What is in a County Courthouse?
Starting a small business can be one of the most rewarding accomplishments in an entrepreneur’s life, but it can also be one of the most stressful and disappointing failures as well. Entrepreneurs and potential business owners must take advantage of the resources they have, as well as the contacts they make, in order to increase the chances of that business venture being a successful one. One of the most valuable resources available to a potential small business owner in Texas is located right under their nose—the county courthouse.
County courthouses in the state of Texas are kind of like the Grand Central Station of information and resources for potential business owners. Everything from permits, licensing, and even conflict resolution is located in the courthouse. This report will show a breakdown of most of the different departments and officials in the county courthouse and how they relate to and affect small business. All of the information presented will be based on the structure and format of the Brazos County Courthouse, as other counties may have minor differences. The most useful departments are as follows:
Assessor and Collector of Taxes
Because of the wide range of responsibilities performed by the tax assessor-collector, most citizens come in contact with this office more frequently than any other county office. Tax assessor-collectors serve to assess property for the purpose of taxation and to collect taxes for the county and state. Since tax revenue is a significant source of income for most county budgets, the office of tax assessor-collector is very important to county government and small business.
The main purpose of the Assessor and Collector of Taxes is to handle four major tasks: Property Taxes, Voter Registration, Motor Vehicle Registration and Titles, Beer and Liquor License. This is one of the most important departments to small business.
- Property Taxes: This division of the department is responsible for assessing and collecting property taxes. The county assessor is an appraiser that determines the value of residential and commercial properties in the county that is used to determine the tax record every year. The assessor will travel to various new buildings, houses with renovations or additions or new developments in the county and appraise of assess the value of the property and any and all buildings located on the property. This value is converted into an assessment, which is one component in the computation of real property tax bills. All real property, commonly known as real estate, is assessed. Real property is defined as land and any permanent structures attached to it. Some examples of real property are houses, gas stations, office buildings, vacant land, motels, shopping centers, saleable natural resources (oil, gas, timber), farms, apartment buildings, factories, restaurants, and, in most instances, mobile homes. A property’s value can be estimated in three different ways. First, property is compared to others similar to it that have sold recently, using only sales where the buyer and seller both acted without undue pressure. This method is called the market approach and is normally used to value residential, vacant, and farm properties. The second way is to calculate the cost, using today’s labor and material prices, to replace the structure with a similar one. If the structure is not new, the assessor determines the depreciation since it was built. The resulting value is added to an estimate of the market value of the land. This method, called the cost approach, is used to value special purpose and utility properties. The third way is to analyze how much income a property (like an apartment building, store, or factory) will produce if rented. Operating expenses, insurance, maintenance costs, financing terms, and how much money expected to be earned are considered. This method is called the income approach. Obviously, small businesses that own their own land, or the companies that those businesses are leasing from owe property taxes on that land. They can find out the appraisal value as well as the amount of taxes that they owe in this department.
- Motor Vehicle Registration: This division of assessor and collector of tax is also responsible for the registration, titling, and title transfer of all motor vehicles and trailers in the county. If a small business such as a lawn care business or delivery service owns a vehicle it will need to be registered with the county. This division also handles and processes title transfers in the event of a vehicle being sold. Whenever your business buys or sells its business owned vehicle this division is where the transaction will be made official.
- Beer and Liquor License: This is an extremely important division of this department. Every restaurant, bar, venue or establishment that sells alcohol must by federal law obtain and Beer and Liquor License with their county (If allowed by the individual county). This license can only be obtained or renewed through this department.
In the Brazos County, the elected Tax Assessor and Collector is Kristeen Roe.
The objective of the Constable offices is to be the chief process server of the justice courts. In this department, constables and their deputies are fully empowered peace officers with county-wide jurisdiction and thus, may legally exercise their authority in any precinct within their county. Small business is not likely to, but can be affected by this department. Every small business has employees that are all subject to wrongdoing. Even though there may not be a direct connection to small business, it does have an impact. This particular department may also become useful to businesses as it acts as the enforcer of the small claims court.
Brazos Country is split into 4 precincts lead by Archie Clark, Donald Lampo, Wayne Thompson, and Isaac Butler, Jr. respectively.
Led by the Elected Brazos County Attorney Rod Anderson, the County Attorney’s office is very important to small business. This office is responsible for handling criminal misdemeanor cases and administrating victim restitution. If a small business owner is prosecuting someone for theft or wrongdoing, it is most like going to be handled through this department. This office is also in charge of prosecuting “hot check” offenders which can be very important to small businesses. This is also an important department for restaurants or establishments that sell alcohol because it handles all “Selling Alcohol to Minors” cases. This specific department can be beneficial or a hindrance to a small business depending on whether they are trying to aid in the efforts of prosecuting a criminal or disciplining a small business for unlawful or unethical behavior.
The County Clerks office is probably the most important department to small business. This office is the official record keeper of the county. Most of the current duties of the office stem from an 1846 law that required county clerks to record “all deeds, mortgages, conveyances, deeds of trust, bonds, covenants, defeasances, or other instruments of writing, of or concerning any lands, and tenements, or goods and chattels, or moveable property of any description…”. This law also stated that all marriage contracts, powers of attorney, and official bonds be recorded. Today, the majority of the duties still pertain to the receipt, custody and issuance of a wide array of documents, instruments, certificates, licenses and other official papers in addition to the clerk’s duties to the county courts.
Almost all of the information that you need to start a business can be found in the County Clerks office. If a small business wants to register its name with the county it can file a DBA (Do Business As) with the County Clerks office. This will allow that name to be exclusive to the business as well as the opportunity to open accounts under the specific businesses name instead of the individual business owner. Also, all of the information that you need to apply for a DBA, such as tax information, can be obtained through the County Clerks office. This department also handles all of the real estate property records. This is important for small businesses looking to own or lease land from someone where the boundaries or exact value is unknown. The County Clerks office is also responsible for all brand registrations which are crucial to small businesses. The department has a close relationship to the Tax Assessor and Collection department as they work for similar interests in some cases.
In addition, the county clerk acts as an ex officio member of the county commissioner’s court, serves as the official clerk for the court, and is required to attend all sessions and record all proceedings. The job of recording all proceedings is of particular importance to businesses as the county clerk uses this information to create the abstract of judgment. The abstract of judgment is the written summary of a judgment which states how much money the losing defendant owes to the person who won the lawsuit, the rate of interest to be paid on the judgment amount, court costs, and any specific orders that the losing defendant must obey, which abstract is acknowledged and stamped so that it can be recorded and made official with the government. The purpose of an abstract of judgment is to create a public record and create a lien or claim if necessary on any real estate property owned or later acquired by the defendant located in the county in which the abstract of judgment is recorded. If the loser does not pay the judgment voluntarily then the winner can force a sheriff’s sale of any property to collect.
Department of Public Health
In this department traditional public health concerns such as disease outbreaks, environmental hazards and access to health care have been joined by contemporary concerns: bioterrorism, crime, violence, and substance abuse. Each of these poses a threat to public health and wellness. This means the department provides you, your business and your family with protection from the health threats such as food-borne illnesses, natural and man-made disasters, toxic exposures, and preventable injury. Businesses and others may look at, and get copies of, most of the public health records as well. The Public Health Department also works to prevent chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes and their risk factors: poor nutrition, inadequate physical activity, and tobacco use that could eventually affect your employees.
County Commissioners Court
This administrative body was established by the Texas Constitution of 1876 and is comprised of a county judge and four commissioners. The major duties of the commissioner’s court involve overseeing the budgetary and policy making functions of the county government. As the commissioner’s court meets to fulfill its budgetary and administrative responsibilities, each commissioner, along with the county judge, participates in all the decisions and work of the court. Passing the county budget is a major undertaking for the commissioner’s court but has little effect on small businesses. During the budget process, commissioners approve the employment level of the county and consider the level of funding necessary for the other county offices to carry out their duties and responsibilities.
In addition to approving the county budget, commissioner’s courts have other financial responsibilities. The commissioner’s court sets the county’s property tax rate and has the authority to grant tax abatements for economic development both of which are of great importance to small businesses.
Beyond their budget duties, commissioners also have the responsibility of providing oversight of the county’s infrastructure. They are responsible for overseeing the construction, maintenance and improvement of county roads and bridges, establishing long-range thoroughfare, open space, and land use plans, and acquiring property for rights-of-way or other uses determined to be in the public’s best interest. In turn, the oversight of these duties could be important to your business at some point in time.
County commissioners have a broad range of duties. From their positions on the county’s policymaking body to their responsibility for maintaining county roads and bridges, county commissioners are very visible representatives in county government and are responsible for many of the county wide decisions that affect your small business.
Contrary to popular belief there is more to a courthouse than simply a judge handing out bad news and loads of fines and fees. County courthouses offer many advantages and rewards to small businesses. In today’s business environment knowledge is power and courthouses offer many unknown and valuable resources for any small business. With information ranging from foreclosure notices to new business leads and departments that control just about everything, county courthouses present a wealth of knowledge and resources that aren’t found anywhere else.