Hays County judge candidates Jeff Barton, left, and Bert Cobb, right, at this week’s League of Women Voters debate. Photo by Andy Sevilla.
By ANDY SEVILLA
Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) faced off with former Central Texas Medical Center chief surgeon Bert Cobb (R-San Marcos) in a contentious debate this week as each tries to outpoll the other in the Nov. 2 race for Hays County judge.
The candidates met at the League of Women Voters debate at the San Marcos Activity Center before about 200 citizens.
Barton painted Cobb as inexperienced in government, while Cobb said Barton is part of a wasteful spending culture in government.
“We’ve got to stop spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need,” Cobb said in his closing argument. “Mr. Barton has used my age and my health against me. I’m too young for Medicare and too old for women to care. I’m out on therapy for my back, which is terrible. In a few weeks, my back will be well, and he will still be Jeff Barton.”
Though Barton didn’t mention Cobb’s age or health at the debate, he did strike against Cobb’s plan to retire from his medical career to be the county’s next judge.
“I think county judge is a position you should aspire to, not retire to,” Barton said. “On the job training in these challenging times will cost us dearly. We won’t get a second chance at our water or our way of life. I don’t know much about curing allergies. On the other hand, I’ve given my life to preparing for this job.”
Water conservation was among the matters of most concern during the debate. Each candidate indicated a different approach.
“I’m for right of capture, because it’s law,” Cobb said. “Does it need work? Yes. Can we discuss it? Yes, we can. I’m against the waste of water in all forms, but we cannot take away the people’s water and say that the government should control it. We have to educate people what wasting water is. I’m also for rain water capture … Rain water is really a good place to look for extra water. I have rainwater capture on my home. I have not pumped a single gallon of water of our aquifer for five years … we have to put all of those things into play.”
Barton said Cobb’s view may be influenced by individuals who have battled the county over regulation, but Barton said regulation is a key to protecting the resource.
“That’s a place where Dr. Cobb and I disagree,” Barton said. “We share water resources. Water in aquifers run through the ground, they don’t really recognize property boundaries very well. If we give in to absolute right to capture, then we’re allowing people like a catfish farm to come in and pump the San Marcos Springs dry, pump the Trinity Aquifer dry … We don’t want to overreach, we don’t want to tell people they can’t drill a simple residential well, but if you talk about someone who might come in and use millions and millions and millions of gallons a year, drying up other people’s wells in the process, that’s the place where government has a role. That’s why we create government among ourselves to arbitrate those kinds of disputes.”
The Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District (HTGCD) on the west side of Hays County is under threat by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which is suggesting that the district be combined with water districts in Travis and Comal Counties.
Cobb described his disapproval of a potential TCEQ action on HTGCD with only two words — “local control” — while Barton took a slightly different approach.
“I would prefer local control,” Barton said. “I think that sounds good. I’m not sure that local control is entirely working in the Trinity aquifer district right now. The Trinity aquifer district comes to the county each year asking for money because they have no taxing authority, no way to raise money … We have to find a better equilibrium, a better way to work out problems in the Trinity zone.”
Barton said TCEQ has proposed combining HTGCD into a larger district because the HTDCD lacks long-term resources under its current makeup to provide full regulation. Barton said he is apprehensive about TCEQ’s proposal, but will look into the matter with an open mind, and hold discussions with stakeholders.
“I think no matter what happens, we have to find a better solution for dealing with ground water issues and long-term shortages over the Trinity,” Barton said.
During this year’s budget process, the Hays County Commissioners Court decided against a property tax increase and a pay increase for elected officials, both of which were initially proposed. After much public outcry, the matter was dropped. Residents at the debate asked the candidates what plans they had for tax relief.
“You have to be careful not to be shortsighted at the rate that we’re growing,” Barton said. “I think what we don’t want to do is cut fundamental core services. We don’t want to cut law enforcement, at least, I don’t. I think we can look for instance, in innovative ways, to streamline criminal justice. Innovative ways to address the jail, as I’ve done and my colleagues have done.”
Barton also said that basic environmental functions and controls over subdivisions and land use are necessary, as are investment in transportation.
Cobb said those in office play a role in how expenditures can be reduced.
“Budgets are like diet plans,” Cobb said. “They all work. It’s the intricacies of it; it’s where can you save money to have money to cut taxes. Remember that a lot of these people that you’re going to vote on, for commissioner, for sheriff, all these other things have an integral part to play in where we cut the budget and how we cut the budget. I know I’m not in favor of cutting law enforcement. I think we ought to build the roads we have bonded. I think we ought to look at repairing the roads we have, we need to prepare for the growth that’s going to be inevitable. And that speaks about transportation and water, environment and all of that… Yes I care about this county deeply and want to preserve its environment.”
Though the county judge and commissioners rejected a pay increase, a committee composed of residents offered up the salary jump in effort to keep in line with comparable counties.
“I think we are cinching up our belts,” Barton said. “I’m certainly trying to. It’s one of the reasons that, rather than setting my own pay, I submitted to the citizens panel. It’s one of the reasons that I turned down pay the last two years, because I recognize the hard economic times.”
Cobb, however, took issue with Barton’s explanation of how the salary increase proposal came about and said public service isn’t intended to be an occupation.
“If I want to raise my pay, I’m going to be gutsy enough to tell you so,” Cobb said. “I don’t need a citizen committee to help me make that decision. An elected official should not be paid enough that they can retire on it. Public service means that you come in the office and you work the salary, you know what the salary is before you run for office. You go in and you do your job, and term limited, so that you can get out of there in two terms and go back and practice your profession. It’s never intended that it would be a livelihood so that you can be rich and live like the elite. It’s public service.”
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