Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos), left, and new Precinct 4 Commissioner Ray Whisenant (R-Dripping Springs), right, at last week’s meeting of the Hays County Commissioners Court. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATUTA
A new Hays County commissioners court was seated last week, signaling likely change in county governance for at least the next two years.
The former court ended a four-year run after setting records in public investment, the majority directly approved by voters in various bond elections. At least $300 million in major projects are in process as a result of the former court’s endeavors.
Hays County voters approved $30 million in parks and open space bonds in May 2007 and $207 million in road bonds in November 2008. A $72 million government center under construction is being funded within the operating budget. The court also struggled with the county jail, for which repairs would cost about $30 million and replacement would cost as much as $60 million.
While voters approved most of the debt, they turned away the majority of the court that issued the debt in last year’s election. The result is the new court, seated last week, with four Republicans and one Democrat instead of four Democrats and one Republican.
However, as Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) noted, party affiliation means little in terms of governing at the local level. It happens, though, that the three new Republicans on the court — Judge Bert Cobb (R-San Marcos), Precinct 2 Commissioner Mark Jones (R-Kyle) and Precinct 4 Commissioner Ray Whisenant (R-Dripping Springs) — have all advocated conservative approaches to spending.
As to whether the new court is likely to push any kind of bond election for amenities such as roads and parks, the answer, almost uniformly, is along the lines of “when a need for one is identified, and sometime after the economy improves.”
The new court could also signal change simply by keeping personal hostilities under the radar. Court meetings for the last 12 years have frequently included angry confrontations between commissioners, often of the same party.
“I see this court getting along really well,” Ingalsbe said. “You know, somebody asked me today, ‘Do you feel lonely up there?’ I really don’t. I was the only Democrat for eight years before, but I got along really well with the other court members. And that’s what I foresee here. I think we’re going to work very well together and do some good things.”
Ingalsbe, a commissioner for 14 years, is the only remaining Democrat on the court.
Ingalsbe said there is a need for more parks and open space in the county, especially on the east side of Interstate-35. There are generally more ethnic minority residents and impoverished people on the east side of I-35, compared to the west side, in San Marcos.
Within the last two months 12 parks project sponsors vied for the remaining $3.259 million in 2007 parks bond funds. The funds requested from the 12 applicants totaled $13.2 million. Commissioners since then awarded all but approximately $100,000 of the parks bond funds to five of the 12 applicants.
Despite a perceived desire for more parks and open space, Ingalsbe said the new court probably will not propose another parks bond election for at least a couple of years.
Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley), who represents portions of San Marcos and has been on the court since 2004, said the economy and a county master plan will determine whether and when the court proposes another parks bond package. The parks and open space master plan is in development, and the last court set aside $100,000 to create it.
As to the development regulations, former and current commissioners have always maintained that those laws are, in a sense, works in progress and continually subject to review. The development regulations include parkland dedication requirements, rules related to septic tanks, and limitations on impervious cover in unincorporated areas of the county.
Even Conley, who fought unsuccessfully against putting the six-acre Priority Groundwater Management Area minimum lot size rule in the county’s development regulations, said he has no plans to change any rules related to development density or water quality.
Conley said the county is running 20-30 percent under budget on the roads funded by the 2008 road bond, meaning the county is likely to have funds on hand when the projects are completed. Conley said one major decision for the new court will be whether to use any remaining funds to make related debt payments, or use the funds for more road projects. Conley said the county is about halfway through the road bond projects.
Asked if he would support leftover bond funds being used for more projects or to retire debt, Conley said, “I’m not ready to speak to that at this time. We need to get a better idea of what is happening throughout the county budget before I’m going to feel comfortable moving one way.”
Liz Sumter, recently unseated as county judge by Cobb, quite often singled out “open government” as a hallmark of her administration, and she did so again in a recent open letter to residents. Yet, when asked what residents can expect from the new court, the first thing newly-sworn-in Precinct 4 Commissioner Whisenant said was, “I think transparency may take on a little different shade here.” Whisenant said residents can expect more business conducted in court, and he expressed the hope that more transparency can occur in a manner that does not slow the machinery of government.
“I’m expecting some good things coming from this court,” Ingalsbe said. “I think the economy is still at a point where we’re going to have to be careful and wise — and creative, maybe — on how we budget and spend our funds. And so I think we’re going to have to take a good look at that, because I know that people are still in a very difficult (economic) situation — or some are. But I think as we move forward with this new year, I think we’re just going to learn from each other and see what to expect from each other.”Email | Print