming lazy and just don’t want to do anything. I want them to understand that if we can’t respond and the fix the roads the way they are accustomed to seeing them fixed, it isn’t because our desire isn’t there. It is because the funds aren’t there.”

Commissioners have already started meeting to discuss next year’s budget, which figures to be just as difficult.

Atheist files lawsuit against County Judge

Patrick Greene
Patrick Greene

San Antonio atheist Patrick Greene filed a lawsuit against Henderson County Judge Richard Sanders today related to the annual nativity scene on the courthouse square.

The lawsuit was filed in San Antonio, because Greene said he does not believe he can get a fair trial in Henderson County.

In the lawsuit, Greene claims Sanders, “abused his position as judicial head of Henderson County, by giving official governmental permission to private citizens to display this Christian Nativity scene. This also violated Article 1, Section 6 of the Texas Constitution; ‘No human authority ought, in any case whatever, to control or interfere with the rights of conscience in matters of religion, and no preference shall ever be given by lay to any religious society or mode of worship.’”

Sanders declined to comment on the lawsuit this afternoon, which is standard procedure when the county is facing litigation.

Earlier in December, Greene filed, and then quickly dropped, a lawsuit against the City of Athens because of the nativity scene. Greene dropped the lawsuit after Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott asked the Bexar County District Clerk for a copy.

Greene also said he was afraid of Christian violence.

“After giving it thorough thought, I have decided that this matter of stopping Christians who are trying to make bedfellows out of church and state, is too important to let go,” he said in an email.

Greene changed the defendant in the lawsuit for strategic reasons, saying he did not think he could actually prove any money from the city actually went to support the nativity scene.

“I decided to go back to the beginning, because it was Judge Sanders himself who authorized the nativity scene to be placed on government property,” Greene said.

The furor over the nativity scene on the Henderson County Courthouse lawn began in December 2011, when the Wisconsin-based atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation demanded its removal. The uproar from that — which eventually reached national proportions — had died down by the time Greene became involved.

He became interested in Henderson County in February 2012 after watching video of a Christian rally held on the courthouse square. He sent a letter to Commissioners’ Court threatening a lawsuit if the nativity scene was not moved to private property.

The story then took its oddest twist when Greene changed his mind about the lawsuit for health reasons because he believed he was going blind.

A group from Henderson County, led by Sand Springs Baptist Church, collected $400 and sent it to the struggling Greene and his wife to help with expenses.

Greene responded by flirting with converting to Christianity, although he reverted back to being an atheist fairly quickly. Still, the atheist-helped-by-Christians story went viral, and for the second time in less than a year, Henderson County was the subject of national attention.

With the lawsuit being filed today, Greene has come full circle, back to his original position against his original foe.