by BRAD ROLLINS
Editor and Publisher
With election season upon her, County Judge Elizabeth Sumter has mustered a passion for fiscal discipline, holding up road and building projects that have been in the works for years and which she funded in her proposed budget just months ago.
The judge last week sponsored an agenda item that would have published notification of the county’s intent to sell $74 million in bonds for a new central government building. Then when it came up for discussion and vote, the judge publicly called for the measure to be put on hold, saying a Wall Street Journal article she read on falling property tax valuations nationally caused her to want a “gut check” on the county’s roster of big-ticket capital improvement projects.
“I think what we’re doing here is being really conservative and diligent about where we’re going to move in the budget as we begin to know what those numbers are,” Sumter said.
In a column she wrote this week, Sumter went further, saying it was time to “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”. She specifically singled out the government center, a $207 million road bond package approved by voters in 2008 and $8 million committed to a reconstruction of Dacy Lane.
These machinations seem like safe politicking as national, state and local electorates increasingly protest large government spending programs. But Sumter’s colleagues, including Democratic Party primary foe Jeff Barton, the Pct. 2 commissioner, say the judge’s recent actions on spending don’t withstand scrutiny.
“Of course we should be vigilant but at this point there is no evidence that there is reason to be concerned” about the county’s revenue projections, Barton said. “It’s kind of silly to tell people the sky is falling when we don’t even have Chicken Little’s word for it yet.”
The commissioners court has scheduled a Jan. 26 workshop on capital improvement projects and the longterm financial outlook. At Barton’s prodding this week in court, Sumter said she had not yet invited Hays Central Appraisal District officials to testify about the outlook for property valuations. He cited this later as evidence that the judge has no intention of facilitating a meaningful examination of the issues she raises.
He also criticized as “theatrical” the judge’s use of figures she asked financial adviser Specialized Public Finance Inc. to run that seemed to show a 3.76 cent tax increase next year to pay for government center. Those numbers did not account for 4.5 cents built into the tax rate, a program started more than five years ago, specifically to pay for the government center.
“We had votes and a great deal of discussion all through the summer and fall about these issues. The time to object was long ago. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t be for projects in front of certain groups and against them in front of other certain groups and for them at certain times and against them at certain times,” Barton said.
He pointed also to the judge’s stated advocacy of a new jail, estimated to cost $50-60 million, while Barton and others have pressed to renovate the existing jail at a fraction of the cost. The county has committed $2.2 million to jail renovations and studies of the jail facility and criminal justice system.
Barton said, “It’s a frustrating diversion because we have a lot of work on our plate and a lot of real issues to address and now we’re going back and it’s very difficult to understand the rationale for this little three-ring circus.”
San Marcos Mercury Editor and Publisher Brad Rollins writes about Hays County for the Hays Free Press where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a new partnership between the Free Press and the Mercury.
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