Concerns over a possible tax hike brought to the reorganization of Judge Ben Hardin’s 23rd District Court back before commissioners court Monday.
On Sept. 1, County Judge Phillip Spenrath said, the county will go from paying 10 percent to 52 percent for 23rd District Court operations while Matagorda County will take 48 percent based on its population.
Brazoria County, which is paying 80 percent of the court’s cost now, will cease to fund it in September.
Wharton County officials lobbied against the change, an effort which ultimately brought Senate Bill 414 before the 86th Legislature. Weeks later, that bill was jumbled into an omnibus bill (SB 891). When it was passed and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, Spenrath said Wharton County residents would be “burdened.”
The county will need to budget an additional $200,000 for 23rd District Court operations from September through December, which would still be part of the 2018-19 Fiscal Year. That budget currently is $12,000.
“I don’t think (State of Texas) can force you to pay something that is not (funded),” Spenrath said. “One of the things we can do is say we are not going to pay. I don’t know what will happen then and I don’t even want to guess.”
Spenrath said Wharton County can’t amend its budget because this is not considered an emergency item. He reminded commissioners and those in the audience that last year the county posted the current budget, had public hearings and then adopted it.
One option, Spenrath said, would be to cut 1 percent from all county departments to out pay for the 23rd District Court.
The judge said he had contacted Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) last week, and had spoken previously to Rep. Phil Stephenson (R-Wharton) and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who is from Brazoria County and lives in Angleton, but to no avail.
“Everybody said someone else is handling it; no one ever makes a move, so Hardin has come twice now and asked what is Wharton County going to do,” Spenrath said.
“I’m at a point where I need direction,” he added.
County attorney weighs an opinion
County Attorney Trey Maffett, Spenrath said, presented an option to seek an opinion on the matter from the state Attorney General.
“I don’t have a problem asking the AG to write an opinion regarding the payment,” Maffett said. “It appears that it will come down to a factual determination.
“The statute says you shall fund the judiciary after you properly budget. Wharton County didn’t budget for Sept. 1 for a new judicial district,” Maffett said. “So how do we fund it. We don’t because we didn’t properly budget because the legislature didn’t set the effective date for Jan. 1, which would have made this issue moot.”
Maffett added the judicial branch has inherit authority to be funded and it can issue orders for the legislative branch to provide funding by constitution. However, Wharton County also has – through the legislature branch – an inherit power regarding taxation and funding.
“Those two are butting heads now,” Maffett said. “A court will make a factual determination on what is essential between those two competing interests.”
He also described it as an “essentiality.”
Spenrath said a county decision will be made by the end of July.