FORT WORTH -- Dialing up thermostats, buying cheaper pens, cutting back on cleaning and freezing job openings were among the suggestions tossed about Monday as about 100 Tarrant County leaders brainstormed ways to shave costs.
After reiterating that a tax hike isn't on the table and with an early projection of flat property valuations -- the county's primary source of revenue -- County Judge Glen Whitley urged department heads and elected officials to comb their operations for savings as work begins on the 2012 budget.
"We have to find new ways to do more with less," he said. "Ask your friends for their ideas."
Whitley and the other four commissioners would like to give employees a 3 percent raise in 2012 after giving them a 3 percent lump sum payment in lieu of a raise for 2011.
The county's 4,000 employees did not get raises in 2010 after receiving 3 percent bumps in 2008 and 2009.
"We still have a hill to climb before we can give raises," Whitley said.
Jeffery Law, chief appraiser for the Tarrant Appraisal District, told officials that new construction is still lagging and that, at best, he expected 2011 property tax revenue to stay at the 2010 level, which was the first yearly decline since 1993.
"We're seeing a little uptick in residential sale listings," Law said. "I'm being optimistic; maybe we've turned the corner. But I think you'll be somewhere around flat or slightly down when it comes to 2011 values."
But other worrisome factors, like federal cutbacks and the state's multibillion-dollar shortfall, could affect the county.
Budget director Debbie Schneider said the county will lose $1.5 million in revenue from taxes on liquor sold by the drink and $1 million in state reimbursement for juror pay under the Texas House's current budget bill.
The county could also lose out on about $9.2 million in grants for various criminal justice, community development and public-health programs, grants coordinator Debbie Fillmore said.
Fee revenue, which declined by $4 million to $82 million in 2011, is also expected to be flat, auditor Renee Tidwell said.
Whitley said user fees are a promising target for new revenue. An estimated $1 million in additional revenue could be generated just by increasing Sheriff's Department citation fees.
The little things can add up to big savings.
Information technology director Steve Smith said switching the county's computer printers to Ecofont, a free typeface that uses less ink, could cut the annual $1 million tab for ink cartridges in half.
Facilities manager David Phillips drew a few groans from the crowd when he proposed turning off air conditioning in county buildings a half-hour before they close each day and pushing the comfort zone year-round to save $300,000 annually.
He also advocated not cleaning nonpublic areas of county buildings two days a week to save $500,000 a year.
Purchasing manager Jack Beacham said automatically buying generic office products like pens and staplers could save $100,000 annually.
Human resources director Tina Glenn proposed forgoing the county's $90,000 employee picnic at Six Flags Over Texas. She also suggested a one-year hiring freeze and reducing the use of "take-home" vehicles.
Other ideas included increasing parking fees in county buildings and upping the monthly fee for employees' private use of county cellphones.
The group will reconvene in June after the appraisal district releases evaluation numbers and the Legislature finishes its session.
"We don't know yet what we are facing but we made good progress. We identified a couple of million dollars in savings just today," Whitley said.