County judge candidates gather for Cove forum

Cove Leader-Press 

Four military veterans, the current county district court clerk, and a certified public accountant are the six candidates vying for the position of Coryell County judge, and all six gathered to field answers to questions at a forum in Copperas Cove on Friday evening, hosted by the Coryell County Republican Party.
Current Coryell County District Clerk Janice Gray, retired veteran and former computer science contractor Alan Mathis, veteran Wayne Avery, veteran and current County Emergency Services Coordinator Bob Harrell, retired first sergeant Roger Miller, and lifelong county resident and CPA John Derrick each had the opportunity to introduce themselves to a standing-room-only crowd at the County Justice Center. 
County GOP Chair Jack Barcroft led the forum, asking questions pertaining to the county budget, the status of the yet-unbuilt new Coryell County jail, how the county should handle economic development tax abatements, a proposed off-channel reservoir in the county, as well as a proposed geothermal energy project in the county. 
He kicked off by asking about if elected, what their vision is for the county’s annual $16 million budget. As far as the county budget is concerned, all candidates agreed about spending the county’s funds wisely. 
Avery said the county should look at its facilities, whether to buy or rent facilities, how to fit the jail into the budget, and look at getting all the employees into one or two general areas to save money. He also said the county needs to look at how much money it’s costing for the county to put in for the new subdivisions, and what kind of work on the roads that will follow. 
Gray said a very important factor in the budget is broadband internet, something, that if her office can’t connect to the district attorney’s office across the street, it takes some people to be able to do that operation. “Right now, we can’t talk to each other so we’re submitting the same things.” She also said there needs to be enhanced communication between departments, and for departments to sit down together regularly for a better way to budget the money. 
Mathis said that without a common vision, all departments can be going a different way. He is in favor of building a strategic plan and goals, with a long-range spending plan instead of just an annual plan. He said there are challenges like unfunded mandates by state.
Harrell said there are 31 funds in the county, with five fed from taxes, and the rest by fees and grants. He called for teamwork with elected officials and appointed individuals to work together as a team, to come to common agreement. 
Miller said the county needs to develop a “where can I cut $10 mindset.” He said he has sat through three budget cycles, and he only knows of two departments that have made significant cuts to their budgets. 
Derrick said the county government is basically a service organization, and the majority of budgeted expenses are salaries. “When you start saying cut and save, it means people…we have a lot of things to fix. We have a jail to look at, we have to make a decision, raise taxes or have a bond issue, or a combination of things?” He sees the county’s economic development board as a way to bring more business into the county and increase the tax base. 
Where the jail is concerned, Gray said the county can’t consider the jail without considering other entities in the county. Her desire to support the sheriff by considering the citizens of the county. Mathis questioned where the deliberation process was in going forward with the voters passing a referendum seven years ago, yet no jail being built. He doesn’t want “fall into the same hole.” Harrell said he supports a new jail and how and when are work in progress. As a licensed peace officer, he said he can see where the county is going, without t a new jail. Miller echoed Mathis’ comment, adding that six to eight years later, there is still no plan to get it done. “We’re halfway running a jail and paying for Milam County’s new one.” He supports building a new jail because the voters asked the county to do it. Derrick said the county judge has one vote and he also supported the original referendum. Presently, he said the sheriff offices and jail budget Is $6.2 million, with about $4 million of that being salaries and benefits. A new jail will mean more employees and running it, he said, and he will work toward a solution. He said he doesn’t Avery agreed that a new jail is needed, but one way to help is to work on crime prevention in the county. 
As far as economic development property tax abatements for companies, Barcroft told the candidates that so far, the commissioners have approved all tax abatement requests that have come to them. He asked the candidates if they would be in favor of continuing those. 
Overall the candidates were in favor of abatements—in the right format. Harrell and Miller both said abatements should be used “sparingly.” Harrell abatements are a tool, but it’s also important to keep taxes low, and also look at factors like the size of the company, the requested length and percentage of abatement. Miller added that abatements should be used judiciously, and talked about offering abatements to local small businesses, rather than just catering to big box stores. Derrick agreed with Miller, using a judicious approach to abatements, to look at the types of jobs being brought in, particularly where manufacturing is concerned. He said small businesses don’t get the breaks like larger companies. Avery said it depends on the size of the company asking for the abatement, and Gray said abatements should be decided on a case by case basis. Mathis said abatements can be key, especially with the designation of I-14 and improvements that have been made to state roads within the county.
On Friday evening, Copperas Cove voters will have the chance to hear from more candidates, with another forum set for 6:30 p.m. in the county justice center, located at 210 S. 1st St. The four candidates running for county commissioner in precincts 2 and 4. 

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