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2017 State of the County

Editorial by Stephen ‘Brint’ Carlton

Orange County Residents,

The year 2016 was my second year serving you as your County Judge and it too was filled with accomplishments and challenges. Orange County employees continued to work very hard to provide services to all 83,000 of you while trying to wisely use YOUR MONEY that you have ENTRUSTED TO US. Each county employee is a public servant, and it is my goal to ensure that our number one priority is service to you.

I believe in all levels of government being fiscally secure and responsible. Orange County has made vast improvements in our financial position from the beginning of 2015 without raising the county property tax rate. Two measures of financial health and stability are the “fund balance” and the “other post-employment benefits (OPEB)” estimates.

The projected ending fund balance (EFB) estimate is a projection of county residual funds. Fund balance is critical for unanticipated expenses such as a natural disaster or litigation. The Texas Association of Counties recommends counties have a fund balance equal to 25% of annual expenditures. Orange County’s goal is $11.5 million.

An historical analysis of County finances shows:

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The FY 2015-2016 budget, which was my first budget and the first truly balanced budget in over 20 years, exceeded all expectations. The county provided all required services, purchased nearly $1 million in additional capital outlay at the end of the year, and added over $5 million to our BFB for FY 2016-2017. The FY 2016-2017 budget, while not balanced, will add even more to the county’s projected EFB and enable the county to stay on the right track.

The other measure of financial health and stability is the OPEB estimate. This estimate looks at the cost of unfunded liabilities in health and life insurance. There are actuarial accrued liabilities (AAL) and present value (PV) of all projected benefits. The past three reports show:

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These reports show that the OPEB for the county is on an unsustainable trajectory. We have taken action to get the cost of retiree benefits under control for current and future retirees. The next report is due in 2018 to cover through 2016.

Some people have trouble understanding why the county does not raise property tax rates to pay for increasing benefit costs and expenditures. An analysis of county tax rates show the following:

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Even with fairly flat tax rates, the county revenues are exceeding inflation at a rate of nearly 2 to 1. Orange County, like most governmental entities, does not have a taxing problem, it has a spending problem. Finally, I previously recommended that anybody who feels they are not paying enough or who do not mind paying more in taxes to take advantage of their ability to donate money to Orange County. To date, Orange County has yet to receive a single dollar donated.

Our decisions have saved the county from a financial catastrophe without taking the easy path of asking you to pay a higher county property tax rate. Our success comes from many areas.

Other accomplishments during 2016 include:

– Retiree Health Insurance for New Retirees: Beginning FY 2016-2017, county employees switched to the following sliding scale for retiree health benefits for those employees eligible to retire according to Texas County and District Retirement System guidelines:

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The old plan allowed employees with as little as eight years of service to Orange County to receive a 100% county-funded retiree health insurance benefit for life. The new plan will reduce OPEB costs. Retirees who retired before October 1, 2016 are grandfathered into the old plan.

– Vacation for New Employees: Also beginning FY 2016-2017, all employees hired after September 30, 2016 switched to the following scale for paid vacation:

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Employees hired before October 1, 2016 are grandfathered into the old plan. The new plan will reduce the cost of extra help expenditures.

–           Economic Development: The county revamped the Orange County Economic Development Corporation hired Jessica Hill as Executive Director and instituted changes to increase communication and membership among Orange County governmental entities and businesses.

–           Disaster Declaration: The county issued a disaster declaration in March for historic flooding along the Sabine River. Quick action by multiple agencies ensured no loss of life.

–           Disaster Pay for Employees: A review of county expenditures during the March flood event highlighted a need for revision of the county disaster pay policy. The policy changed as follows:

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–           Exercises and Training: The March flood highlighted needed areas of improvement for Orange County. The Emergency Management Department has worked to schedule numerous operational and administrative trainings and exercises to prepare personnel for disasters.

–           Online Auction: The Purchasing Department conducting an online auction for unused equipment which freed up much needed warehouse space and netted the County $55,600.

–           Birth and Death Certificates: The County Clerk’s Office took over birth and death certificates from the City of Orange and generated $14,000 in only 5 months.

–           Meals on Wheels Program: The county switched from a contribution-in-kind and began giving a$40,000 grant for Orange County Meals on Wheels program to allow for 2 to 1 matching state funds through Texans Feeding Texans in Texas Department of Agriculture.

–           Energy Efficiency Program: The county finalized and began an efficiency program with Way Services to help with needed renovations and upgrades. Energy savings are used to update county equipment. The county is guaranteed to save money by Way Services. The total cost of the project construction is $5,375,000 and will be paid back over a 15-year period.

–           Salary and Benefit Costs Online: In order to increase transparency and expedite Freedom of Information Act requests regarding salaries and pay scales, this information is now online. It is located on the Human Resources webpage under the tab “Salaries” and or can be found here: http://www.co.orange.tx.us/HR-Benefit_Statement_Rpts.html

Constitutional County Court: Orange County residents now have access to the Constitutional County Court for probate matters. This Court is also exploring how to begin a Veteran Treatment Court. The State of Texas provides a salary supplement of $25,200 to the County Judge for carrying a docket in this Court. The vast majority of County Judges in Texas, including Jefferson, Hardin, and Newton Counties, also perform this service. This supplement comes from a special court fee collected across the state and does not come from property tax or sales tax. This added benefit to Orange County comes at a total county cost of approximately $10,000. Additionally, the total personnel costs for the County Judge Department are still less than in FY 2013-2014 when no Constitutional County Court docket existed for the County Judge.

We also continue to explore the validity of or work on proposed future projects. These projects include:

–           Loop 299: This project has been in the works for years and is nearing a final decision.

–           Levee System: This project is estimated to cost approximately $525 million if adopted.

The county faces numerous challenges in 2017. These challenges include:

–           County Healthcare – The loss of emergency services provided by Baptist Hospital Orange is not good for our community. Community leaders are working together for a solution. Possible solutions range from finding a new private company to build a hospital to a hospital district.

–           Collective Bargaining Association Contract – A contractual dispute between the Orange County Commissioners’ Court, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Collective Bargaining Association, and the Orange County Sheriff that began in 2013 was not resolved in 2016.

–           Montano v. Orange County, Texas – The Montano lawsuit is regarding a death that occurred in the County Jail in 2011. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for the United States upheld part of a trial court ruling against Orange County and reinstated part that had been vacated. In short, it was the worst possible outcome for Orange County and presents a $3.1 million liability. The Montano case is not yet over as of this letter and more information will be released once it is. Thankfully, the county purchased insurance for these kinds of cases in 2015.

The county also lost three employees and numerous retirees and family members this year. Shannon Pruett of the Juvenile Probation passed away on June 14, Captain Tom Ray of the Sheriff’s Office passed away on October 23, and Daryl Broussard of JP Precinct #3 passed away on December 17.

More information and details regarding the accomplishments, projects, and future challenges in 2016 can be found at http://www.co.orange.tx.us/County_Judge.html.

These are just a few of the many accomplishments of Orange County in 2016. These do not even take into account the daily achievements of Orange County employees. We kept our fellow citizens safe, moving, healthy, and able to access courts, justice, and records.

Every government employee enjoys the privilege of serving each of you. Government employment is not a right nor do the citizens exist to serve and fund the government. Our sole purpose as public servants is to execute the ideals embodied in The Declaration of Independence and The United States Constitution. Those ideals are that all people are created equal, we each have the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness endowed to us by our Creator, that governments are instituted among the people and derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and that the people established a more perfect union to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. Thank you for the opportunity, privilege, and honor to serve as your County Judge and I look forward to serving you for many years to come. I pray that 2017 will build upon the successes of 2015 and 2016 and bring future progress and improvement throughout Orange County. May God bless you, your family, our community, and The United States of America.

Stephen Brint Carlton

Orange County Judge