For Grayson County commissioners, 2013 was a year of growth. Grayson County added a new department this year and added to the number of buildings owned by the county. Commissioners also endeavored to limit the county’s expenses by tweaking the retirement system it offers its employees.
Deanna Patterson, a clerk under Grayson County Clerk Wilma Bush, started 2013 as the elections clerk. She ended it as the election administrator with one election, albeit a small one, under her belt.
Commissioners gave Patterson a $7,000 raise when she went from being a clerk in a department to the head of a department and Grayson County Clerk Wilma Bush said she expected Patterson would earn every penny of that raise and more. In addition, commissioners allowed Patterson to hire two full-time employees. Only one of those has been hired to date. Patterson said she is waiting till the department is moved out of its temporary home on the first floor of the Grayson County Courthouse before completing her staff of full-time employees. She noted that the elections department will, as it has in the past, hire seasonal employees during election season. Commissioners said the overall personnel cost for new department would be $120,000.
The building that will become home to the Elections Department sits right across Houston Street from the Grayson County Courthouse, which Patterson said made its location ideal. The County paid around $325,000 for the building and county maintenance staff plan to do a lot, if not all, of the remodeling needed to get it ready to serve as the county’s elections hub. Patterson said the target date to move into the new building is the end of March.
“It went great,” Patterson said when asked about her first official election as the head of the county’s newest department. “I am fortunate that I had a great teacher and mentor and she still works right across the hall, Patterson said of Bush.
Patterson said she is looking forward to the day when she have all of the various parts of her department in one place. She noted that the former owner of the building on Travis Street was not slated vacate the building until the end of 2013, so planning for the renovations is still in progress. Once the building is renovated, the county will be able to bring all of the equipment needed for elections into one central location. Moving all of that equipment to the new location will save the county $1,500 a month it was paying to house electronic voting equipment elsewhere.
As part of the change, the Elections Department also took under its roof (theoretical as it is at this moment) the job of voter registration.
“It makes perfect sense since we work hand-in-hand all of the time,” Patterson said of the move for voter registration.
In addition, commissioners also approved voting centers for the county.
In proposing the idea of vote centers, Patterson and Bush explained that vote centers are a technology-driven plan to increase ease of voting during elections. The Centers are designed to accommodate all precincts in Grayson County and utilize universal voting, as opposed to the precinct-specific, traditional voting locations. Proponents said this universal voting would mean that a person who works in Sherman, for example, would not have to rush home to Gunter to vote before the deadline. He or she would be able to vote at any of the Vote Centers in Grayson County. Not everyone was pleased with the idea of vote centers, however, because it came at the price of 13 voting precincts that were eliminated.
Comments from the time that commissioners approved the Vote Centers showed the County plans to spend around $27,000 to implement the new voting plan and that includes money to educate voters about the changes in voting location.
County Commissioner Phyllis James, Precinct 3, said she thinks changing to the Vote Center plan is one of the best things the Commissioner’s Court did in 2013. She said she has used vote centers in the Metroplex and she thinks it will be a positive thing for voters in here Grayson County.
The new building for the Elections Department was not the only one Grayson County purchased in 2013. County leaders also purchased a the Old Travis Lodge building on West Lake Street for use as the county’s new E-911 Communications Center. The county paid around $85,0000 for the building. However, plans to use the building for a Communications Center hit a snag when people who owned homes around the building balked at the County’s plan to erect a communications tower there. After giving it some thought, the county decided to use land it already owned and build a new Communications Center from the ground up.
Just a day or so after Christmas 2012, Grayson County officials met with officials from the two area hospitals in an effort to to discuss an opportunity to change the way uninsured and under-insured people in the county receive health care. That discussion would lead to plans for a new Grayson County Health Clinic housed at an old hospital facility at 111 Gallagher Rd. in Sherman. The new clinic opened in October. The clinic is a result of the county wanting to get more bang for its buck out of the 8 percent of the its gross revenue it must, by law, set aside for indigent care and Texoma Medical Center and Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital-WNJ wanting to divert non-emergent cases from their emergency rooms.
Those desires merged with the state of Texas’ desire to have counties work together to make the best use of the funds the state had set aside for health care. After a great deal of discussion, planning and hard work, Grayson County, the two hospitals and Texoma Health Foundation and the Wilson N. Jones Community Foundation were able to create an entity that will function as the Grayson County Health Clinic and should, if things go as planned, allow the county get a federal match of its contribution of up to 150 percent.
In an effort to save money now and down the road, county commissioners decided in August to change the way employees contributed to their retirement plan.
Under the new plan, commissioners cut the amount of money county employees may invest in the Texas County and District Retirement System from 7 percent to 4 percent and agreed to match from county funds whatever the employee contributes to TCDRS at 225 percent. The employees then have the option of contributing up to 3 of their salary into a different retirement account. That contribution will also be matched by the county.
Commissioners said the changes were needed because TCDRS forced the county to fund the difference between the amount of money the system actually made and the amount it was projected to make. That added up to thousands of dollars every year. Grayson County Commissioner Jeff Whitmire was on point for the commissioners on the change and said that money could be better used by giving it back to employees in the form of raises or bonuses.
When asked about the most significant accomplishments of the Court in 2013, Whitmire said the retirement changes set the employee benefit plan on a more sustainable path. “Throughout the country, we see that traditional pension systems are failing,” he said. “We did not want our pension system to pull us into an unrecoverable financial situation. We needed to shift some of the inherent market risks off of the taxpayer. I believe the new system continues to provide a very good benefit level to our employees.”