Fraught budget process, resulting in lower tax rate, deepens divisions in Jeff Davis County government

Jeff Davis County officials are pursuing federal grant funding for a new clinic. Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

JEFF DAVIS COUNTY — Tense silence and shifting glances preempted a Jeff Davis County Commissioners Court meeting last week, one that met for the sole purpose of adopting a tax rate roughly 10% lower than the previous year’s — a move strong-armed by two county commissioners whose month-long refusals to attend budget meetings pushed the county past the deadline to adopt a higher rate.

With that deadline cleared, county commissioners Royce Laskoskie and Roy Hurley — who each missed four consecutive meetings to protest the proposed tax rate increase — finally showed up. The occasion was seen as cause for thanking God during the meeting’s customary opening prayer.

“We just thank you for these gentlemen that showed up today to be part of this court and [pray] that you give them the knowledge and wisdom that they need to make the decisions for our county,” said deputy County Clerk Carol Truax.

Their absences, and the resulting tax rate drop, has put the county in a difficult financial position, according to County Judge Curtis Evans, who did not mince words while reprimanding the officials. 

“The best tool you have is your voice. You need to be available to your constituents and to the voting public of this county,” said Evans, addressing Laskoskie and Hurley in commissioners court. “This was a very big slap in the face to everyone. I’m very disgusted by it.”

In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, the newly-elected duo — both of whom assumed office this year — argued they were standing up against a tax rate increase that they said would have negatively impacted the county’s citizens and businesses, many of which were already struggling financially. 

“This is a poor county,” said Laskoskie. “From the very first time we were handed budget sheets at all, the first thing that was said was, ‘We got to raise taxes.’” 

But Evans and County Commissioner John Davis argued those sentiments were never expressed in any of their budget workshops or otherwise, and after initial budget discussions Laskoskie and Hurley simply stopped showing up. 

“I don’t know where the opposition came from,” said Davis. “It certainly was not voiced in any of our hearings, our budget, our tax rate hearings or workshops, either.” 

In the end, it came down to Evans, Davis and Commissioner Jody Adams passing the budget without the other two commissioners. Because Jeff Davis County originally proposed an increased tax rate to support its budget — which still would have left the county with a $200,000-plus deficit — a supermajority vote, or four out of five votes in favor rather than the typical three out of five votes, was required. 

By Laskoskie and Hurley not showing up to meetings to adopt a tax rate, they forced the county to miss a vital September 30 deadline. According to the state tax code, counties that do not adopt a tax rate by the deadline are required to choose the lower of two potential rates: the preceding year’s rate, or what is called the “no new revenue rate” — which, as the name suggest, is a tax rate that will result in the same amount of revenue as the previous year, despite whether the taxing entity’s needs may have changed. In Jeff Davis County’s case, the lower of the two was the no new revenue rate at .64335 per $100 taxable value. 

That is a 10.66% decrease from the 2022 tax rate. Evans said the situation has caused the county’s deficit to balloon to $500,000. The county plans to cover the deficit with reserves from last year’s budget, which total around $500,000. (Evans explained that in order to pass a deficit budget, the county has to show it can cover that deficit).

Laskoskie was explicit that his absence was in protest of a higher tax rate, but he also argued the budget process was conducted poorly by the judge. The process was confusing and lacked transparency, he claimed, arguing that important financial documents — including audits and grant updates —  were not provided for commissioners, and the structure of the workshops made line item changes “impossible to follow.” 

Evans denied that the budget process was not followed properly, and said neither Laskoskie nor Hurley attempted to visit with him on an individual basis to discuss their concerns. (County Treasurer Dawn Kitts also said commissioners are kept abreast of financial matters and that she is available for questions).

Laskoskie said he and Hurley took the only stance they could to oppose a property tax increase and the adoption of a budget deficit, which he argued was avoidable.  

“Just because we weren’t at a few meetings doesn’t mean we weren’t keeping our eyes and ears open on this thing. We didn’t just go hide out, we were listening to people and doing what needed to be done,” said Laskoskie. “I will not apologize for doing the right thing.” 

The county’s budget is largely supported by ad valorem, or property taxes, and every year commissioners vote to adopt a tax rate to support a proposed budget. This budget cycle, an increased tax rate of .72945 cents — up from the previous rate of .72017 cents, a 1.28% increase — per $100 taxable value was proposed. 

That would have resulted in the county raising more money than last year’s budget by around $314,000, roughly $29,000 of which would be raised from new property added to the rolls, according to the notice of the public hearing on the budget posted on the county’s website

The 1.28% increase would have brought in a significant influx of revenue due to climbing property values — average homestead value in the county increased from $136,048 in 2022 to $148,619 in 2023, according to a tax increase notice posted on the county site. 

In neighboring Presidio and Brewster counties, an increase in property values saw county governments adopting lower tax rates for 2023 compared to the previous year but still opting for the highest rates available. 

Presidio County, which began its budget cycle with a $680,000 deficit, discussed its potential tax rate at length, weighing the county’s needs with taxpayer burden. How to afford costly improvements to critical services and infrastructure projects with virtually no industry to tax and rising inflation is an ongoing issue local officials contend with.

Evans attributed the original $200,000 deficit to legal expenses relating to the ongoing lawsuit with Fort Davis ISD and the Fort Davis Water Supply Corporation, professionalization of the EMS department, and attempting to adequately fund state-required indigent healthcare programs that have traditionally fallen by the wayside. 

The EMS budget, which was up from the previous year due to its transition from a volunteer to paid service, was something Laskoskie took issue with, he said. He is in favor of a hybrid volunteer-paid service, but would have liked to see a slower transition to that model, versus switching to 90% paid all at once, to lessen the burden on taxpayers.

EMS Director Peggy Fonseca said she, too, would have liked to see that happen, but the service only had two licensed volunteers available, and it was difficult to recruit and retain volunteers. “We really don’t have a lot of licensed volunteers to make it a hybrid model; that is why we are moving as fast as we can,” Fonseca said. 

Hurley said he supports EMS services, but was not in favor of a new bunkhouse, stating it cost the county money while the existing facility was operating just fine. The $435,000 structure was primarily funded through grants, with the Ft. Davis Volunteer Fire Department and the county contributing $5,000 each. Fonseca said the bunkhouse project preceded her tenure, but she believed it was needed and will help shorten emergency response times. 

Now, the county commissioners will have to reassess the adopted budget, making amendments throughout the year as needed. Both Commissioner Davis and Judge Evans expressed concern that the no new revenue rate would harm the county financially in the future and it would take years to get them back up near last year’s tax rate.

“Coming into the following year is going to be even tighter,” said Evans. “Because we can only raise taxes 3.5% without forcing a rollback election.” 

“There’s quite a few things that we’re gonna have to cut back on, and it’s all because they refused to vote,” he added. 

At last week’s meeting before Evans, Laskoskie and Hurley ultimately voted to approve the no new revenue rate. Commissioner Davis — his vote no longer needed, given the circumstances — took a symbolic stance by voting against the measure, stating he and the constituents he represents were robbed of their voice given Laskoskie and Hurley’s actions. 

Evans, who served as a county commissioner for 20 years before becoming judge, said the tax rate debacle was a first for the county. He said there is nothing the county court can do to penalize county commissioners in such a situation; it is up to citizens to petition to have them removed if they believe that is necessary. He said he took extreme measures, even asking Sheriff Bill Kitts to request Hurley’s presence at an official meeting, all to no avail. 

“That is your civic duty, elected duty, to work on a budget for your community for your county. That is very serious,” said Evans. “That is the only requirement, honestly, of the commissioners, and they missed it.” 

The situation comes at a time where tensions are already high in the court. Earlier this year, soon after Hurley was elected county commissioner, Evans brought into question his ability to continue to serve as the county’s fire marshal. In addition to concerns of dual office holding, Hurley’s qualifications were also scrutinized. 

The county is currently without a fire marshal, and Evans said he has since received numerous legal opinions Hurley may not operate as his own boss and was awaiting further counsel. (Commissioners court appoints and oversees the fire marshal.) 

The matter of the county’s new EMS Director Peggy Fonseca receiving a notice of violation from the Department of State Health Services, which she is contesting, has added to the tension. Evans claims the whole ordeal is a politically motivated “witch hunt” by Commissioner Laskoskie — an accusation Laskoskie denied while expressing concern about Fonseca’s job performance (an article on the matter, titled “Jeff Davis County EMS Director contests notice of violation from Department of State Health Services,” can be read in this week’s edition of The Big Bend Sentinel).

At the tax rate adoption meeting last week, Commissioner Davis stated that he strives to listen to all of his constituents rather than a select few. In a follow up interview, he clarified that Laskoskie and Hurley seem to be listening primarily to certain citizens who routinely voice opposition that protested the tax increase, budget deficit, and more. 

“There were a handful that were just adamant, but they’re the same handful that are adamant against everything. They’re the same group that does not want grants,” said Davis. 

“I represent all the folks, not just a handful, because the handful are generally the ones that scream the loudest,” he added. 

Commissioners, as well as the county judge, voiced the need to move forward with county business and put the tax rate disagreement in the rear view mirror.

“This was not a shirking of responsibility. I think it was doing our diligent duty for the taxpayers,” said Laskoskie. “So today, it’s time to get back, and let’s get back on track.” 

“I want [citizens] to understand that those guys didn’t do their job,” said Evans. “[But] we got to move on. I don’t want any more division, we have enough.”