Commissioner candidates answer questions at Cove forum
By LYNETTE SOWELL
The Coryell County Republican Party held a forum on Friday evening at the Coryell County Justice Center in Copperas Cove, where all four candidates running for two county commissioner positions answered questions asked by county party chair, Jack Barcroft.
This year, precinct 2 and precinct 4 commissioner positions are up for election, with three-term precinct 2 incumbent Daren Moore being challenged by Scott Weddle, and precinct 4 incumbent Ray Ashby of Gatesville facing off against challenger Keith Taylor of Jonesboro.
Barcroft’s questions were similar to those asked of the county judge candidates the week prior, with questions relating to the building of a new county jail, what in the county budget they believe would need to be cut, if and how they would support the county’s volunteer economic development board, and what they saw as the biggest challenge for the county in the next 10 years.
Each candidate was allowed to give a three-minute answer to each question.
What about a new county jail?
Barcroft first asked the candidates if they supported the building of a new jail, or if they would rather continue housing overflow inmates outside of the county.
Keith Taylor said he’d been thinking a lot about the construction of a new jail, and that it was something that he would be able to look at more in-depth, were he elected.
“Are we spending our tax money wisely by sending them out of county? Could the county afford a new jail and keep it maintained and put jobs in the county and keep all the money in our county, instead of paying for Milam County’s jail? For me personally, since I haven’t been in the process, looking at the numbers, if elected, I’d have to look at real close to justify building a new jail, or put in a long-term contract with another county such as Milam.” He said a long-term contract would help the county, so another county couldn’t approach Milam and offer them $10 a day more than what Coryell County is paying them.
Ray Ashby said he definitely supported a new jail, and it was something that he and fellow commissioner Kyle Matthews “hit the ground running” with when first elected in 2016.
“I would love to see it built on the 30 acres, but if your commissioners court and county are split on that. A lot more investigative work has to go into making a decision. It’s been on the front burner since I’ve started,” Ashby said. “We spent the better part of $700,000 last year on housing prisoners outside Coryell County and we project $850,000 plus this year, simply housing prisoners outside Coryell County. That has to stop. We have to figure out a way to get the jail built, use those funds spending outside the county, and bring them back into the county.
Scott Weddle gave insight on his own decision-making process, stating he asks himself a lot of questions.
“We had a bond election by the people. If that wasn’t a mandate, what was it? That was my first question. The people said, we want a new jail. A committee was formed and a feasibility study done. If we can’t find it, where is it? That was six years ago. Once I get elected, I’d have that information and could make a much better decision.” He also asked if an architect was hired, and he’d heard a lot of figures “out there” where jail construction was concerned, but did the county get as far as to draw up any plans?
“Are the commissioners, or were the commissioners, capable of negotiating whether that was the right price or not?...Were the commissioners held accountable for their decision to vote down the jail six years ago?” Weddle said he was okay with that, but he would like to know what the alternate plan was.
Incumbent Moore said he had knowledge of the issue and its challenges, and he said there was a bond election in 2011, but he also pointed out that there were 2,836 who voted in the election, with 1,508 for the jail and 1,328 against it.
“1,500 people out of the whole county of 75,000 – the commissioners’ court has to look at that. We didn’t look at it as a mandate to build a jail, yes or no, but we looked at, can we afford that, yes or no?” Moore explained. “At that time, we could not afford to build a jail. If we would have built a jail with a $1 million debt annually, we could not have opened it because the maintenance and operations would have exceeded the rollback rate. That’s just plain and simple. We have to look at other alternatives, a smaller jail, maybe adding on. Those things are to be determined.
“It was not a yes or no – it was an application process, we submitted an application to the USDA for bonds…that election was part of that.”
Where are places that the county budget can be cut?
Ray Ashby had the chance to answer first. He said last year, the budget was “bare bones” and he felt like the commissioners were right on the mark. He said public safety is important and he wouldn’t want to cut that, or road and bridge work.
“It would have to be smaller areas to cut, if we cut anything,” Ashby said. He also explained the budget process, that department heads bring their proposed budgets to the court with their requests. Ashby said there’s a certain cap as far as what taxes will raise and if the departments request more than available, they are asked to make more cuts.
“That’s up to the heads of the departments that do that. Our part is to set the tax rate and decide… There’s a rollback rate, and we can only go so far, and then if all the departments approach us with is more than we can get from the taxpayers, we’re the ones charged with raising taxes.”
Scott Weddle shared his approach and asked why can’t government be run like our own households, on a budget, you can’t spend more than you have. Also, it’s important to save for a rainy day.
“You have to make decisions that are best for the whole,” Weddle said, stating that vacations and luxury items in a budget are nice to have if you have “extra.”
A child may need a backpack, but they want an Xbox, Weddle said. “Why do we vote ourselves a raise by raising taxes, instead of looking at ways to keep expenses down?”
Weddle said the key is to manage expenses, enhance the ability to raise money through economic development.
“One thing I promise that I will do; I will spend your money like it is my money because guess what, it is my money.” He concluded by stating he did support building a new jail and he finds it “absurd” that the county is paying $45 per day per prisoner to another jail system to house those prisoners.
Daren Moore called the budget-cutting process “painstakingly difficult.”
“We always try to cut in every way we can, but the demands of our county just will not allow us to make cuts. We are constantly trying to add services, improved services, and with that comes a cost. Government has a cost to it,” Moore said.
He added that in 2007 when he first took office, the county’s general fund was $8.6 million and that today it is $16.4 million – doubled. He said the reason for that increase is that the cost of doing business has doubled or increased.
“I’ve got all those numbers. I’m not talking general, but detailed. It’s the cost of doing business,” Moore said. He also said that healthcare costs of county employees have more than doubled in 10 years, that the cost covering an employee and their family was $700+ dollars monthly in 2007m and now just for an employee alone the cost is more than $700.
“The tax base has not kept up with the growth. You’ll ask any department head, how can they cut? The only thing there is to cut is people. And nobody wants to do that. They’re essential to what we do.”
Keith Taylor talked about his experience serving on the Jonesboro school board, and said when he was firs ton the board, the district was struggling, needing to get loans to make payroll because the district wasn’t making the cuts.
“It was pet of the process I had to go through. We had to let people go, then figure out how to budget and make it all grow back.” Taylor said that today, the district has a $1 million fund balance and enrollment has increased to 330.
“You don’t want to be the one to have to let people go, but sometimes it has to be done. It would fall back to the department heads to decide.”
The county economic development board
The third question asked by Barcroft pertained to economic development, specifically if they supported continuing the Coryell County Economic Development Board, and if so, what they would recommend to help the board achieve its goals.
Weddle went first this time, stating that economics was his “strong suit” and he’s been “selling all my life.”
He appreciated the board’s volunteer efforts, but he wondered if it might be time for the county to look at hiring a paid salesperson “to promote the wonderful things we have in this county.”
He also said the website needs updating, that websites are much more interactive today, and he suggested getting the local chambers of commerce to work together, with the county providing the “point person,” someone getting the chambers to work together. He also recommended workforce training, to focus on the trades as well as getting good jobs for soldiers, and to draw light manufacturing into the county.
Moore took his turn, stating that he has always been an advocate for economic development and that every year he has always supported the CCEDB, although the commissioners haven’t been able to fulfill all their requests. He also said he believed they did a great job as volunteers.
He also said the new county judge will be a big part of economic development within the county.
“That position has the ability to go out and talk to business, talk to industry outside of our county and bring them in, show them what we have to offer,” said Moore. “We have challenges, but we have a workforce, a low tax rate, land that can be developed. Everything there is to offer to industry here. It’s what we need to focus on.”
Keith Taylor said he would definitely continue to support the county’s EDB. He said the county needs to go out and get the commercial businesses to come in and keep them here, that as an example, some have come and gone from Gatesville, in the same building. As for how to do that? It would be for the committee to decide and he said he would support them in any way he could.
Ashby said he would like to see a combination of the county to get together, to get the Copperas Cove and Gatesville board together at pulling bigger industry in.
“That’s how we’re going to lower our tax base. We’re not going get lower taxes by us trying to figure out cutting $1,000 off the sheriff’s department. We’re going to get it by bringing businesses that will pay taxes. We have the power to offer lots of different things, tax abatements, property, building, attractive things,” Ashby said.
As far as the largest issue the county will face in the next 10 years, Daren Moore said the county’s growth and how to keep up with and fund that growth, such as where law enforcement and the jail are concerned. Weddle said the largest issue he saw was economic development and attracting new businesses to Coryell County, such as light manufacturing and distribution. Keith Taylor said the county jail is the largest issue, and reiterated his concern about the county having long-term contracts with the counties it is currently paying to house prisoners. Ray Ashby said the unfunded mandates handed down by the state legislature are the largest issue, that the state puts in the rules and changes, but the counties must find the money to pay for those mandated changes, adding that 17% of the county’s budget is not related to state mandates.