Wichita County is $1.8 million in hole. Short-term, county commissioners are looking to raise property taxes once again.
Commissioner Lee Harvey said, however, there’s a long-term solution to this, if county leaders can get the state on board.
He said the court is only looking to raise taxes because they have to find some way to pay the bills.
The problem, he saod, is that burdens that should be carried by the state, like indigent care and defense, are being left on property owners.
“If the state would put a cap on what we have to spend every year, then we could say, ‘Okay, we’ll just budget for that and once we get there, we’re done with indigent care, we’re done with indigent defense, or our jail is full, we’re not taking anymore,'” Harvey said. “Those are not the rules that we get to play by.”
Although 27 states fund indigent defense 100 percent, Texas funds less than 50 percent, and while Commissioner Harvey said it’s constitutional to provide defense if needed, it shouldn’t be on the shoulders of property tax payers.
“It’s constitutional from the federal government that if you can’t afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you,” he said. “But that cost is supposed to be paid for by the state.”
“We wrote a report last year on prescription medicines for indigent care,” Harvey continued. “We spent $652,000 on prescription medicine that we didn’t plan on spending.”
Wichita County Judge Woody Gossom said money spent on indigent care and indigent defense goes up every year, and he says Wichita County has been reimbursed for indigent care just one year since 1989.
The jail population, as well, continues to tick higher.
Harvey said that’s because mental health patients are now sent to jail rather than a facility, because there aren’t enough beds to hold them.
All of these factors have contributed to higher property taxes and higher debt.
“If the state would take their sales tax money and pay their own bills, our property taxes would go down,” Harvey said.
Representative James Frank said even if the state did take on those responsibilities, that money still comes from the same place.
“It’s not like the taxpayer is different at the federal level, the county level, the state level,” Rep. Frank said. “It’s all the same people. We just need to figure out a way to do it the most efficiently.”
On where indigent fund responsibilities lie, Frank said it could go either way, but it needs to be one or the other.
“It could be either one. I tend to like things managed as local as possible, which would mean indigent care would be done at the county level,” he said. “The problem is when you have two levels of government running the same thing. That’s not very efficient.”
Representative Frank said he’s meeting with county leaders in two weeks to take a look at their budget concerns.
Further down the road, Harvey said Texas county judges are signing a resolution asking the state to consider funding indigent defense 100 percent in the future.