By CLINT FOSTER
PALO PINTO – About halfway through Monday’s session of Palo Pinto County Commissioners Court, the discussion got almost as heated as the July weather outside.
The county’s justices of the peace voiced their discontent about the current timetable, during which they have to deposit money collected at their offices.
According to Palo Pinto County auditor Steve Watson, the current policy, which follows state law, states that whenever a “material amount” of money - in other words, $500 or more - is collected at a justice’s office, it must be deposited either with the county treasurer or in a bank account controlled by the treasurer each day. Checks can be deposited remotely, but any cash payments must be deposited in person.
“This hasn’t been a problem in the past because they had a sub-depository account in Mineral Wells and at Possum Kingdom Lake,” Watson explained. “But that contract expires this week, so that won’t be an option anymore. So, it’s making them have to drive further.”
Not only does the contract expire, but Watson added that the bank whose contract expires refused to renew it and the window for renewal will not open for another four years. While this may not appear to make a difference, the justices all present at court said the majority of payments they receive are in cash. In fact, one justice indicated that over half of the money he receives comes in the from of dollar bills.
“We have a problem, guys. I’m asking you to solve it,” Palo Pinto County Precinct 5 Justice of the Peace Bobby Hart said in Commissioners Court Monday.
“I really don’t have any problem with the material amount,” Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Shawn Humphries added. “I do not want to drive here for $20. I want the leeway that when I get $500 and it takes me three days then I’ll come [50 miles] to see you. I don’t want to hold an amount of money that I feel like I’m in jeopardy with either.”
But Watson seemingly stood his ground on the fiscal policy.
“I respectfully disagree,” he directed at some justices. “There is a difference between can’t make a deposit and wont make a deposit. Taxpayers and the county will be at risk if money is held. It’s just not a good situation. You’re asking me to be fuzzy on my job and I can’t do that. My job is to protect the taxpayers, the county and you, as office holders.”
One suggestion was that the JP offices simply not accept cash, as many county offices do not. But considering the large portion of Palo Pinto County citizens who pay fines in cash, justices did not feel comfortable with the idea.
“It’s against my entire grain of being to not take cash,” Humphries said. “I feel like I have to still take the risk of accepting cash.”
A solution judge Hart suggested was extending the deadline to deposit cash a suggestion Watson later said he was not in favor of.
“The local government code illustrates that the Legislature really wants money to be deposited every day if it can be,” he said. “The commissioners court could make a longer period of time for them to deposit, but that would conflict with my accounting system. And for what reason? That would make an issue with the external auditor; he wouldn’t be happy. So, I don’t know if they’re going to take any additional action.”
Instead, Watson suggested somewhat of a compromise in court.
“I think I would try and dissuade people from using cash,” he said. “If they said, ‘I’m using cash,’ then I would take it and then make the deposit. But if you can dissuade them, not refuse it, but dissuade them, then that limits the trips to the bank you have to make.”
“There’s not going to be a situation that makes everybody happy regarding this,” he added. “I have to do my job to protect taxpayers, to protect the county and to protect the office holders; making sure that they’re not at risk for a loss of a significant amount of money. And I’m not going to change my policy about that. I wouldn’t be doing my job.”
Without a clear-cut solution, it appears the county’s five justices may have to adapt and make the best of a poor situation.
“I’ve been doing this 30-something years and I’ve seen many changes, but we’ve adjusted,” said Precinct 4 JP Coppy Hodgkins Jr. “It’s always been an inconvenience when we’ve had changes, but we’ve adjusted.”
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