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

February 18th, 2010
Democratic candidates show contrasts in judge debate

021810sumterbarton1Hays County Judge Liz Sumter, left, and Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton, right.

By ANDY SEVILLA
Associate Editor

Incumbent Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) and Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton, though playing for the same political party, voiced different  policies as they squared off last week at the League of Women Voters (LMV) debate leading up to the March 2 primary.

Tommy Poer, a Buda resident for more than 50 years, suggested that Barton didn’t serve his Precinct 2 constituency well when he declined to support nearly 800 Buda voters who opposed a land use change paving the way for a US Foodservice facility to be built near Buda. Opponents of the change gathered 788 signatures asking that the city put the matter before voters.

But Barton said he has represented Buda well, specifically pointing towards road bond projects approved by 70 percent of Buda-area voters, adding that the projects are 34 percent under budget.

“If you’re talking about US Foods, then the question is whether we want to attract jobs and tax base into Hays County, and my answer was yes,” Barton said.

Proponents of the US Foodservice facility say the county would benefit from the 157 jobs the company said would be created at the facility within 10 years. US Foodservice said it pays its warehouse personnel and truck drivers anywhere from $45,000 to $55,000.

Opponents of the US Foodservice facility filed suit to put the matter on a ballot after the Buda City Council refused to do so. The Third Court of Appeals ultimately ruled for the city.

Sumter cast the only vote on the Hays County Commissioners Court against improving a road to support the US Foodservice facility.

“I think it’s important that you err on the side of caution,” Sumter said. “All (the citizens) simply asked for was a vote. The ability to vote whether or not that plan should be changed – that developmental plan use should be changed. For me, citizens trump, especially that number of citizens that signed the petition, should always be given the opportunity and the voice to vote.”

Barton said Buda’s Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) voted unanimously for the land use change and the council first voted 7-0 for the change (the council actually voted for denial the first time), then 5-2 and 6-1 in favor of the change.

“I was proud to help (Buda),” Barton said. “The issue about whether (the land use change) should be put to a vote in the city of Buda is an issue for the Buda City Council, not for me. It’s been decided in the courts, in fact.”

Sumter said she was against the US Foodservice project because residents didn’t want the development, and because the developers embellished the details.

“I don’t think (US Foodservice) was bringing in the jobs that it said it would,” Sumter said. “Certainly not at the salary rate it said it was going to do that.”

Sumter said that “more importantly,” the residents made their demands clear. Sumter said the county needs to develop an economic development team that would facilitate identifying what kind of development is needed and where to locate it within the county. She said the county should “work together … band together, not work against each other” when attracting economic development projects.

Barton said he led the fight in developing legislation at the state level that gave counties authority to protect water and natural resources. He said Hays County needs development that will bring jobs and increase the tax base. Barton said that’s why he supported Grifols, a biomedical plant under construction in San Marcos, as well as the US Foodservice project near Buda.

“I’ve supported that kind of structure that brings that kind of development in Hays County,” Barton said. “ … Liz has not.”

Said Sumter, “Actually I have supported all of those infrastructures. Grifols, I wasn’t, unfortunately, there for the vote. But I do support that one. Mr. Barton was guessing as to the way I would have voted on that. US Foods – I did vote against.”

Barton and Sumter agreed that county facilities need to be maintained, though their vision as to how to get that done differed.

“A critical issue before us really is the county jail,” Barton said.

Barton said the county needs a “facilities manager” tasked with identifying problems in existing buildings. He said the facilities manager should bring the county sheriff and the whole judicial system together to find solutions to the growing problems at the jail. He said arrests need to be “minimize(d)”, thereby avoiding the building of a new “thousand-bed jail” projected to cost between $50 and $60 million. He said the existing jail should be remodeled to ensure that the sheriff has the necessary tools to effectively enforce laws without having tax payers “burdened” with a “new jail for no reason.”

Sumter maintains that a new jail is necessary, along with a government center and a new justice center “because we have outgrown them and those buildings are very old.”

Said Sumter, “Unfortunately, the county is in a pretty much reactionary position when it comes to maintenance of buildings. We’ve got some very old buildings.”

Sumter said work needs to be done toward a five-year facility management plan aimed at assessing buildings and identifying maintenance problems, particularly with utility systems. She said the plan then should be implemented towards the upkeep of existing buildings and towards the building of new buildings “which is very important for us.”

Barton agreed with Sumter that a new justice center is needed, thereby saving “real money in maintenance,” though he advocates the remodeling of the existing jail and not the building of a new one.

The debate took for a less confrontational approach when both Barton and Sumter agreed that toll roads in Hays County may be necessary in the near future, though they must be new road systems and not tolls of existing traffic arteries.

Sumter said all the right-of-ways should be purchased before accepting toll roads, or else the projects would wind up being fragmented. Barton insisted in keeping the bidding process open on possible toll roads and not give preference to any one company with no-bid contracts.

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