Hays County judge candidates Jeff Barton, left, and Bert Cobb, right, at the League of Women Voters debate earlier this month. Photo by Andy Sevilla.
By SEAN BATURA
The highest elected office in Hays County is up for grabs on Nov. 2 between Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) and Bert Cobb (R-San Marcos), the former chief surgeon at Central Texas Medical Center (CTMC).
San Marcos Local News asked identical questions of each candidate. The questions and answers are presented here, unedited except for punctuation and publication style.
San Marcos Local News: What are the most important challenges facing the county, and how should the commissioners court address those challenges?
Jeff Barton: A lot of the challenges in the next few years are going to revolve one way or another around growth. That’s going to strain our transportation network, it’s going to strain our water supply, it’s going to strain county services. The other big challenge for us in the immediate future is creating a vibrant economy in this down economic time, reaching out and attracting tax base and attracting not just jobs, but good-paying jobs with benefits. How would the commissioners court address them? Well, with jobs. I think it’s using good judgment in going after economic deals, partnering on economic deals that really make sense to the taxpayer. And making sure that we invest in infrastructure that will be good for the public and good for the county even after a company might be going, after the recruitment process is over. We want to make sure that we’re getting people who are providing real value for what we provide, and we want to make sure that the incentives that we provide are tied to the public interest. It’s something that I’ve got a lot of experience in. I’ve helped lead the way on the Seton Medical Center project and it has created really a center of economic activity on Interstate-35 there near Kyle, and it’s also brought medical services, jobs and tax base to the community. I was involved in a supporting role with the Grifols biomedical plant there in San Marcos, and I’ve taken on a leadership role with US Foods (US Foodservice) in Buda. It’s something that I’m well-equipped and experienced on, to help lead the next few years at the commissioners court.
Bert Cobb: Well, in order of importance, obviously it’s the economy. And that we approach that by not raising people’s taxes. And it’s spending tax money as wisely as possible. The platform of my campaign is, we’ve got to stop spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need. Because the jobs ties into water, which is very important, especially when they’re trying to do a regional water plan now in Travis County and Comal and Hays. We’ve got a lot of hard decisions we’re going to have to make that are going to affect the future of Central Texas, especially Hays County. And so we’ve got to have some real deep thinking and some projections and some planning. And the thing we don’t have right now is a comprehensive plan, in my mind, of where we want to be in a year, five years, 10 years, and 15 years.
SMLN: In view of the county’s situation relative to Austin and San Antonio, the growth of recent years and the slow-down of the present times, what is the outlook for the county? Has that outlook changed in any permanent sense due to the economic downturn?
Cobb: Well, a lot of the problems we are having right now is because we don’t have a Hays County job problem or a Hays County water problem or a Hays County transportation problem. We have a nationwide problem in all three of those areas. It just is more in our minds because we deal with it on a day-to-day basis. All politics is local. I was just reading on the Internet that the government is now talking about passing a highway transportation bill nationally. That will give funding that will help with [inaudible] building roads in Hays County. Because our largest amount of unemployment by business sector is in industry and construction. So, if we could get funds for that, that would be helpful. Otherwise, we’re going to have to go out and find the money other places to build the roads we need. The recent rains have really brought back to my mind the issue of repairing and maintaining the roads we already have in place. A lot of people were cut off because of the rains and washed out and that sort of thing. So we have a lot of work to do, even if we don’t build any new roads. Right now, we need to try to maintain and fix the ones we already have.
Barton: We’re going to grow. Every demographic expert out there says that we’re going to continue to be one of the fastest-growing counties in Texas, one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States — and really, that means one of the fastest-growing areas in the whole Western world. The question is not whether we’re going to grow, but how we’re going to grow, and whether we are ambitious enough, talented enough, dedicated enough, to try and shape our own destiny, or whether we sit back and let that growth wash over us and make its own channels. Certainly, we have seen a slowing of the kind of growth we faced two or three years ago. The last couple of years, we’ve gotten a chance to catch our breath. Now we ought to be doing even more planning. Growth hasn’t stopped in Hays County. In many communities across the county, they’ve seen negative growth. Here, we’ve seen our property values flattened out, we’ve seen population growth continue. That simply puts added stress on local communities and local governments. In a free society, though, people are going to move to places they find attractive. And we are in the middle of an extremely attractive corridor that has big, macro-economic forces driving people here between Austin and San Antonio. It’s a beautiful place to live, it’s a great place to raise families, it’s close to major economic engines, it’s in the Sunbelt. We are going to double and triple again in size, at least so says demographers in the state of Texas, Texas A&M and (Texas) Water Development Board, and everyone who’s really looked close at the situation. So, I think we don’t change our long-term strategy. I think the long-term strategy has to be to recognize that growth is coming, and to act now to put the infrastructure in place to face the challenges we know lie ahead. That is, roads and transportation and rail infrastructure. Also, the intellectual infrastructure and the park infrastructure that keeps alive this unique quality that makes so many people want to come to Hays County in the first place.
SMLN: As the county becomes more urbanized and more densely populated, how does that change the role of county government?
Barton: I think it will change the role of county government in some ways subtlety and in some ways profoundly. We’ve already seen the job of county commissioner grow from being primarily a road (official) that sits in commissioners court once a month, or once every couple weeks, to people who are doing larger regional transportation planning in commissioners court every week, or even several times a week. These same sorts of changes are coming to the county judge’s seat, the chief executive officer of the county. They’re coming to the sheriff’s department, the clerks offices and all across county government. And the county, I think, will become more and more a regional referee, and more and more will become a place that — or an entity — that bridges the gaps between communities. At least that’s how I see it. I think we have to learn from experiences in larger counties here in the state of Texas, but also around the country, and look at how the best of counties managed to provide meaningful, critical services without being redundant, without competing directly with cities — instead, to complement cities. So, that means building regional partnerships, that means having the county fill in the gaps, having the county be the lubricant that helps all the different moving parts of water districts, and cities, and MUD districts that all fit in and work together and provide services. It means the county representing not only the unincorporated areas, but the cities of our county, on a regional and statewide basis. It means us finding certain areas where we get out of the way, where there may be more localized governments or private entities that do things better than the county. We are going to have to adapt and change and improvise. It means that we focus on some of our core services, like the judicial area, law enforcement, jail, the courts, where the county is the ultimate provider, and where we can do things smarter and more cooperatively. We already provide good services in those arenas. We can do even better. We can focus on some of the principles expounded in books like Reinventing Government and Banishing Bureaucracy, to streamline what we do and provide more effective services, not just cost-efficient. We have to be cost-efficient. But people don’t just want you to save money. They want you to provide better value for their dollar. And that we do by recognizing that as a community changes, there are different needs from some of our constituencies. As the time changes, there are different technologies and different techniques we can apply.
Cobb: Well, we’ve batted back and forth for years the issue of county zoning ordinances. If you go back and look through history at the cities such as Houston and Dallas and Austin, and the big metropolitan areas, what happens is cities need more taxes and so they extend their city limits to encompass what was formerly ETJ (extraterritorial jurisdiction) as a means of getting taxes. And so, I envision that up and down (Interstate) 35, it’ll go from San Antonio city limits to New Braunfels city limits to Schertz city limits. Every town will have its own city limits along the interstate for taxing purposes. But also with that taxing comes the responsibility to provide services to those people. And so you have to be sure that you’re doing it wisely. Density is a very important issue because we have to worry about supporting that density with roads and with water availability and transportation. I mean, we’ve got all those issues, because if we don’t have a plan — we can tell people where they can live by the infrastructure. If we don’t build the roads, they’re not going to develop it. If you don’t have a water source, they can’t develop it. And so there has to be a roundtable discussion of all the parties involved. How do we protect the quality of life, but yet have growth that makes sense? Because everybody wants to live in Hays County. It’s the prettiest place in Texas. But I don’t think we have to give up our quality of life if we use our brains and if we have planning.
SMLN: Does the county need more powers granted by the state legislature? What kinds of powers? How hard should the county push for them?
Cobb: Well, as you know, I’m a small government conservative. And so I think that anytime we talk about passing more laws and giving more authority to people, we need to know why we’re doing that, there has to be good reason. And I’m not knowledgeable enough right now of what powers we would really need that we don’t have.
Barton: The county absolutely needs more powers granted by the Texas Legislature to help manage its future and to help address some of the changing problems and challenges that we face as we become more urban. We need more powers to address incompatible land use, to protect existing property rights for homeowners. For example, if an industry, an obnoxious industry, that might come in right next door to an existing subdivision, it is senseless to have this situation that we have now where the county and homeowners are sometimes defenseless against a 24-hour industrial plant, or a rock-crushing plant, or a plant that lays out sludge or chemical properties right next door without buffer zones. It’s dangerous, it undermines quality of life, it hurts property values and sometimes people’s greatest investment: their home. Yes, we need more authority from the legislature. I’ve been a leader for 15 years on advocating that. When we go after more authority, we have to do it responsibly and we have to do it in a way that we assure the business community, and the same industrialists, that we’re not just out to stop growth and that we’re not just out to play havoc with the free market, but that we can use those authorities and those rules that are given to us wisely, prudently, fairly. We ought to be asking the legislature not for broad new authorities, but for carefully-calibrated, bite-sized chunks of additional authority to address the changing urban face of unincorporated Texas, so that we can protect water quality in very narrow, specific venues; so that we can engage in smarter, longer-ranged land planning; so that we can save money on transportation and how transportation and water and land planning work together; and so that we can protect existing neighborhoods and be a fair referee between business, industry, and existing neighborhoods. It’s not good for anybody to see those disputes to come at the tail end of the planning process. If we have a chance to impose buffer zones, to protect a few critical environmental features, to require setbacks from existing homes for especially-noxious uses, that would go a long way towards protecting our rural and suburban citizens, and at the same time, would actually be a positive thing for responsible business developers, builders, all across the state, who would understand they had a fair and level playing field; who understand from the beginning what the rules of the game are going to be. I have built those kinds of coalitions in the past, helped laws get passed in the legislature. I know the players and have some hard-won respect, I think, on both the environmental side, the neighborhood side, and the business side. And it seems to me that that kind of centrist, solution-oriented viewpoint is what Hays County Commissioners Court needs to advocate. And I’ve got 20 years of positioning that puts me in a good place to take a lead on that.
SMLN: Should the county ever offer economic development incentives, and, if so, what kind of incentives and under what conditions?
Barton: I believe the county should offer economic development incentives in certain circumstances. And we should focus not on tax breaks, tax abatements, but instead on putting infrastructure on the ground that will benefit the larger community, that will be a benefit to the community even after the business may have gone; that will benefit other taxpayers at the same time, but will also put the tools in place to let businesses prosper; that will allow us to recruit good businesses as we talked about in an earlier answer. That means using some discernment on when you reach out to businesses with these kinds of incentives. It’s going to be businesses that are providing a meaningful number of jobs, that are providing jobs that pay decently, pay a living wage and provide benefits. And it should be in cases where there is a larger community benefit, meaning, tax base or some real service that our community needs. We’ve always got to be mindful of the existing businesses here, and we want to help maintain a level playing field so that you can’t just reach out willy-nilly and start throwing around tax abatements or tax credits. You can, in very tightly-crafted agreements and narrowly-calibrated contracts, address infrastructure needs. And on rare occasions where people are talking about injecting so much money into our community that it floats all boats — then you can talk also about some limited return of their sales tax revenue or their property tax revenue that, again, preferably goes back into infrastructure around those projects to lift the conditions for that whole neighborhood, that whole community, or our whole county.
Cobb: That’s a real tricky one. If you go out and look at history, most of the time when cities and counties have given tax abatement for people to come into an area, they’re trying to get them into that area for jobs. That’s an important thing, because people need jobs and they need jobs in the county. But if the jobs are all from people who don’t live in the county, then you don’t have any taxes coming in that basically support your bringing them in. Then you’ve got to be careful because if you give people too long a tax abatement, many times the properties that they built today, in 20 years, when the tax abatement goes away, is worthless property. I’m thinking specifically US Foods (US Foodservice). We’ve got to be very careful of how long you give an abatement to people, because when you bring in people with a tax abatement, then you have to supply utilities to them. Then you have to built roads and water lines and power lines and all of that, and that’s a very, very large expense. And so that’s why planning is so critical, that we plan so we can efficiently use our resources to make sure that the people have what they need to be successful. Government should only be in business to promote success.
SMLN: What is the county’s role in the creation of jobs and wealth?
Cobb: Well, the first thing they can do is stop taking as many dollars away from people in the form of taxes. The thing is, no one is owed a job. County should have only the ability to promote opportunity for people. People that go out and risk their money and capital and their time, and their intelligence to start a business, are what build economies. Economies don’t fall from the government down, economies flow from the people up. And so we can encourage people [inaudible] to our area because of needed industry. We have to have an inventory of who we need in our area. And then we have to have an inventory of how many jobs there will be versus how much help we give them from a county level. In other words, county should only be involved with business when it promotes business and opportunity.
Barton: Well, we’ve just been talking about it. The county doesn’t create jobs, except internally, very often. And a county doesn’t really create wealth. But the county can provide the tools and the infrastructure that private industry can use to create wealth. The county can set the framework where entrepreneurs can prosper. The county can get out of the way and make sure that it doesn’t have stupid rules that can inhibit business growth and economic development. The county can make sure that we don’t heedlessly compete with private enterprise. The county can make sure that we have a tax structure here and tax rate that makes it an attractive place to do business and create jobs. And the county can make sure that we protect the natural environment, and the beauty, and the quality of life here that makes this an attractive place for the best kinds of businesses to come. Those are the critical things, I think, that we can do. And it’s always a balancing act. You know, the kinds of businesses we want to attract in this new economy are often the kinds of businesses that want to locate in the community that values its own resources, that has an educated resource, that has a progressive, forward-thinking leadership. And I think that’s how we need to represent ourselves in the outside world. That’s the kind of infrastructure, intellectual infrastructure, that we want to capitalize on and maintain. And then we want a reputation for being folks who have common sense, who can bridge these gaps that we so often see; who can rise above the kind of petty politics that plague some communities. We can get things done, we can bring people together to work towards common goals who have a good quality of life, and we are willing to work with business leaders to create the infrastructure and the foundations for economic prosperity. And I think that’s what we can do. It’s going to be small businesses that really create the jobs, it’s going to be entrepreneurs that really create the jobs. But we can lend a helping hand and we can make sure we’re not hurting what they’re trying to do.
SMLN: What is the county’s role in support of the economically disadvantaged?
Barton: We’re charged by the state constitution and by state law with being the help of last resort for the absolute indigent. That term is misunderstood by many people. We’re not talking about folks who are a little down on their luck. We’re talking about the poorest of the poor, people who absolutely can’t afford healthcare for themselves or their children, people who have no resources, no assets, no money. We’re charged with burying the people who have no one else to bury them. That is a charge under law. We have, beyond that, both a pragmatic and ethical charge to do more. If we want this to be the kind of community that attracts business, that lays a foundation of prosperity, then we need to be mindful of the conditions of our neighbors. If we want our own children in schools to be healthy, we need to be mindful of the health of our neighbors’ children. I think it is a moral, ethical, and legal duty, for the commissioners to address the disadvantaged in our community. That doesn’t mean that we can solve all problems for all people. We can’t. We have to be clear-sighted enough to recognize that. At the same time, we can be a catalyst for change. We can be a catalyst for growth and prosperity and creating jobs. We can be a safety net of last resort that catches people and that puts them back on their feet rather than gives them a place to rest — but helps them restart their own engines. It’s something that we ought to do because it’s the right thing to do. It’s also something that we ought to do because it’s in our own social and economic self interest.
Cobb: We’re mandated by law to provide health services to poor people. Basically, we are mandated to provide the Health Department for public safety, vaccinations, health screening and that sort of thing. But the best thing the county can do for poor people is get jobs in your local community. People want jobs. It’s the old “teach a man to fish versus giving him a fish.” And education is critical there. If you’ve been to those job fairs we have in San Marcos — basically, people need to be given opportunities, and education gives people opportunity. That’s why the public schools and public education are so important. We need to support education in any form we can, because if we educate people, then they can better themselves. By giving people handouts and that sort of thing, we don’t have any — there’s no reason to do that if there’s not going to be a positive result. In other words, we need to be result-oriented. Government is very inefficient in taking care of needy people. That’s why I’ve given 20 to 30 percent of my income every year since I’ve been in San Marcos to private charities to provide services to indigent people. That’s why I work with the (Hays County) Food Bank, that’s why I work with Southside Community Center. Because government bureaucracy is a very poor means of providing support for indigent and poor people.
SMLN: Within the last couple years, the county has passed new development regulations and a master plan. What do these initiatives address, and what do they leave left to be done?
Cobb: Well, I’ve read the plan for the county that — (County) Judge (Liz) Sumter headed the dealings in all that — it’s a really good blueprint. I think it’s really excellent blueprint with good planning. And what it’s doing is it’s giving more power back to the people by giving them opportunity. It addresses the education, it addresses transportation, job creation — it’s really a good plan. But every plan can be tweaked and changed because the economic situation in Hays County has changed since the study was done last year. So we have to always be aware of what’s going on around us. And any plan is just a blueprint. Lines can be erased and moved. Often the beginning point in a blueprint ends up looking very different than the final product. We have the strictest regulations around for building. The problem is, if you make the rules so restrictive that no one can build, then we’ve cut our own throat. And we can have growth that is sensible by passing sensible rules, rules that are fair and equitable. Every law that we passed has to have a carrot and a stick part. If you do what we ask and you do it the right way, we’ll reward you. If you don’t, then here is the penalty you will pay for that. In the ordinances for subdivisions, water availability is a key ingredient in that. Also in there should be stipulations for green space, there should be stipulations for future schools, roads should be up to par so that when the county does take over maintenance, we won’t have to rebuild a road, it will be built to our standards. But the main thing is, they have to be fair and doable. Growth is inevitable. We need plan that growth and ordinances are a good way of maintaining fairness for everyone. If we make the rules too restrictive, then it means none of our local builders can build anything. And it will make it so only larger builders, even out of state, can come in and build houses. And we want people building houses they want to live it.
Barton: The county has one of the most visionary set of subdivision, development regulations in the state. I think we’ve done a good job of ambitiously taking on the challenges that face Texas counties in high-growth areas. I don’t think we’ve wholly succeeded yet. The state has such a antiquated set of rules that govern counties and development in counties, that it’s difficult to address all of the planning and services that our constituents want to see addressed head-on. It has to be a patchwork — and sometimes an indirect patchwork — of regulations, because of some outdated parts of state law. And our constitution here in Texas that is not just old, but also has been amended hundreds of times and is itself a crazy quilt patchwork and legacy of civil war and reconstruction. Our rules right now are ambitious. I think we ought to be ambitious. We’re a unique county in our natural assets and in our growth rate and in our talent pool. Our rules are also a little bit cumbersome and could use some refinement, could use a dose of plain English. And they are still new. So I think one of our challenges over the next two or three years is going to be to continue to streamline those and make them easier to understand. To make them clearer for the people who need to use them, folks who want to develop land, landowners and staff members all. We had a lot of stakeholders who gave advice, we had engineers who gave advice, we cover a lot of ground in our rules, we have innovative ways to try and address problems for this changing role of county government that we see, and this changing nature of our own county, and urbanization in Hays County. I think as we get into the rules, I’m certainly going to be open to advice to people who say, “This is not a bad idea but you could actually structure it better to accomplish it better.” We’ve also worked on a whole broad range of planning initiatives, long-range planning initiatives in long-range transportation, roads, rail, and how we’ll address drainage and flooding over the long-term in our county, what we’re going to do in a host of areas. I’m leading some efforts on how we make smarter use of our jail and right-size our judicial and law enforcement facility. We have finally had group of citizens come together and talk to us about a strategic plan. We haven’t really adopted that plan. We have accepted a series of recommendations as recommendations to be considered. We have accepted that a number of citizens got together and talked about these issues, and we’ve been glad to hear what they had to say, and accepted their report as an information point for us. What is still to be done is to turn that into a really good, cohesive action plan, a document that helps bind together these disparate aspects of county government, and then helps build bridges of real trust and cooperation between the different communities in the county, the different economic and geologic regions in our county, so that we develop a real sense of community direction. And I think we’ve made progress on that. But the real roll-up-our-sleeves sweat-work on that has yet to come.
SMLN: How should the county address its jail problem?
Barton: I have real opinionated concepts about how the county should address its jail problem. We do have a jail problem. It’s part of what comes with growth. As we grow, our road infrastructure gets stressed. So does our jail infrastructure. It’s a sad side of growth. But the truth is, that we’re in really better shape on the law enforcement and judicial side of things than we are on the transportation side. On the transportation side, there’s a direct correlation between population growth and congestion and safety hazards. More people over the last 30 years have equated to more cars on the road and to greater need for capacity in transportation, whether that be rail or pedestrian or road capacity. That correlation is not so simple on the jail side. On the jail side, we’ve been able to do a lot of things here in Hays County to keep the crime rate down. In fact, crime is not growing at the same rate as population in Hays County, and the need for jail bed space is not growing at the same rate as our population. And that’s a good thing. It shows that we’ve had some good, smart preventive programs in place, it shows that we’ve done a good job in our law enforcement and in our courts, and it shows that we’ve been lucky. The kind of people we attract to the county are, by and large, law-abiding families and retired people and college students, not folks who are causing us a problem in our jail. So I pioneered the plan on commissioners court that would save us about $40 million in construction costs by right-sizing our jail, by not just giving into this impulse to build a new 1,000-bed facility, but instead to rehabilitate our existing jail, refresh it, repair it, and build about 96 additional units. We were being told that we needed 1,000 units at $56,000 a bed. And instead, by doing some really hard homework assignments, going back and looking at who’s come through the jail, how long they’ve been staying, why they’re there, why they stay there as long as they do, and what the trends are — not only in Hays County but in neighboring areas and across the state of Texas — I’m convinced that we can build a smaller, smarter, more efficient jail, use existing jail beds to great advantage, pay some attention to mental health, drug rehabilitation, alcohol rehabilitation programs, work with our great judicial folks, to move people through the system quicker, do some really smart things on the commissioners court side administratively that will address how quickly people move into the prison system, make some hard choices about who we segregate and who we keep in the county. And, as I alluded to, save probably on the order of $40 (million), maybe $50 million in construction, and save another $10 million a year in operations cost. That’s money that we can put back into the taxpayers’ pockets. That’s money we can put back into preventive programs that can put more law officers on the street to help keep our crime rate decreasing. It’s a much better use of our money. I think we can, this way, effectively address crime prevention, we can address recidivism, and make sure that we’re not just throwing money at a problem, (that) we’re using money to help solve and decrease the problem.
Cobb: Well the county jail problem, we have a law that mandates the quality of the jail right now. Right now, we are housing the jail prisoners of the city at no cost to the city. We are mandated to house and maintain space for the university people (police, inmates), but not the city. So, right now, the city’s getting a free ride. So we need to look at all of those things in funding a jail. Right now in court, (according to) Mr. Barton’s study that he brought to court, we’re overbuilding on jail space in Texas. A lot of people got into the business of building a jail to try to make money. Well, if everyone does that, then you end up with more space than you need. We’re at the point now where have too little space. And we’re spending a fortune sending people to other counties to be incarcerated, and then we’re spending a fortune on deputy sheriff’s people going back and forth to court date. So, we need to look at the budget and say where can we cut this budget down to where it’s reasonable and affordable, but we maintain public safety. The jail we have right now was designed to be a 20-year jail. And for whatever reason, it lost its standard, but, as I understand, it’s been brought up to standard. And so we’ve done the short work, we’ve done the easy thing. And now the hard thing is to plan for future needs. Well, if we get the growth that we’re projected to get, everybody that comes to Hays County is not going to be a law-abiding citizen. And so we’re going to need more jail space if we’re going to maintain public safety and do the things that we need to do. Really the sheriff’s job, above all else, is to be a jail maintenance officer. They have to maintain that jail to make sure it’s kept up to standards, because it’s an issue of safety for the people who work there and the inmates. I would have liked to address the jail issue and got a plan going there before we did the government center, personally. But I wasn’t involved in that. I’m only a tax-paying citizen at this point. But part of the growth of Hays County is going to be out of our hands. On the jail issue — it was built for a population that we reached in the 1990s. We’ve been really under-built since the 1990s. We need to plan for growth. Who knows, we may get 50,000 more people in Hays County and they’ll all be law-abiding citizens. I doubt it. A poor reason to build a jail is to make money, in my opinion. It’s (a) very difficult balancing act between enough jail space and too much jail space.
SMLN: What do you think of the county funding the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District? Do you support full Chapter 36 authority for that groundwater district, and why or why not?
Cobb: Well, in Texas, whisky’s for drinking and water’s for fighting. In 1907, when the (state) water board was formed and the right of capture was put in place, Texas thought it had all the water it needed. Times have changed. We’ve had a huge influx of people because of the economic situation in Texas, and we’ve maintained a good economy. But then you get involved in personal property rights. Then you get into taxing for — when (County) Judge (Jim) Powers set up the Trinity underground water, he was mandated to do that. Comal opted out and Travis County opted out [inaudible]. It’s out of control because what’s going to happen is, under Chapter 36, the big change is going to be taxing authority. And the people who are living right now under the Edwards underground aquifer authority (Edwards Aquifer Authority) are not very happy. Because they feel like they’ve lost a lot of control and a lot of autonomy because of governmental agencies. More government is seldom helpful. The Trinity was set up to be funded by the county government, that’s the way it was set up. And the money was given to them for education as much as it was for other issues that it’s been used for. I believe firmly in education and teaching people what’s going on so that they can make good decisions. And if they don’t make good decisions, then there needs to be some way of stopping poor decisions. We don’t know very much about the Trinity Aquifer. Money that we give to the district, a lot of it needs to go towards research. We need to know more, have more information about the Trinity, because it is a very complicated aquifer. So before we start making rules and laws and all that, I think we need more information and education.
Barton: I don’t think the county should be funding the Hays Trinity Groundwater district on a permanent basis. I think in the interim, we do need to be funding the groundwater district so that we’ve got more science to inform solutions and to inform policy at both the state and local level. We need to understand what’s going on with the water in the Hays Trinity district — and all across the county, for that matter. And we need to get science-based recommendations for policy about how much water we can safely draw down without endangering the aquifer and existing homeowners, existing wells, and what sort of land use regulations ought to be in place. The district currently just doesn’t have a mechanism to make that money. In the interim, the county is the logical place to provide funding. I think over the long-term, the district needs to have its own source of fundraising. And the district needs more authority to manage our water resources. The whole debate over full Chapter 36 or not has become an emotional one, and one where people on both poles no longer see any shades of grey. I’ll tell you that if I had been creating that district from the beginning, I would have given it full Chapter 36 authority. I live in an area that has full Chapter 36 authority, if you want to call it that — the Barton Springs district (Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District). I have a well there, I’m a landowner there. My grandparents had a farm and ranch there. So long as there are fair-playing rules and everybody knows what those rules are, that’s good for consumers, that’s good for landowners, and it’s not something that any of us need to be scared of. But all across the state, we have districts that have grown up with slightly different authorities, slightly different customs according to the local circumstance. So what do we do in the Hays Trinity? I don’t think that’s for me to dictate. I think that’s something the community needs to work out, that our state legislative delegation will work out. And I think we ought to take some baby steps here. It’s become a very divisive issue. We can find some common ground, test that common ground, build some consensus around solutions that may take one or two legislative sessions to implement, and we need to be attentive to what the state’s saying. There’s talk that maybe the Hays Trinity groundwater district should be combined with territory in southwest Travis County and in Comal County — the staff at TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) is now recommending that. I think Representative (Patrick) Rose tried to take the lead on crafting a compromise last session. I think that we should listen carefully to his ideas about that and pay some real attention to that sense of compromise, that common ground. Right now, a little bit of progress is going to be important to us all, and rather than either side trying gulp the big enchilada and just defeat the others in pitched battle, what we ought to be doing is, as Lyndon Johnson used to say, “reasoning together.” We need to figure out a way that gets a reasonable amount of funding into the district, that gets the district some additional authority to protect groundwater resources, and that really builds some community consensus in the western part of the county around “How do we protect our water resources in the long run?” Because the game is not really Chapter 36. That’s just a tool. That’s just a thing. Chapter 36 authority doesn’t hold magic. The whole game here, the whole real purpose is to protect our water resources while protecting a vibrant community and economy. And we need to keep our eyes on the prize and not get caught up in little petty political disagreements along the way. We’re also going to have to expand the discussion and talk about not just how we protect our existing resources in the western part of the county. We’re going to have to talk about how we supplement them, whether that’s with rainwater harvesting or with bringing in surface water from other areas over the long run. Because we do know that we’re going to exceed our carrying capacity on the land in the Trinity zone if we keep growing at the rate we’re growing. And that also ties back to county land use authority and the ability of counties to exercise some needful authority, and to exercise it with enough prudence so there’s no backlash, that we can build some real consensus.
SMLN: What roads and transportation issues in the county need the most attention, in your view?
Barton: I’ve been front-and-center in the transportation debate since I came into office in 2007. I led the effort to pass our successful 2008 bond program. I’ve got the largest share of those transportation projects because I’m in the precinct that has been growing the fastest and has the most congestion. I’ve brought my projects in under budget, something that’s rare in the public sector. Not just under budget, but significantly under budget — 34 percent under budget on the I-35 project. I’ve got a background in planning and worked for a national urban and engineering firm. I’ve gotten regional awards for transportation innovation. So, it’s something I feel really comfortable not just working on, but being one of the leaders in our county. We need to be addressing transportation in a pretty broad way. Right now, TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) has ceded its place as a transportation leader in the local communities. It’s just not the same era that it once was where we could look to TxDOT to lead on transportation issues. It’s going to be up to local governments — and to local counties in particular — to fill that void. We’re going to have to do that through innovation and entrepreneurial government leadership, where we build partnerships with cities and the state, where we learn to get twice as much out of a dollar. And to maintain the quality of life that’s so important to all of us. To maintain our prospects for economic development, to attract the best kinds of jobs here. We’ve got to do something about congestion, we just have to. About road safety and congestion. We can’t stop there. We can’t just build enough roads to free ourselves of congestion. We’re also going to have to look at transit and at what’s called “rubber tire transit” — rapid bus service, and at things like commuter rail, the new Lone Star Rail District where I serve on the board of directors. That would tie south San Antonio at the new A&M Campus to Georgetown and the new Texas State (University) campus in Round Rock, and that would tie Buda, Kyle, and San Marcos to Austin and to New Braunfels and to San Antonio, creating one larger economic engine, and creating many tourist opportunities, and giving an alternative way for people to travel on their daily business using existing rail lines, getting more out of what’s already on the ground, getting more bang for our buck. We’ve got to make sure that transit connects to meaningful options in Austin or in San Antonio. Especially in Austin. Because Hays County residents will never be getting on a train or a bus, and taking that in Austin, if once there you just get dropped off on the hot asphalt and don’t have a good connection to get on another tram or trolley or train. So we’ve got to be players not just here, but on a regional stage, to make sure that our citizens get the kind of service and respect that they need when they get to their destination. And locally, we’ve got to capitalize on the reputation we’ve already got as a Mecca for bicyclists, as a pedestrian haven, and make it easier for people to move around without cars. That means better land planning, and that’s going to be a key to solving some of our transportation issues. It means smart cooperation between governments in places like downtown San Marcos, where we’re going to be vacating a number of buildings downtown. We need to be talking about transit-oriented [inaudible] for the replacements that come into that (downtown) space to kind of mix work-live-play opportunities that will help make downtown San Marcos more vibrant, and help connect the college to the [inaudible]. The county can play a real positive role as a catalyst and a partner in helping in those discussions, because we’ve got a lot of properties downtown that we’re going to be vacating to move out to the new government center. In the rural parts of the county, we need to make roads safer by getting bicycles out of the main lanes and putting them onto the shoulders. And at the same time, helping economic development in our tourist industry by making these safer roads for cyclists, welcoming opportunities for cyclists. That will also serve this dual purpose of cleaning up those roads, the main lanes, for car traffic. And really encourage a different way of thinking about where our schools get placed, how they get placed and built and how we connect them. Not just with roads, but with bike paths and sidewalks, to help ease some of that daily friction of constant traffic in and out of neighborhoods and between regions.
Cobb: In my view the ones that need the most attention right now are existing roads. Dacy Lane up in Kyle is in terrible shape. They’re working well in San Marcos on Ranch Road 12, trying to make it a safer road where it will be passable in all weather. We’ve got a good road plan going on right now, but before we go spending a lot of money, we need to find out what’s going to happen on the final build-out costs of our road bond we passed. Because the (federal) government is only obligated to give us back $133 million over time based upon utilization of the roadways. So if our bond is $270 million and the max we can get recouped is $133 million, there’s a big differential there. So, it’s really imperative that we come in under budget, on cost, and get the proposals we need at the price that we need. And now that CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) has changed so much, and they’re taking in Lockhart and Bastrop, that will change the understanding and also the tenor of the entire CAMPO board. And now that Mr. Conley (Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley) has been placed on there, I think that he will look out for our transportation needs in a good manner.
SMLN: It would appear that the county is nearing the last allocations from its $30 million parks bond of 2007. How do you assess the success of the program? Should the county attempt to accommodate a shooting sports complex, one way or the other?
Cobb: I think the projects that were funded are ones we can be proud of. The question I have is, there needs to be a process in place. And when you have bond money lying out there, you need to know how we’re going to spend it. And I think the parks board (Hays County Parks and Open Space Advisory Board) was set up to give guidance to the county court about where it was possible, where was money best spent to get the needs of the people met and give quality of life. Unfortunately, the higher our density is, the more we’re going to need public land and parks spaces and waterways and recreational things. And so, as part of our future planning, that has to be part of it. But if we’re not careful, we can spend too much money, waste a lot of money in studies. The parks board has done a good job when they’ve been allowed to do their job. The rating system should be the central issue of how we’re going to spend the money. Now, on the shooting complex. I’m a shooter. The parks board, the ones I’ve talked to, anyway, are not against a shooting complex. They question whether the county should own the land, a private individual should own the land, or somebody else should buy the land. But I think that the mature way for that to be handled is for the county court to be the arbiter of the last resort. In other words, it should be between the people who want to build a shooting complex and our parks board, and have a meeting and talk politely with each other. Then rate it, grade it, and then once they come to an agreement, then it comes to the county commissioners court to make the final funding decision. The commissioners court should be the arena of ideas where people bring their ideas to be debated, discussed, picked apart. And I’ve discovered that courtesy and discourtesy sometimes gets in the way of making good decisions. Tell me the facts and I can make a better decision.
Barton: I think the parks program is something the whole county can be proud of. Certainly, I’m proud of my role in it. There are hundreds of people who have been intimately involved in making this a success, people on our parks citizens committee (Hays County Parks and Open Space Advisory Board), people in the parks departments and charitable organizations around the county, brought forward great projects, who have partnered with the county, who’ve put up matching funds, who’ve leveraged the county grants with other state grants or with local donations to help build ball fields, protect open space, preserve water quality land. It’s been a rousing success. I think it’s a model for other counties across the state. It’s been relatively well-balanced geographically across the county. It’s been very well-balanced in terms of active recreation and more passive recreation, including, again, habitat, water quality, open space, ball fields, skateboard parks, water access. So I’m overall pleased. I don’t think that anybody got exactly what they want. That doesn’t happen often in democracy. But I’m excited about what’s happened, I’m excited about how this lays the foundation for future parks projects in Hays County. This last round I expect to elicit even more good projects. I think as people see this coming to an end, they’re going to rush forward with projects of every type. I’m a big supporter of a safe place to shoot in Hays County. That’s part of our rural heritage. That’s one way to make our neighborhoods more safe. We have illegal hunting going on right now where — we have things that aren’t illegal but just unsafe, target shooting and hunting in the rural parts of [inaudible] our now on small lots, inside subdivisions. We’ve got a lot of sportsmen and sportswomen, we’ve got a lot of teams, youth associations, and just average Joes who want a safe and competitive place to shoot. So, I think there are economic opportunities in a shooting sports range, and I think there are cultural and net safety advantages, and there’s a way to honor the heritage of Texas and Hays County there. Whether that gets funded in this bond election or out of these bond monies, it’s for me a question that I want our parks committee to consider and our citizens who work on those committees to bring forward recommendations on. I’m supportive of putting my own equity and my own money into a project like shooting sports. We’ll see whether the (Hays County) Shooting Sports Task Force that’s out there working is able to come up with a good project and a good site that works for the neighborhoods around it, that will do all those things I just described — be safe and promote economic development. I think they have a good plan. I don’t think they have the perfect site and conditions yet. And they haven’t built the consensus on the parks board around that yet. I know that’s something they’re working on, and I’m happy to sit back and just watch that unfold. Because while the shooting sports complex is a great idea and one I think we want to work on in the mid-term, in the long-term, it’s something that doesn’t have to be built tomorrow. I’ll be happy if it is, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s something we need to recognize as a need here in Hays County. We have other needs, too. We have things like Swimberley, and additional water quality lands, and ball fields in Buda, and big multi-use parks in Dripping Springs, that are also competing for that money — a number of really good projects that are out there on the drawing boards. I’m not going to prejudge. We’ll see who comes in with the best offers and the best ideas for the citizens of Hays County, and who can bring the most talent and matching funds and determination and passion to the table. And I hope that we’ll get as lucky as we did with the first round of projects, and get stuff on the ground that we can all be proud of for generations to come.Email | Print