County outlines sales tax accountability

A common concern for county residents living within the boundaries of the newly established assistance district is transparency.

Ector County Commissioners asked voters during the last election cycle to levy a sales tax of 1.25 cents per dollar and create an assistance district in all of Ector County outside the city limits of Odessa and Goldsmith.

Residents showed hesitation in the months leading up to November due to misconceptions about the sales tax.

Commissioners gained voters’ support by leading with the promise that steps would be taken using the revenue to resolve the greatest needs of the county, which were identified as road infrastructure, law enforcement and illegal dumping by the Court’s constituents who attended the series of town halls prior to the election.

Ector County Judge Debi Hays recently explained to residents that behind that promise are laws in place to hold county officials accountable.

“That assistance district sales tax money that will be coming in can only be spent in that district,” Hays said.

The local government code for county assistance districts states revenue generated can only be used within the boundaries it is collected in. The tax can only go toward funding certain items like those focused on during the public forums, but it can also help provide other services like fire safety or assist with recreational facility maintenance if commissioners choose to redirect funds in the future.

The sales tax revenue is estimated to add $12 to $15 million annually to the county’s budget.

The Commissioners’ Court serves as the governing body of the district and businesses are required to file taxes to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. The comptroller’s office collects the money and then sends a check to the county.

The comptroller’s office has an online database containing financial and tax information from various special purpose districts across the state that is open to the public.

Randy Donner, who will step in as the new Ector County auditor this month, said additional measures are also in place to ensure transparency at a local level.

“(The assistance district) will have a separate fund set up with the revenues and expenditures broken down separately from the county’s general fund,” Donner said.

He said that information will be made available for residents to view on the county’s website. The county had not posted their monthly financial report for April as of Thursday.

Ector County collected its first check last month from February sales tax collections totaling about $262. The assistance district sales tax did not go into effect officially until April 1 and the county was not expecting to receive their first payment until the summer.

Former Ector County Auditor David Austin previously said the money paid to the state came from a vendor who implemented the new rate before the official state date.

“We were all surprised by it,” Donner said.

He said the comptroller’s office will send checks to the county on a monthly basis, similar to the City of Odessa, but officials expect higher revenue rates in coming months with all eligible businesses participating for the duration of an entire collection period.