LAWTON – The Comanche County Courthouse will have to pinch a few pennies and stretch a few dollars for the next 12 months.
The $9,340,652 budget that the county Excise Board approved Wednesday for Fiscal Year 2021 is $28,348 lower than the $9,369,000 county budget for FY 2020.
“We’ve got a balanced budget only because a ‘budget preparer’ we hire per state statute allowed us to raise our spending ceiling by an additional $80,000 so we could get close to what we spent last year,” Excise Board Chairman J.P. Richard said. “None of the additional funding requests we received was filled.”
The “flat” budget can be attributed in large measure to the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and an ad valorem tax homestead exemption for 100% disabled military veterans and their spouses.
Comanche County has 3,709 totally disabled veterans, and the cost of that property tax exclusion was $6,077,784, according to records provided by County Assessor Grant Edwards. The growth of the county’s ad valorem tax revenue “doesn’t offset these exemptions,” said Richard, who served in the Vietnam War with the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division and has a 40% service-related disability.
Comanche County’s assessed valuation for 2020 is $753.7 million, a $14 million increase from 2019, Edwards reported.
The tax loss this year attributed to the exemption included:
• the City of Lawton, $345,665;
• Comanche County, a little over $1 million;
• Great Plains Technology Center, $907,313;
• public schools, $3,798,246 (including Lawton, $2.24 million; Elgin, $609,722; Cache I-1, $593,989; Geronimo, $54,469; Bishop, $49,571; Central High, $45,803; Fletcher, $45,364; Sterling, $27,745; Flower Mound, $19,264; and Indiahoma, $19,159).
The exemption has cost Comanche County nearly $50 million in ad valorem tax revenue over the past 15 years, records show. Approximately 80% of that money would have been earmarked for public schools, Richard said.
“This is an unfunded mandate that the Legislature has put on the counties,” he added. The state reimburses counties for their property tax losses from exemptions on wind farms and on manufacturing, but counties are not reimbursed for the 100% homestead exemption for disabled veterans, Richard noted.
“We appreciate every veteran who separates from the service and chooses to remain here,” he said. “They provide a valuable contribution to the community. We’re just trying to raise public awareness statewide about the cost of this property tax exemption.”
Oklahoma County has the most veterans of any county in the state, “but only about 200 more than Comanche County has,” Richard said. “We have 19,000 military veterans living in Comanche County, and many of them have some degree of disability.”
Comanche County offices that received the same level of funding for FY 2021 as they got in FY 2020 included the Sheriff’s Department, the Treasurer, the Board of County Commissioners, the District Attorney, the Free Fair, the Excise Board, the County Clerk, the County Assessor, the Juvenile Bureau and the Juvenile Detention Center, the Court Clerk, the County Election Board, the Lawton and Elgin public libraries, the OSU Extension Service, plus $2,000 reserved for charity burials.