Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

September 7, 2013

Rice eyes tax increase

By Janet Jacobs
Corsicana Daily Sun

Corsicana — The City of Rice has given notice that it will be raising the tax rate to just under the rollback rate. At the same time, the city council has announced they want to cut the full-time city staff from four to two. For the police department, that means two full-time officers must go to part-time with no benefits. The city already has two part-time officers on staff.

Only the police chief and city secretary will remain as full-time.

“We’ve operated at a deficit since recent memory,” said Jim Fortson, who took over as Mayor of Rice last spring. “We need to reduce our costs and increase our revenue.”

Last year, Rice’s tax rate was .4999, or just under 50 cents for each $100 in appraised value. The proposed new tax rate is .5351, or just slightly higher than 53 cents. For an average home valued at $73,624, the difference will be about $25 a year more in property taxes, according to the city’s legal notice, which ran in the Corsicana Daily Sun on Tuesday.

Rice has a small budget, with about half of it going towards funding the police department. Until recently, it was the police department working in conjunction with the municipal court that also brought in a big chunk of the city’s revenue by stopping out-of-towners zipping along the interstate that bisects the small town.

When the state authorized a 75-mile-per-hour speed limit, however, that meant fewer speeders, tickets and less revenue, explained City Councilman Gary Teague.

“Our police budget was over 50 percent of the whole city budget,” he said. “It’s something that has to be improved. It’s not the police department’s fault. It’s just the way it is. Because that revenue is down 30 to 40 percent we can’t afford the expenses we’ve had in the past.”

Cutting the department will mean less time stopping speeders, but Teague doesn’t think residents in Rice will care if the police department does less work on the interstate.

“When you consider we’re spending about 50 percent of our time on the interstate, which wasn’t protecting the citizens of Rice, I don’t think the citizens of Rice will care, because we’re going to push for patrolling the city, not the interstate,” Teague said. “Right now we have five to six officers. In the past, we’ve had twice as much revenue off the interstate. We just feel we can still take four instead of six and still produce about the same amount of revenue. They won’t have to produce as much because we cut things and everyone on our police force is going to be productive, and right now we’re not.”

Both Fortson and Teague were critical of what they called “inefficiency” among city employees, but they didn’t specifically name individuals, simply saying that all employees would have to become more productive.

Police Chief Larry Cheek said his department was cut four people and $65,000 last year, and he believes these new cuts are simply politics.

“It’s tearing the morale of the police officers down,” adding: “They hired me to enforce the law, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.”

Vickie Young has been on the council for several years, and she recognizes the new direction of the city, but residents haven’t told her they don’t want the tax increase or a smaller police force.

“When the Rice City Council meets there’s probably four or five people from town. It’s not a huge meeting like it should be,” she said. “The community involvement is not there.”

“People gripe about what goes on but you have no one there to put their two cents in,” she added.

The city’s tax increase was advertised, but no one has questioned Young about it, she said.

“Other than being on the council and in workshops, I haven’t had any discussions with people in town,” Young said. “No one has brought this issue up to me at all.”

For her own part, Young said she hasn’t decided what to do. She knows the town needs more money.

“I’m real undecided in the direction we’re going,” she said. “I know that like in all small towns with small budgets we try to make do to the best of our abilities and sometimes there’s going to be cuts you don’t really want to do, but it’s going to have to be done. The tax increase is so the city can generate a little more revenue so we can continue as best we can.”

The mayor believes all this is necessary to improve the city’s streets, which are a priority.

“Yeah, people want to keep the taxes down, but they also want the streets fixed,” Fortson said. “The feedback I get is that our streets are in pitiful shape. With some good money management, with the financial structure we have, we can continue to provide police service and allot some money for streets, too.

“We get more negative feedback on roads than on the tax rate or anything else,” Fortson added.

The city council has hosted three budget workshops. A public hearing on the proposed tax rate will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Rice City Hall, 205 E. Calhoun.

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Janet Jacobs may be reached via e-mail at jjacobs@corsicanadailysun.com. Want to “sound off” to this article? E-mail: Soundoff@corsicanadailysun.com