San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

January 19th, 2010
Courthouse Connections: Questions for lean times

Courthouse Connections: A column
By LIZ SUMTER
Hays County Judge

People all over Hays County are losing their jobs and homes. Some people have been able to keep their jobs and homes, but they’ve had to tighten their belts.

Your county government should not be any different. In my view, here’s how a prudent person behaves. She thinks in terms of a family budget – what can I really afford among all the needs I have without increasing my already ballooning debt?

As your County Judge, it is my responsibility to lead the court through these uncertain economic times. To do that, I look at the county’s needs, as a whole, prioritize them, and then decide what we can afford to do and what might have to wait. I look at national, state and local indicators such as unemployment, employment growth, foreclosure numbers and sales tax revenues. I also consult with appraisal districts throughout the region to get an idea about where property values might go, and I take a good look at social services to see if the service demand is growing.

Here’s the reality for Hays County:

Unemployment has risen from 3.8 percent in 2007 to 6.9 percent in the third quarter of 2009.

Employment growth has declined from 6 percent in 2007 to 0.3 percent in the third quarter of 2009.

Foreclosures are up from an average of 100 per month last year to an average of 143 per month over the past four months.

Sales tax revenue has fallen from $9,758,657.29 in 2008 to $9,476,550.80 in 2009, and the decline has continued through the past five months.

The food bank in Hays County has seen a 20 percent increase in people needing food in 2009, while corporate donations are down 81 percent and civic group donations are down 42 percent.

My conversations with several appraisal district chief appraisers in the region, including our own, lead me to believe that the best we can hope for is a flat valuation of property this year, but more likely a decrease in property values. That means entities that rely on property taxes to fund their services and capital projects will have less money for the same tax rate.

Here’s the challenge:

Voters have approved roads totaling $226 million dollars ($60 million is borrowed debt).

Voters approved park projects totaling $30 million ($20 million is borrowed debt).

The Dacy Lane improvement totaling $8 million is on the drawing board  ($8 million is borrowed debt).

The Government Center, currently estimated at $73 million, is under consideration.

Cost estimates are being developed for a jail, as well as Precinct 2 and 3 offices.

Everything on the list is necessary, but the list, taken in whole, is very expensive — particularly the road and Government Center expenditures. Accordingly, I have asked our team of experts involved in the road and Government Center projects to answer a number of questions, including:

What are the operational costs of the new government building?

How many new people would we need to support the building?

Since the building is not within the budgeted tax rate, can it be scaled down?

Can we shell in some of the courtrooms and spaces?

If we decide to eliminate a floor, how easy would it be to add on in the future?

If we need to slow down the borrowing on roads, what can be accomplished with what we have borrowed and spent so far?

In the next few weeks, I will be presenting a variety of options to the commissioners on the court. Each commissioner will have to bring his/her best judgment to the table. The specific questions they will have to answer include:

Should we wait to make a decision on borrowing until we get firm numbers from the Central Appraisal District (CAD) in April/May? If we do, what does that do for the schedule of the government building?

Should we stop borrowing on roads for awhile and shift funds to roads we can complete with the money we have on hand now?

Apart from jail improvements that are tied to compliance issues, should we save our cash and see how much of a cushion that can provide for the next budget year?

If we decide that building roads, parks, and government facilities is not what we cut, what services should we cut?

Are commissioners willing to raise taxes if we cannot find enough to cut and the devaluation of property is 2 or 3 percent?

My job, as County Judge, is to direct the traffic on the court, so to speak. When the discussion about these critical issues starts, my job is to make certain that individual commissioners have the information they need so they can make informed decisions. It is also my responsibility to keep the focus on Hays County as a whole.

I want to hear from you.  I have scheduled a workshop for commissioners on Tuesday, Jan. 26. The workshop will address these important issues. I hope you will find time to attend. Remember: My office is in the courthouse, but you — the citizens — own the building.

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0 thoughts on “Courthouse Connections: Questions for lean times

  1. It is not hard to see that the regional efforts of Envision Central Texas, a five-year, ongoing planning process which is not BINDING At this point, but which was compiled by local leaders and representative citizens from a wide spectrum of interests and individual points of view, is handy to consider in our planning. The study and evaluation, done under the watchful eye of a nationally-respected specialist group led by John Fregonese and the late Neil Kocurek, among others, was comprehensive and embodies the ideals of citizens regarding how to grow sustainably, not only in Hays, but also the rest of the ten-county area surrounding Travis. Handling and maintaining open space; utilizing density-planning and multi-use planning so as to make allowance for open space, green space, watershed protection, ag space, maximization of common infrastructure planning and building; greater water and species protection and recreational resources in both developed and as-yet undeveloped areas; carefully mixed, often specialized layouts and special-use districts–all point the way toward a region that is efficient, functional, affordable, and doesn’t presume to operate community linkages in a way to create traffic bottlenecks, poor housing and business distribution–problems we could build into and later have to pay to accomodate or to redevelop for higher purposes–all makes terrific sense. Within a forgiving umbrella, each community can maintain its character and control its development destiny as it sees appropriate.

    The number of persons interested in creating smaller, more convenient roads and byways bodes well under the aegis of preserving as much viable and accessible green and open space as possible; both point to plans which would absorb future growth iin existing “growth centers,” rather than encouraging the kind of random sprawl which threatens (beyond THREATENS, actually–IS eroding) the viability of some housing areas and other uses. Counties, lacking zoning or other tools for managing growth, are being asked to absorb an enormous amount of poorly-mixed and/or substandard new development, especially in the unincorporated land areas “out in the Counties.”

    The ECT initiative was itrself well laid out and tested by representatives of all the areas and interests, and in addition was widely published for review by over 12,000 individual parties in a series of various local focus groups, leaders and experts. Then it was widely published throughout the region. Its form is that of a matrix for SUSTAINABLE, PROSPEROUS, SENSIBLE growth, as well as the interconnection of adjacent areas and jurisdictions TO PROVIDE COMPLEMENTARY DISTRIBUTION OF ROADS, UTILITIES, PARKS, GREEN SPACES, RECREATIONAL AREAS TO MINIMIZE THE IMPACT OF HIGH-VELOCITY, UNPLANNED GROWTH AS WE HAVE SEEN IN THE PAST, especially in the early ’80’s and mid-to-late ’90’s. Avoiding unnecessary duplication and conflict thus can help each community to be more functional in itself, and a better fit in the Regional mix. This process makes the most of our mutual resources, from wildlife to utility distribution to sources of pollution to housing markets, and, Yes, Virginia, effective long-term traffic facilities and flow. The amount of specific expertise relating to best practices in local areas of the region is both amazing and congenial about getting the best of life in Central Texas. Hays should strive for a leadership role, especially as relates to Buda, Kyle and San Marcos in relation to Travis County.

    There is hardly an element of community life not addressed, from walkable neighborhood commercial centers to water sources to roadways to optimal school locations and educational innovation. At this stage, done well, such a loose PLAN, or COMPACT simply offers a more desirable climate in which to grow and become a model, than the “Oklahoma Land Rush” approach, a confused, hasty, and highly conflicted course we now seem to be on. We have nominal spokespersons from communities and interests large and small, who are charged to press at ECT for implementation of appropriate strategies back at home. Alas, I know no longer who those persons are for HAYS’ important I-35 communities. We sometimes lose the long perspective which is the only tool for escaping a future quasi-urban, disorganized rat’s nest full of competing parochial interests. CAPCOG is another tremendous resource for working together on both local and larger projects, problems, and interests.

    Let’s try to build aggressively and thoughtfully on the work already done and being done, lest we continue to wake up like the proverbial goose, “in a new and foreign world every day.”

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