Coryell County candidates answer questions at Cove forum
By BRITTANY FHOLER
Dozens attended the candidate forum for the nine Republican candidates running for county office. The forum was held Saturday evening at the Copperas Cove Public Library.
Each candidate running in the March 1 primary gave an introduction and what office they are running for and what their campaign is about before fielding specific questions on why they are running, what they would change about the county and why, what they consider the top three issues facing the county, how to attract economic development and how to “bridge the divide” between the northern and southern (and rural and urban) parts of Coryell County.
The candidates for County Judge include incumbent Roger Miller as well as former Coryell County Republican Chair Jack Barcroft, Celia Sellers, Joey Acfalle.
Candidates for Precinct 4 County Commissioner include incumbent Ray Ashby, former Copperas Cove Mayor Bradi Diaz, and Keith Taylor.
Candidates for Precinct 2 County Commissioner include Scott Weddle and Billy Vaden. The seat has been held by Commissioner Daren Moore, who announced last year that he would not be seeking reelection.
The top three issues mentioned most by the candidates included updating county facilities, including the County Jail and the building where the Justices of the Peace for Precincts 3 and 4 conduct business, located at 508 E. Leon St in Gatesville, expanding broadband internet, and increasing economic development in the county.
Barcroft described the J.P. building as a “ticking time bomb”. The building was built in the 1940s and used to be the county’s old jail facility.
“Somebody is going to get injured,” Barcroft said. “I mean, could you imagine when they try to walk people back to the itty bitty courtroom that’s smaller, way smaller than this [library meeting room], they’re walking through a rain of maggots because the building, the way it’s set up right now, they have a rat problem, and sometimes they’ll die in areas where they can’t get to, and there’s nothing they can do about it. So they light a whole lot of candles, and then they warn everybody as they’re walking through the hallway, ‘Oh by the way, those are maggots falling down. Just kind of don’t worry about that.’ I can’t imagine living in that condition. I couldn’t imagine asking anybody else to.”
Barcroft said water infrastructure would be second on his list of top three.
“The subdivisions that have been platted have been promised, but they still can’t get water, and that’s not just a short-term goal. That’s a long-term goal,” Barcroft said. “Everybody’s got to be thinking 30, 40, 50 years down the road because what cost us $6.8 million to build a jail once went to $15 million went to $31 million and even as of today, that $31 million would still not build as many beds as it would have three years ago, if our folks wouldn’t have ended up wasting their time jumping through all the hoops that they were asked to.”
Sellers said that a new jail facility would be first on her list.
“About 2011, we were spending $200,000 on housing inmates in other counties. That’s money that other counties were getting, and we are not,” Sellers said. “Now, we’re spending about $1.8 million as of 2021, and that’s a lot of money.”
Sellers added that when she toured the jail last week, the jail roster was at 147. The maximum capacity for the jail is 92.
“You can see that that’s taken a toll on our staff as well as putting offenders and deputies out on the road,” Sellers said. “I think that’s a big, huge security risk.”
Ashby said that the jail and the J.P.’s office were on his top two priorities and said that the court needs to move forward on getting these handled.
He mentioned the county facility advisory committee, which presented the court with its recommendation at their last meeting. This committee is the such third committee the Commissioners Court has put together since 2011, he added.
“We already heard the report from that jail committee who already is repeating what Commissioner Matthews and myself repeated two years ago to the Commissioners’ Court and said what was needed. It’s going to be the same thing. It’s just getting more expensive and more expensive, and it’s time to just, like I’ve said earlier, to quit kicking the can down the road and make a move, a step forward and do something,” Ashby said. “We have to do something. If it causes us to raise your taxes a little bit then that’s what we have to do, and I’ll be the first one to say I don’t want to raise taxes. But I will be the first one to say that I don’t mind if it helps our law enforcement and makes our community safer for you. That’s our job. That’s the decisions that we have to make day to day, and I stand behind every decision that I have made in that court, and I will continue to do so.”
Miller touched on the facilities when answering a question about changing one thing in the county. Miller said that there were a multitude of things that need to be addressed and, as long as something is done, he said he didn’t care which one was addressed first.
“I don’t care. I really don’t. It is do something because you’re going to get a better value out of it,” Miller said. “If we built a JP building and a courtroom today, we’re going to potentially tear down to others and could liquidate one. If we build a new jail facility, we’re going to decrease the amount of money we spend for out of county housing. If we built a new court complex annex, we are going to speed the efficiencies and the safety and security of our court systems. Just do one, pick one. I really don’t care because you as the taxpayer are going to get a better value.”
Regarding economic development, Miller said that the county should pursue hiring an Economic Development Coordinator, who would be funded through grants, to move the county’s economic development forward.
“We’ve been operating off of the volunteer board, and the volunteer board is just that- it’s volunteer. You get what you pay for, and there’s lots of good first steps that they took. They never got followed up. It’s time to follow up on those, and we can do that through a grant opportunity. I mean, I would much rather use the state and federal government’s money than your money to pay for these things that we need.”
Acfalle touched on the need to have businesses to offset the property tax revenue, specifically the revenue lost due to the property tax exemptions granted to various homeowners, such as disabled veterans.
“No matter how many homes you build, there’s going to be ample numbers of exemptions,” Acfalle said. “Economic development: we need the businesses here. I understand if you build a steakhouse, you’ve got a property tax, and then you’ve got equipment tax going to the County, the City and whoever other entities is needing it. That is needing to be grown.”
Weddle said that the county needed to focus on attracting businesses such as light manufacturing type businesses versus larger businesses like Space X, which has a factory in McGregor, just minutes from Oglesby. He added that this could help make it so that young people stay in Coryell County rather than going off to other cities for a career.
When asked by moderator Chip Howell how they would attract more economic development, the candidates focused again on broadband internet access expansion and improving infrastructure.
Diaz mentioned broadband internet improvements as necessary for any type of business.
“Whether you’re trying to recruit a mom-and-pop ice cream shop or you’re trying to get Tesla to come into Coryell County, they’re going to need broadband internet,” Diaz said.
Sellers said that making the county safe, with a new jail facility, would lead to economic development.
“I mean, personally, I believe that our county is a very good county, and we have good families here, and it’s just it’s a very nice county to live. I believe that our county is safe,” Sellers said. “I do think that with the new jail and our county being safer that is something to develop.”
Taylor said that one incentive should focus on improving infrastructure related to water and sewer lines and mentioned subdivisions in his part of the county that are unable to get water.
“That’s going to be the number one, I think, because if you don’t have the power and the water, you’re not going to get anybody to show up, and then you won’t have the workforce,” Taylor said.
Barcroft mentioned the joint use rail/truck facility that the county funded a land use study for back in 2018 with Fort Hood and the city of Copperas Cove. This facility would result in railhead infrastructure expected to attract businesses when paired with the interstate running through Copperas Cove. Barcroft said that the county has had to turn away businesses due to the lack of this type of infrastructure.
“It was a very large deal with the Copperas Cove [EDC] and Fort Hood. It involved the land swap and the Coryell County Economic Development Board, but, and I quote, ‘It didn’t benefit Gatesville,’ so it was lampooned,” Barcroft said. “Well, the good news is, after talking to leadership in Copperas Cove, it’s still alive, and if I’m County Judge, then I’m definitely going to make sure that we’re putting efforts in that to make it come to fruition. And if it fails, I’ll take responsibility for it, and when it succeeds, I’ll give that credit back to the commissioners, the department heads and all those that participated to make it happen.”
Acfalle said that one way to incentivize businesses would be to help them save on their utility bill through a geothermal incentive.
“One of the things that they can go ahead and incentivize to them is the opportunity to save on their power with geothermal in their own area, if it does apply,” Acfalle said.
Acfalle added that he was against any Chapter 380-381 agreement which would provide a business with incentives, such as tax rebates, for extended periods of time.
“I’m not going to offer you free taxes for 25 years just so you can bring your businesses over here for growth of jobs, but we’re still losing on taxes for 25 years,” Acfalle said.
Miller said that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to economic development in the county.
“You know, the economic growth that Copperas Cove wants may not necessarily be the same economic growth that Jonesboro wants because I really am not going to go up to Matt Dossey and say, ‘Hey, Matt, we’re going to recruit about 2,000 families to come in here and turn this into a 3A school district,’” Miller said. “So, it is controlling and being responsive to what the areas are. I mean, we can say yes, it would be great to have a Samsung plant come in here with 6,000 jobs, and they would buy up land at $60,000 an acre, but I don’t want us to suffer the repercussions of that kind of investment.”
He added that there are people in Coryell County who would be against this type of development, and they have a voice and a vote too.
Weddle said that he would go back to “low taxes, good infrastructure, increased security.”
“That’s what taxpayers want,” Weddle added. “Those are the three things that we want out of our government.”
Another way would be to encourage young people to go into trades more, Weddle said.
Vaden mentioned a workforce as the first thing necessary to attract economic development.
“Samsung or Dell or any of those big names, they’re not going to come here because we don’t have- in my opinion, we don’t have the workforce to satisfy that, Vaden said. “So, we have to start at the young age of making our workforce local.”
Vaden suggested having this happen at the high school level, where school districts could offer an opportunity for students to graduate high school with an associate degree. Such a program does not currently exist in Gatesville, he said. It is offered through Copperas Cove ISD through the Early College program.
The forum was streamed live on the Coryell County Republican Party’s Facebook page and is still available to view for those unable to attend.
Early voting in the March 1 primary starts on Monday, Feb. 14.