An analysis by The Texan found that the top 50 most populated counties in Texas increased their spending this fiscal year by $650 million. The most populated county, Harris, does not begin their new fiscal year until March.
These figures represent total money spent in a given year.
Total expenditure is not limited to the general fund budget. While the general fund encompasses taxes brought in directly from the county’s constituents to its government, there are tax dollars (regardless of the source) spent that do not come directly to the county government from constituents.
The biggest spenders were Tarrant, Travis, Bexar, and Hays counties. Some, like Hays County, pointed to infrastructure needs as the cause of the increase.
Others blamed population increases.
From one year to the next, most governments increase their spending for exactly these reasons, along with the year-to-year inflation. Costs, both foreseen and unforeseen, force local governments to knock on their taxpayers’ doors again and again with a larger and larger collection box.
But not all counties have gone this route. Some have secured remarkable decreases in their budgetary spending.
Here’s how they did it.
The San Antonio suburb has nearly 164,00 residents. While its neighbor (Bexar) increased its spending by $67 million, Guadalupe decreased its spending by $2.5 million.
Guadalupe County Judge Kyle Kutscher told The Texan a big reason why they’re able to be so fiscally responsible is by maintaining a low level of debt — with more than double the amount of money in the bank compared to its outstanding debt.
Each year, Kutscher stated, Guadalupe County commits to “restricting funds within our budget to save up cash to pay for certain items and projects.” Last year, Guadalupe purchased new elections equipment after saving four years for the acquisition.
Kutscher likens this to how a family does their finances: saving up for a purchase rather than going into debt to make non-essential purchases.
Being a fast-growing county, Guadalupe will only be further pressed to make bigger and bigger purchases on services and infrastructure — such as a new government center, which Kutscher mentioned. But if their track record is any indication, they’re willing to wait for it.
The county tucked into the southeastern side of San Antonio posted the largest percentage decrease. Karnes reduced its spending by $7.5 million — a whopping 34.27 percent decrease.
A big reason why Karnes had such a massive percentage decrease, according to county judge Wade Hedtke, is that they paid off a few bonds the county had. But that wasn’t the only source of saving.
When he took office earlier this year, Hedtke sat down with each department head and “separated out the ‘wants’ from the ‘needs.’” This emphasis on cutting nonessential expenditures, Hedtke stated, allowed the county to prevent erratic spending increases.
Karnes is growing, so in response focused on the essential aspects of local government (safety services and infrastructure) and looked for ways to, as they say, “trim the fat.” One such example was identifying equipment and vehicles that were costing the county more money than they were worth on maintenance and replacing them.
One challenge Hedtke said the county faces is locating a new, cost-efficient place to build a new headquarters for their road and bridge department. He stipulated they have diligently saved money for that purchase, whenever it comes.
Another item Karnes County has saved up for, and Hedtke in particular is excited about, is a new archives building for the county.
Due to — at least in part to Hedtke’s penny-pincher resolve — Karnes County finds itself in a place to make these expenditures without having to surprise their taxpayers with vast ad valorem tax increases.
With a population of 83,000, Orange County rests on Texas’ southeastern border with Louisiana. This year, Orange County cut its spending by $2.3 million or 4.5 percent.
Johnny Trahan, the precinct 1 county commissioner, spoke with The Texan about how they managed to cut 4.5 percent of the budget.
One reform they made was switching health insurance for retirees on the county’s program from the main coverage program to a supplemental one.
Trahan said the county is growing and its elected officials are looking to drive that further — specifically looking to “find new ways to streamline procedures rather than continuing to do what’s always been done.”
In other words: innovate.
One example of innovation Trahan cited was more strictly monitoring their service vehicles to A) provide proper maintenance and prevent unexpected expenses and B) ensuring they are using the most effective and cost-efficient brands available.
When asked what large infrastructure expenditures loom ahead, Trahan stated, “The one that scares us is the old and aging jail.” Other counties have spent exorbitant amounts on renovating or rebuilding their jails.
At some point, Orange County will have to build a new jail but Commissioner Trahan and his colleagues are determined to make this one last as long as possible.
Saving $2.3 million this year will go a long way to help Orange County cross that bridge when they reach it.
Way up in the panhandle, Randall County is home to 136,000 Texans and geographically makes up a chunk of Amarillo. While its northern neighbor, Potter County, slightly increased its spending, Randall cut its spending by $1.8 million.
Ernie Houdashell, county judge for Randall, told The Texan their government is frugal out of necessity because there is not a lot of industry to tax. They rely heavily on property taxes of their residents.
Houdashell chalked the bulk of their spending decrease to grant money or money borrowed.
Going into the next fiscal year after the property tax caps take effect, Houdashell stated he is going to have every department head reissue their same budgets from the previous year — preventing spending increases the county must shoulder.
Houdashell did express frustration over the lack of understanding from the state legislature to the counties. Specifically, he mentioned the time constraint implemented by passing a budget (with a property tax rate) in October and then — if it comes in higher than the SB 2 threshold — having to almost immediately take that to the voters less than a month later on the first Tuesday of November.
While this doesn’t give the county a lot of time to convince voters, Houdashell’s response with his department heads is possibly what the legislature was aiming for.
Regardless, Randall is a fast-growing county and Houdashell is working to prevent massive spending.
San Saba County
The 6,054-person county in the heart of Texas decreased its spending by 27 percent or just under $3 million. Like Karnes County, nearly all the decrease came not from cuts to the operating budget but from other sources such as grants. But the county maintains a slim budget for itself and doesn’t make drastic increases in its spending.
Byron Theodosis, a sixteen-year incumbent county judge for San Saba, told The Texan this is due to “being on a first-name basis with our constituents.” The familiarity — something which is foreign to high-population areas — generates accountability from elected officials to their constituents.
Something Theodosis expressed frustration with, however, was unfunded mandates from the state government. While he understands some of the mandates, Theodosis stressed cash-strapped entities can find it difficult to come up with the money all on their own.
In sum, Theodosis proffered, “We’re fiscally conservative because the guy I’m going to bump into at the grocery store knows who I am and knows what I do.”
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.