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

February 25th, 2010
GOP Hays County judge candidates discuss issues

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Republican Hays County Judge candidates Bert Cobb, left, and Peggy Jones, right.

By SEAN BATURA
News Reporter

San Marcos Local News recently interviewed the two Republican primary candidates for Hays County judge — Peggy Jones and Bert Cobb. They are the two contenders for the party nomination in the March 2 primary election

Jones, 46, moved to Hays County in 1998, owns and operates Plum Creek RV Campground in Kyle and is a former manager and licensed operator of three water utility companies. Cobb, 64, moved to Hays County in 1979, is a veteran of the United States Air Force and former chief of surgery at Central Texas Medical Center (CTMC) in San Marcos.

San Marcos Local News: Do you have anything to say about what your opponent in the primary brings to the table that is positive or negative?

Bert Cobb: I really can’t compare and contrast. But here’s what I will say. I don’t need a job, I’m offering my services to the people of Hays County because I think we can do better. I think we can use some good management strategies to accomplish things that will make us proud in Hays County, things that will make people want to come here and spend their money and enjoy the beauty of Hays County. And the attitude of the judge sets the attitude of the court. An attitude of cooperation will change the court. And one thing that I’ve found over the years, by doing things in business and charitable organizations, is that you can accomplish wonders if you don’t care who gets the credit. And that’s my attitude.

Peggy Jones: I can say that I’m the only candidate in this primary race that has a 100 percent positive environmental record. I don’t have any issues with the Hays Trinity (Groundwater Conservation District). My son doesn’t have any issues with the Hays Trinity. I haven’t been cited for spilling water out all over the ground. I didn’t attempt to build a rice paddy in Central Texas. I also haven’t attempted crawfish farming in Central Texas, both (entailing) very, very high water use. I don’t have this type of background. I am very, very conservative with natural resources. It’s even written into my rules at the campground.

SMLN: What are some of the most pressing issues Hays County faces?

Jones: Transportation and water are the biggest issues facing Hays County. It’s been longstanding, those are the biggest issues, and they don’t seem to be addressed. And yes, we do have the (road) bonds that voters approved, and that should alleviate some of the congestion problems, but I believe that State Highway 45 would also help the situation. The reason we need better transportation is because people are going to continue to commute from Hays County either to Austin or San Antonio, and with the bedroom communities being so dominant in Hays County, that’s the only thing they can do. And it creates a higher carbon footprint on our resources, on the natural resources, by having people sitting in congestion, having longer traffic waits, and having a further drive to their end destination. And that’s why, as long as we are going to be a bedroom-type community, we got to have quicker, faster, more efficient transportation avenues for people to get from point A to point B. And water. Nothing has been done to alleviate the water problem. We do have water coming from (Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority), we have some areas served by (Lower Colorado River Authority) but those are not end-all solutions. We have got to get another supplemental water source here to alleviate demands from the aquifers. Right now, I’m working on that. We have new legislation that’s going to prohibit any type of inter-county water transfers. So we have to find another source here in Hays County. There is another aquifer that tips off, I believe, at the southern end of the county, and that may be a potential for a source of water.

Cobb: Transportation is a major issue. Because of the lack of funding from the Texas Department of Transportation, we’re having to be very creative, such as passing bonds with pass-through payments from the state, or, we go out and we invest our tax dollars in paying off bonds to build highways like we did (U.S.) 290, and then the state pays us back. But that’s a very creative way of doing it, and necessary, because the people in northern Hays County have different transportation needs than the people in western Hays and in the outlying areas. Forty percent of the people who live in Hays County work in Travis County. So, to them, affordable housing and transportation are their primary issues, because they need to get to work and home. People live in Hays because they can have acreage, they can have some sense of country life and they can escape the rat race of work in Travis County and come home and their kids can play soccer, and they can have a yard and animals if they wish. That’s why we are attractive to them. I see water as an upcoming major issue. But since Texas is a right of capture state, we have to always be looking out for people’s personal property rights. We’re going to have to have an adult decision about how we handle and use water in Hays County, and we have to think regionally.

SMLN: Are the county’s current development regulations appropriate?

Cobb: We’ve put up what I call this paperwork curtain between us and those who would come to Hays County. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has very strict rules about lot size based upon the water source for a building. What we did was we exceeded the minimum lot size for TCEQ’s qualifications. I think we exceeded our mandate. When you do that, you kill development. And when you kill development — the largest employment base in Hays County, besides the university, is construction. Now, unemployment in construction is approaching 17 to 20 percent depending on how you count the numbers. So, unless we can get construction moving again, we can never solve the unemployment problem in Hays County.

Jones: They overreached, clearly. It should have been based on the statistical data which was, in fact, supplied by the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District. At the maximum drought stage, they proposed that the minimum lot size should have been at 4.33 (acres). And I agree that the minimum lot size should have followed those rules. Five acre lot tracts would have made perfect sense for this county because most Texas tracts in this area are kind of in five-acre increments. This way, we could have continued with some responsible development to slow the growth process long enough for us to get a supplemental source of water in, so that we would have some amount of relief from the demands on the Hays Trinity (Aquifer) and on the Edwards (Aquifer). So my answer is, five-acre tracts is where it should have been. I don’t know that the county was within its authority to regulate subdivisions to the degree of requiring so many restrictions on developers as far as where to put the greenbelt, where to put the park space, the setback lines. It goes in deeper on the development restrictions, and I’m not sure it helps the county. It seemed more like a grab for control.

SMLN: Do you agree with those who say that the commissioners court should not have raised taxes this fiscal year? For example, Commissioner Will Conley was against the increase and proposed cutting the budget by about $1.5 million to prevent it.

Jones: The problem is that the voters voted for road bonds. It would have increased our tax rate by a penny and a half. (The commissioners court) increased our tax rate by 1.43 [sic] cents. And so, in essence, they didn’t increase the tax rate. Yes, there is waste in there. How much, I don’t really know, exactly, because I’d have to go department by department by department. There was something said where a million and a half could have been saved. I know that that’s — it’s not exactly something I would agree with. I understand that a million of that was a rollback from last year. In other words, it’s savings. $500,000 was from increased revenue was from higher property — revenue from higher property taxes. So, in essence, we could have lowered that rate to reflect that million and half, but that would have saved each taxpayer 3/10 of one cent by cutting that out, and then it would have had to have jumped right back up there next year anyway.

Cobb: I’ve talked to  Commissioner Conley at length, and I think he had a lot of common sense in what he said. I think that what he said made sense.

SMLN: Should the county be buying land and conservation easements to preserve endangered species habitat land and natural open spaces, as, for example, pursuant to the Regional Habitat Conservation Plan currently being created?

Cobb: Here’s the issue with green space — for the public, it’s an asset. For the county, it’s a liability. And here’s the reason: I’m not against green spaces, but we need to think about the unintended consequences of our actions. When you designate a green space — which I love — someone’s paying taxes on that space. When you take it in as a county-owned facility, then it comes off the tax rolls, so you cut your taxes, then you have to maintain it, you have to patrol it, you have to clean it, you have to insure it, all of those things. You have to do a budget offset. What are we willing to give up as taxpayers for that? Because, after all, it’s the taxpayers’ money that’s buying it. And if it’s limited use, how can I justify that to the taxpayer?

Jones: With the amount of knowledge I have of that, I’m not wholeheartedly supportive of this. I’m not sure the county has the funds right now to buy up lands for this type of use. I believe that whenever you offer incentives to people who own the land to maintain a wildlife and conservation on top of the land, you satisfy that need, but it doesn’t use county money to do that.

SMLN: What do you think of the current commissioners court’s plans to build a 233,600 square-foot county government center near Wonder World Drive and Stagecoach Trail?

Jones: I don’t agree with the location. It disrupts the natural flow of water, because it’s partially in a floodplain. I disagree with setting a standard at the county level — or any government level — of doing something that I consider un-environmental. And putting that in a floodplain is disrupting the natural flow of water. And I don’t agree that that’s the right place to have put it. It also has implications from a safety standpoint, a security standpoint, because it is right next to a railroad track. I don’t believe that they are alleviating the noise problem as well. So I think, locationally, it wasn’t an optimum spot. I like redevelopment of existing infrastructure.

Cobb: I think they’ve done a good job of thinking that through, and I think that particularly (Hays County Precinct 1) Commissioner (Debbie) Ingalsbe has done a wonderful job, and Commissioner Conley, and the others, too, of trying to think through what are the problems and how do we work around or solve that problem. Anytime you’re going to spend that kind of money and ask the people to pay for something, I think they need to have a decision — I think it would have been easier for them, quite frankly, if they would have put it up to a vote and let the people say, “Yeah, that’s a great idea.” Because then you get into the problem of people don’t want to spend money, but the government needs this. But you have to do a good job of convincing the population that it’s needed at this time.

SMLN: Should the county jail be rebuilt in a new location or expanded at its current location?

Cobb: The most sensible thing to do right now is to repair the jail, bring it up to standards, and buy time so that we can think about the future needs of the county. We have to work through our criminal justice system to figure out how can get people through there. There are all kinds of ideas. There’s a pod system, a modular system you could add as an addition (to the jail), but what you have to do is have the discussion in public and have all the options out there.

Jones: I don’t know whether this facility should stay where it’s at and increase the size, or whether we need a whole new one — but one or the other has to happen. Here’s what should have happened: the EMS tract, the 10 acres (near Thorpe Land and Interstate-35), would have been a perfect location for the jail. Springtown Mall location, even if the entire thing had to be razed and rebuilt there — it would have provided enough space and enough parking for the county offices, all of the county offices, and then you could have had a secure walkway between the EMS tract and Springtown Mall tract. They would have been close enough that you would have had the extra expense between the jail and the justice center, you would have had on-off egress from the interstate, and you wouldn’t have had the noise problems from the train going right by the buildings.

SMLN: If most commissioners court members decide to support the building of a new jail, should they hold a bond election to secure the agreement of voters?

Jones: That’s not up for negotiation. It has to be done. This one needs to be either fixed to the point that it’s brand new and larger or there needs to be a larger one (built).

Cobb: I think the people need to be involved if we are spending that much of their money.

SMLN: Do you support co-locating bird habitat land — Regional Habitat Conservation Plan land — with a shooting sports complex?

Cobb: I had a crawdad farm in Martindale. We had a propane cannon to scare off the birds that come and eat the crawfish. And after about two weeks, you’ll see them sitting on it. They become acclimated to it because it’s not a physical threat to them. There’s no good studies to say (gunshots) would preclude (birds) being nearby. The problem is, I have a great deal of difficulty, personally, anytime we try to co-mingle county funds and private funds. But I think that there are ways of working it where everybody’s protected. I think (the shooting sports complex) would be a very good thing for Hays County, plus it’s a place where families can go and enjoy and learn to shoot safely. I would have to see how they had designed it.

Jones: I do support the shooting sports complex 100 percent, but I think the (Hays County Shooting Sports) Task Force — and I told them this when I went to their meeting in December — they came about it the wrong way by trying to couple it with conservation of endangered species and all these other things they tried doing, and making it parkland is not the answer for what they’re trying to do. What they really needed to do was build this up and use it as a facility that could also be contracted with the federal government and use this for national guard units, to use it for local policing units and with other organizations that might want to use a facility like that. They also need a place that’s large enough so they can run their scenarios. So, I believe what they want to do could be done. It could not only pay for itself, put potentially create a profit and they could give back to the community. But the way they’ve come about it, it will not generate enough revenue to even come close to paying the debt on it.

SMLN: How should the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District be funded?

Jones: I do believe their funding needs to come through the county. I do not want to see the conservation district discontinued. I believe their main focus should be on education. I understand there should be some regulatory control for irresponsible use, but 100 percent of their budget should not go to that, should be at least balanced out for conservation education. I want to see them be effective at what they were structured to do in the first place before they have more authority and more revenues. I want to see more responsible use of their money that they have coming in.

Cobb: The only fair way is probably through a use tax. In other words, those who use water fund the research and development. We really don’t know that much about aquifers. Probably more is known about the moon than is known about our aquifers. We spend a lot of money, but an aquifer is a very, very complicated system. Until we have good information, good data, we’re just spinning our wheels and jousting at windmills. Because until we have the data to support good decisions, we can’t really make good decisions. And so we have to have a multi-pronged attack. We have to have education — very important.

SMLN: If elected, would you attempt to get the $15,000 supplement offered by the State of Texas for hearing legal cases 40 percent of the time as a “black robe” judge?

Cobb: I wouldn’t do that. I think that the people of Hays County would be paying me to spend my full time being judge and watching that $165 million budget. No, I would not do that.

Jones: No, I would not. I don’t have the expertise to hear judicial cases. We have two county court at law judges, we have JPs all over the place, and I fail to see the need for it. I know I don’t want to devote 40 percent of my time to hearing those kinds of cases. If I had the background, if I had a legal degree and I had a legal background, I might consider that, but I feel like there’s enough issues in this county to keep this a full-time job. Instead of devoting 60 percent of my time to county issues, I think all of my hours should be devoted to county issues.

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