By JUDY SHERIDAN
In a report to commissioners Monday, Parker County Judge Mark Riley recommended the court evaluate road and bridge operations, touted the court’s past accomplishments and expressed optimism for the new court’s future — which he believes will be less about politics and more about getting things done.
“I feel better now than I have at any time in my history of sitting in this chair about the ability of the five of us to focus and work with everybody, just like you commented,” Riley said, referring to new precinct 3 commissioner Larry Walden’s first remarks to the court.
Riley is beginning his fifteenth year as judge.
Walden, replacing two-term commissioner John Roth — who frequently opposed Riley — is the only new face on the court this year.
The judge said commissioners need to examine the lateral road fund, set up per special election in 1948 to preserve a source of funding for roads and bridges. Money from the general fund can be put in the lateral road fund, Riley said later, but cannot go the other way, from the lateral road fund to the general fund.
The lateral road fund is fueled by a separate portion of the overall property tax rate.
According to Parker County tax rate information, that component of the rate has mostly decreased since 2003-2004, when it was set at 9.5 cents per $100 valuation along with a rate of 22 cents per $100 valuation for the portion that fuels the general fund.
This year, the lateral road fund portion of the rate was set at 8.3 cents per $100 valuation, along with 33 cents per $100 valuation for the general fund.
The lateral road fund is the source of funding for the precincts, which draw varying amounts according to their miles of roadway and tax base size.
When he was on the court in 1987, the judge said, commissioners discussed their precinct budgets, as well as the lateral road fund budget.
“It’s not much of a public discussion anymore because sometime between ‘95 and ‘99 individual main accounts — so to speak — were set up,” he said. “I don’t think that’s a proper way for us to do business.”
When commissioners don’t spend as much in their precincts as they plan to, the surplus carries over to the next year, Riley said later. The money goes back into the precinct budget, instead of the lateral road fund.
In county departments, a budget surplus goes back into the general fund.
“I don’t think it should be in individual accounts,” he said later. “It should go back into the lateral road fund.”
George Williford, managing director for First Southwest Company, mentioned the reserves in an earlier presentation to the court, Riley recalled.
Williford, who was recommending the county increase its low overall fund balance, remarked that the fund balances for individual precincts averaged about $1 million at the end of September 2010.
“I don’t go to many counties where those balances are allowed to be maintained over one fiscal year,” Williford told the court. “It usually rolls back to the general fund.”
Riley also told the court that he thought commissioners had too much equipment.
“I will say that I think we have a lot of equipment that we don’t need,” he said. “There is a lot of equipment sitting around.”
The judge said he would set up workshops to discuss road and bridge operations well in advance of next year’s budget discussions.
Riley reflected on the court’s accomplishments, mentioning the money saved from privatizing the jail, the success of the transportation bond, the recognition of emergency management and purchasing department personnel and the current AA- bond rating from Standard and Poor’s, compared with a 1999 rating of A-.
“Our reserves are growing,” he added, “and I think our audit next year will show tremendous improvement in our reserves.”
Riley also lauded the court decision to lease judicial software, which he said would improve external as well as internal efficiencies.
“And we are coming to you with a new website opportunity,” he told the court, “to make every department more transparent and put more and better information out there.”