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2012-04-05

Evans hopes for more local authority in 83rd Legislature

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

County Judge Richard Evans delivered what has become his annual State of the County report to members of the Ranchers and Landowners Association of Texas during their Tuesday, March 27, meeting.

RLAT President John Payne introduced Evans as the chief administrative officer who has been leading the county for nearly 20 years.

While Bandera County is in good financial shape at the moment with a 40 percent fund balance - 25 percent is considered minimum - Evans cautioned that the federal and state governments are "upside down," noting, "Their revenue (collection) v. expenditures puts us in jeopardy."

He continued, "The county's primary source of revenue is property taxes.
If the state continues to hand down unfunded mandates, we'll have to make some hard decisions." Evans noted that the first things to fall by the wayside during hard economic times would be discretionary expenditures, such as funding for the county library system. Luckily, raising property taxes seems an anathema to local politicians, Evans among them.

One new unfunded mandate decreed by Austin is court-appointed attorneys in child custody cases. "That alone would cost this county $100,000," Evans said. "The state passed the law and sent the bill to us. And, somebody always wants you to pay the bill - either the state or the feds."

He also noted that the current $7 million fund balance cushion could be wiped out by "one flood and no disaster declaration. In that case, we would have to finance reconstruction in-house." Evans recalled that the county had to borrow $1.2 million to reconstruct roads in one precinct that had been destroyed in a previous flood.

He also added, somewhat ominously, "Droughts in the Hill Country end in floods."

"Additionally, some grants require matching funds," he said. "Those funds normally come from the fund balance."

Gearing up for the 83rd Texas Legislature, Evans plans to press legislators to give commissioners in Hill Country counties more regulatory authority.

"If they don't give counties some regulatory authority, by that absence, you will lose property rights," Evans said. "Regulations can protect you. They give neighbors breathing room. The kind of regulations we're asking for would prohibit a hog farm from being constructed beside a housing development."

He also wants development costs association with large subdivisions to be borne by the developer and passed on to consumers. "Why should longtime taxpayers pay for a road that's servicing a new 800-unit subdivision? Property taxes do not generate enough money to build new roads."

However, Evans admitted he has pressed unsuccessfully during five legislative sessions for the kind of authority he believes is necessary to preserve the Hill Country way of life.

He has also met with resistance from such venerable institutions as the Texas Farm Bureau because that agency believes more local authority would inevitably lead to loss of property rights.

"You can lose property rights two ways," Evans said. "The government can take them away or your neighbor can take them away because the government doesn't have authority to protect you." He added, "We used to have neighbors. Now we just have people we live beside."

Evans, along with the Hill Country County Coalition, will ask legislators for assistance in 2013.

Several years ago, a group of county elected officials from the Hill Country formed the Hill Country County Coalition to ask the Texas Legislature for "expanded authority to help fund safer roads, set density averages to protect water resources and protect property values by separating industrial and commercial use from existing neighborhoods, farms and ranches." This authority is critical for sustainable development in the Hill Country because more than 90 percent of the land in the region is unincorporated county land.

More information is available on the website,

www.hillcountryalliance.org/HCA/CountyAuthority

"Some legislators have not been sympathetic, but we would like an even shake. This will be critical for Bandera County," Evans said. In a previous legislative session, HB 3265, carefully crafted to give commissioners in certain Hill Country counties limited authority to manage growth, never made it out of committee.

Had it been approved, the bill would have granted three minimal tools to specific Hill Country counties - average density rules, buffers between incompatible land uses and new development fees to help with the cost of roadway safety improvements.

At that time, Evans expressed disappointment that District 53 Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, who represented five counties that could have potentially been affected by the bill - Kerr, Kimble, Llano, Mason and Real counties, did not support the effort. However, as Evans noted previously, "We eventually removed his counties from HB 3265 because Rep. Hilderbran showed no interest in co-sponsoring it."

Now, however, Hilderbran's seeming apathy could be more problematic. Due to redistricting, Bandera has become a part of District 53 after being been removed from Rep. Doug Miller's District 73.

"I've talked to Harvey about the problems facing Bandera County," Evans said, when asked about Hilderbran's reluctance to support more local authority. "He was resistant last time to sign on to the bill, but there appears to be a glimmer of hope now. Perhaps he'll do it for Bandera County. I think it's a 'maybe'."

Evans continued, "We have the best government money can buy. Your representatives need to hear from the people who will be impacted by higher taxes, decreased water availability, flooding caused by increased density.

Believe me, elected officials keep a tally. I've had them tell me, 'Call the dogs off'!

"Being a good citizen isn't a spectator sport. Make sure your voice is heard. It's your government; we work for you. Keep your elected officials accountable."