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BELTON — The first topic Bell County Judge David Blackburn tackled before diving into the proposed $107 million budget for 2020 was growth.

“Bell County continues to grow and has done so for the past three decades,” Blackburn said, highlighting the county’s 21.5 percent growth rate from 2011 to 2019 — a number that outpaces the growth rates of Texas at 16.6 percent and of the United States at 5.7 percent.

That growth — and its anticipated continuation — is pushing the county to begin laying the groundwork for two public safety-related projects in next year’s budget.

In the short term, the Commissioners Court is preparing for an additional Child Protective Services judge. The process started Monday when the commissioners approved a nearly $50,000 contract with CenTex Construction to begin remodeling the Bell County Annex at 550 E. Second Ave.

“Bell County was given another CPS judge,” Commissioner Bill Schumann said, referring to the Texas Legislature calling for a second Child Protective Services judge in Bell County in the 2019-21 state budget. “In an effort to try to keep both CPS courts in the same location where they have access to the county attorney’s staff and a large waiting room, we opted to move the (Attorney General’s Child Support Office) to a different location.”

In the long term, the county is planning for the expansion of the Loop 121 jail. The commissioners proposed setting aside nearly $2.4 million to begin studying the planned expansion as well as update Bell County’s 20-year-old pay plan and possibly begin implementing parts of both.

“It is time for us to begin looking at managing growth in our jail,” Blackburn said, adding that the facility was at 88 percent of capacity Monday morning.

Bell County is proposing to spend $107,020,040 for its general fund in the 2020 fiscal year — a $3.6 million increase from the adopted 2019 budget of more than $99.9 million. The county expects to bring in $107,020,040 in revenues — an $11.6 million bump from the 2019 budget.

Slight tax rate decrease

More than half of the county’s revenue comes from property taxes. The commissioners set the proposed 2020 tax rate at 45 cents per $100 valuation — a decrease of .11 cents from the current rate of 45.11 cents.

Although this is the first time in about a decade the commissioners proposed a tax rate decrease, that may not mean a lower property tax bill. The Tax Appraisal District of Bell County pegged the county as having a certified value of more than $20 billion — an 11.17 increase from last year.

For example, the average home in Temple is valued at $125,000 — a $9,000 increase from last year’s average home value of $116,000. That homeowner will pay $562.50 in Bell County property taxes in 2020 — if the proposed rate is approved. Last year, that Temple resident paid about $523.27 in county taxes.

The county would have to levy a 41.22-cent tax rate for residents not to see an increase in their tax bills. This rate is known as the effective rate.

Bell County cannot exceed a rollback rate of 45.4 cents — otherwise it could trigger an election, if 10 percent of voters petition for it.

Other 2020 initiatives

The proposed 2020 budget calls for a 3 percent raise for county officials and employees. That will cost more than $1.4 million.

Of that figure, $85,227 will be spent on salary increases for the three Bell County Court at Law judges — a mandate from the Texas Legislature. These raises take up the bulk of the $114,882 increase for Bell County’s elected officials.

Lawmakers approved a pay bump for district, county and appellate judges, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

The raises are based on a judge’s tenure. A judge’s pay will increase by 10 percent after four years. After eight years, there will be another 10 percent bump. Finally, judges with 12 years of tenure receive a final 5 percent increase.

The three county court at law judges — Jeanne Parker, John Mischtian and Rebecca DePew — each received a salary of $157,000, according to the 2019 budget.

The commissioners also plan to allocate $881,350 for 13 new positions.

The CPS court will get four new employees: an assistant guardian ad litem; two assistant county attorneys; and one investigator for the county attorney. Additionally, three of four new courts and transportation deputies for the jail will be used for the CPS court.

The other new positions are a technician for the Bell County Expo Center; two deputies for the Precinct 1 constable; a single new deputy for the Precinct 3 constable; and a new evidence technician for the Bell County Sheriff’s Department.