by BRAD ROLLINS
Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley says Republican primary voters’ verdict in his race is a mandate to keep investing heavily in roads and infrastructure while modernizing Hays County government.
Conley, a Wimberley resident, won 2,604 votes (71.9 percent). San Marcos substitute teacher Sam Brannon won 1,017 votes (28.1 percent).
“I didn’t think this was just about Will Conley and Sam Brannon. I viewed it as a measurement of how citizens in our precinct and our county felt about the direction our Commissioners Court has been moving,” Conley said this morning. “We’ve taken a lot of criticism over the last several years from a small but very vocal contingent that has said over and over that the sky is falling. I think voters yesterday sent a strong message.”
Conley’s two terms in office — coinciding with the administrations of three different county judges — have been marked by an aggressive program of transportation improvements including a $207 million package of new and rebuilt roads approved by voters in 2008 after initially being rejected in 2007. The county has also spent or allocated $30 million on parks and open space acquisition backed by voter-approved debt.
During that time, the county borrowed tens of millions of dollars to build a new seat of county government on Wonder World Drive, which will end up costing about $61 million.
Those projects have come at a price. Brannon and his supporters pointed out that Hays County has the sixth-highest per capita debt load of any county in Texas, amounting to $1,800 per resident, and the highest debt load in the state when compared to appraised property values.
Conley and other county leaders protested loudly that those figures did not account for $133 million the Texas Department of Transportation is obligated to reimburse Hays County for road projects local residents paid for upfront. For some road projects, the county is actually turning a profit because the state is on the hook for more than the road cost to build.
When voters approved the 2007 parks bonds and 2008 road bonds, the county advertised widely that the project would result in a property tax rate increase of 6 to 7 cents per $100 in valuation. So far, taxes have only increased 1.42 cents.
In addition, because many of the capital improvement projects were undertaken during a recession when construction prices were depressed, county taxpayers are on course to save $19 million on road projects and $10 million on the government center over the estimates used when the county committed to the projects, County Auditor Bill Herzog said. He said the court will decide in coming weeks whether to roll those savings into other road projects or use it to “buy down” the tax rate.
“In a few years, we’ll look back and say, ‘Everything could not have gone more beautifully with these capital projects and their financing than it has,'” said Herzog, who works for the county’s district judges, not the commissioners court. “I think people are quick to assume that our finances are like the federal government. We are not like that at all. We’re very conservative and our budgets are always balanced and we don’t deficit spend.”
Still, with austerity being the single most important Republican watchword in the last four years, it was hard to tell if Brannon would make in-roads with his anti-debt message. Tuesday’s results suggest he did not.
Conley said, “I’m honored that voters have given me the chance to keep serving them and keep working hard on improving the quality of life in Hays County.”