Most local residents will be surprised to learn that only 40 percent of county tax dollars are actually being spent on road improvements and clearing drainage ditches.

The lion’s share of your money is statutorily directed toward public services like the state judicial system, state-ordered elections, state-required vehicle registration, and the preservation and keeping of state records.

Today’s column particularly focuses on how local tax dollars fund the day-to-day operations of the state judicial system which includes the district courts, county-level courts and justice courts.

In 2021, Wharton County taxpayers will pay more than $11.5 million to operate our sector of the state judicial system: sheriff’s office ($4,123,954); jail ($3,181,883); district and county clerk offices ($949,489); district and county attorney offices ($905,602); four justice of the peace courts ($700,303); district and county courts ($636,403); four constable offices ($579,791); indigent criminal defense ($470,000); and juvenile probation department ($288,804).

Courts: While the state pays the salaries and benefits of district judges, counties pay the base salaries of other judges, as well as personnel salaries and other operating costs.

Many counties operate specialty courts such as drug courts and veteran’s treatment courts. Counties also provide courtrooms and courthouses and fund county clerk offices, district clerk offices and the office of the county and district clerk in smaller counties.

County and district clerks serve as the custodian of records and have a range of duties, including complying with the mandated requirements relating to e-filing.

The Supreme Court of Texas mandated electric filing (e-filing) of all civil matters by attorneys for appellate, district and county-level and statutory probate courts by December 2012. The mandatory e-filing of criminal cases began in July 2017 and was fully implemented by all counties by January 2020.

Court Jurisdiction: State law stipulates the jurisdiction of courts in Texas.

District Courts: These courts generally have jurisdiction over felony offenses, certain family law cases (including divorces), juvenile cases and certain civil cases, among other matters.

• County-Level Courts: These courts, which include constitutional county courts, statutory county courts and statutory probate courts, generally have jurisdiction over misdemeanor offenses, certain civil cases, some juvenile cases and probate cases, among other matters.

• Justice Courts: These courts generally have jurisdiction over misdemeanors only punishable by fine (such as traffic citations), certain civil cases and small claims, as well as eviction and truancy cases. Justices of the peace preside over these courts and also have certain magistration duties. As magistrates, they set bonds in criminal cases.

Prosecution: Part of the county support for the state’s judicial system includes funding for the costs of prosecution, which includes the office of district and county attorneys.

While the state pays the salaries and specified expenses of district attorneys, counties pay for all supporting staff, including assistant prosecutors. Counties also pay the operational costs for prosecuting offices, the salaries for certain county attorneys and may pay for salary supplements.

These prosecutors are responsible for representing the state in all criminal matters (felonies and misdemeanors) and juvenile matters. They also have various other duties, including the representation of the state in certain Child Protective Services cases.

Court-Appointed Attorneys: Counties must pay for the costs of court-appointed counsel in many cases. For instance, counties are responsible for the costs of court-appointed attorneys for indigent defendants in criminal cases.

While the state reimburses counties for about 10 percent of these costs, counties pay the vast majority of these expenses. Additionally, counties must pay for all the costs of attorneys appointed to represent indigent parents and their children in Child Protective Services (CPS) cases. Wharton County taxpayers will pay appointed attorneys more than $500,000 to defend indigent court participants in 2021.

Please note today’s column does not address new requests for millions of additional taxpayer dollars needed to prosecute and pay for defending an array of capital murder defendants recently indicted by the Wharton County Grand Jury.

My fellow citizens, it is imperative that we all continue to ask questions in hopes of better understanding how and why local tax dollars are being spent.

Likewise, please know that your elected county commissioners annually spend millions of dollars on upgrading roads ($7 million) and improving drainage systems ($2.3 million).

As your county judge, my primary objective continues to be preparing Wharton County for the future while always maintaining our unique small-town way of life.

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