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August 3rd, 2008
Parks vote again highlights ‘two Hays counties’

Not Fit to Print: A column
Managing Editor

It isn’t quite accurate to say Elizabeth Sumter got ran out of Kyle on a rail when she held a town hall-style meeting there back in February. Rather, the county judge left in a hurry on one of many roads in her county in critical need of widening.

Sumter “kept her appointment to meet with Kyle citizens from 2-4 p.m. on Sunday. And, at the crack of four, she said, ‘It’s 4 o’clock,’ and she was out of there,” Bill Peterson wrote at the time. “As Sumter wheeled out of town after a round of hostile questioning, Kylites found her composure every bit as baffling as her explanations.”

Residents of Kyle and Buda — where she met a hostile crowd a week earlier — are prone with good reason to blame the judge for a lack of leadership in nailing down a $133 million deal with the Texas Department of Transportation to improve a number of state highways in the rapidly growing county.

That Sumter bothered to host one of her Community Voices hearings in the county’s second largest and fastest growing city came only after Kyle officials protested their baffling exclusion from the series. The judge’s original tour schedule did not include a single stop east of Interstate 35, where a third of Sumter’s constituents — the poorer, browner third — live. She hastily added Kyle, Uhland and Neiderwald meetings after being called out on the rather unsubtle slight.

A week later, Sumter came to San Marcos where she encountered a more polite reception but still spent nearly the whole session not answering pointed questions about transportation issues. Someone encouraged her to help convince her neighbors in the wealthier Hill Country west side of the county to take seriously the need for securing state funding for road projects before the money is sent elsewhere.

Sumter replied that eastside-westside differences in priorities and circumstances are a “media invention.”

“I think a lot of that is in the newspapers and it makes for good stories but it’s not necessarily how people in the west feel. I don’t hear people in Wimberley say ‘We don’t want any roads.’ I don’t hear them say, ‘We don’t want people in San Marcos or Kyle be able to shop at Home Depot.’ Unfortunately, there has been some journalism causing a heightened sense of division that I don’t think really exists in this county,” the judge said as Mayor Susan Narvaiz and other city council members’ mouths dropped.

Such eagerness to play dumb may be among the reasons Sumter’s countywide approval rating is somewhere in the neighborhood of 17 percent, if polling data floating around the county’s political chattering class is to be believed. She should know better, and she does.

Even if Sumter didn’t know many people on the eastside before she ran for judge, she might have seen, “One county, two worlds,” in the Austin American-Statesman back in 2002 documenting the divide.

Calling it the “two Hays counties,” Jeremy Schwartz and Andy Alford wrote, “There’s the one on the west side of the highway, where rolling hills and sparkling rivers make room for homes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and where million-dollar development battles make headlines. Then there’s the Hays County … where mobile homes spread as far as the eye can see, where roads in some areas are virtually impassable, where basic water and sewer service is sometimes lacking. The highway is a barrier of wealth, class and ethnicity.”

The article goes on to point out:

  • “Two of the three poorest census tracts in Hays County are east of I-35. The five wealthiest tracts are to the west. The past 10 years saw a concentration of wealth in the northwest part of the county, and about of third of the county — all to the west — has a median annual household income of between $60,000 and $80,000.
  • “The east side remained uniformly poorer than the west, with median family incomes ranging from $23,000 to $49,000, depending on census tract.
  • “The highway is a divider of ethnicity as well. Census numbers reveal that the areas west of I-35 are predominantly white, and overwhelmingly so in the most affluent sections to the northwest. The east side has become a more diverse area. In 1980, Hispanics were the majority in only two census residential areas, while the rest were predominantly white. Today, four of those areas are predominantly Hispanic while most other east-side tracts are split between whites and Hispanics.”

The starkly different realities yield starkly different views on public policy, not just on roads but on just about any issue the commissioners court touches.

For example, Sumter and Pct. 4 Commissioner Karen Ford have been unrelenting in insisting that the vast majority of $30 million in voter-approved parks and open space funds be applied to buying conservation easements on large tracts of property, an arrangement that will preserve the land from development but which taxpayers footing the bill may never set foot on. Representing precincts anchored in the eastside, the court majority tends to support their communities’ requests for active use parks with amenities like soccer and baseball fields and tennis courts and playgrounds.

Most recently, Sumter and Ford voted against a $3.2 million request from the city of San Marcos, whose matching share is $5.5 million, for a package of parks projects that included a regional skate park, softball fields and tennis court renovations but also funding to build walking trails and other infrastructure on the city’s 502 acre Purgatory Creek Preserve. Commissioners Will Conley, Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe and Jeff Barton voted to approve the appropriation.

The media didn’t invent Sumter’s elitist attitude toward many of her constituents or her dismissive denial of reality. Nor did the media invent a judge who seems to know so little — or pretends to know so little — about the other side of the county she is elected to lead.

Talking about roads last year, Barton put it this way: “The history of the world to some degree is shaped by geography and that’s no different in Hays County. …You can draw a line roughly down the Balcones fault line and see it was supported on the east and not on the west. Those in areas of higher growth have differences in perspective.”

CORRECTION: The story should have said that the city of San Marcos’ request for parks money was $3.2 million in county funds, matched with $5.5 million in city expenditures.

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4 thoughts on “Parks vote again highlights ‘two Hays counties’

  1. Your article accurately potrays the judge. In fact, I have been wondering how she escapes more negative media than she does. Ms. Sumter is considering eliminating Hays County Health services. Of course they will be outsourced. To many poor residents, it will only make health services in San Marcos more inaccessible than they are now. She is bad news for anyone who does not live in Wimberly!!!

  2. The COSM parks funding request was for $3.2 million. San Marcos had already approved and funded $5.5 million of it’s own money for these projects.

  3. All I can say is: The Dem Primaries for these two Austin buffoons is less than two years away. Hopefully their sucessors will be able to reverse the damage done to the county

  4. The County Judge is a disgrace to Hays County and to Texas. Something should be done to remove her from office NOW before she does more damage to our County. She is an arrogant, obnoxious fool with an axe to grind with anyone who does not “see it her way.” Klefper is her boy. If voters allow him to be elected they will be playing into her hand. God help us if that happens.

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