What do County Commissioners do? Good question. I didn’t have a clue, and neither did some others I talked to.
Many thanks to head commissioner or Judge, Downing Bolls for taking time to help provide the following information:
To start with, county government is an extension of the State Legislature, established in the mid-1800’s to serve when it’s not in session, therefore being able to serve people on a more continual basis.
Thus, the state creates the county as an administrative arm to aid it in the administration of state business and not as an institution of local residents request.
A major policy responsibility of commissioners is establishing county priorities through the budget process.
Every county in Texas, regardless of its population or land area, has exactly the same structure for its commissioners court. Each county is divided into four commissioners precincts. These four commissioners, plus a “judge” form the commissioners court.
So the answer to the question of whether the commissioners court is an executive, legislative or judicial body is to say that it is all three: part executive, part legislative, and part judicial.
Executive functions include such activities as supervision of other divisions of county government, supervision of expenditures of funds, supervision of road maintenance and construction, appointment of county health officials and other minor officials, and the filling of vacancies in county offices.
Judge Downing Bolls explains, “Instead of having a public works department, for example, we have individual county commissioner precincts whose job it is to oversee roads and bridges, etc.”
If one were to attend a meeting of a commissioners court and a meeting of a city council, it would be very difficult to observe more than minor differences in the mode of operation. The commissioners court looks and acts like a legislative body, not a court. It sets the tax rate, approves the budget and generally determines policy for the county. At the same time, it performs executive functions. In addition, each county commissioner performs executive functions within his own precinct.
Judge Bolls: “The county’s primary source of revenue is property taxes, although we do get some grants and state assistance for some programs. We are not allowed to impose new taxes on county residents unless approved by the legislature. We are often under state mandate to fund some programs. Indigent healthcare is an example — the state requires us to set aside eight percent of our general fund total to fund healthcare for the poor and needy. Once we reach that eight percent, we can apply to the state for reimbursement of up to 90 percent of the additional costs (not 100%). Unfunded mandates such as these present real challenges for county government.”
Allocations are made within resource limitations. Taking into consideration competing needs, compliance with legislative mandated services, and funds legally restricted to specific uses. This work is done with public input and sometimes in collaboration with citizens appointed to various committees.
According to Commissioner Chuck Statler, Taylor County elected officials use these citizen boards on a fairly regular basis.
Taylor County has one such group, the Tobacco Endowment Committee, whose members deal with the distribution of tobacco settlement funds received as a result of a lawsuit filed by the state of Texas and settled in 1998 against the tobacco industry. Different counties throughout the state have decided how to appropriate the money awarded. Taylor County put its 2.1 million dollars into an endowment whose interest is allocated annually for otherwise unmet healthcare needs. One entity funded is a tobacco cessation program with Hendrick Medical Center.
Re-districting (2011) will look at the appointment of a citizens advisory committee to study census information.