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2015-02-05

Evans' 'State of the County' to RLAT

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Bandera County Judge Richard Evans delivered his annual "State of the County" address to members of the Ranchers & Landowners Association of Texas, Tuesday, Jan. 27. His short assessment was that the county is in good shape. The longer assessment was that it requires diligence and being fiscally conservative to keep it that way.
"The bad news is that the 84th Texas Legislature is now in session and this year marks the largest leadership turnover in decades," Evans said. "The good news is that the newly elected officials have hired staffers who have been there a long time and know what they're doing."
'You can't push a chain.'
After describing county government as "structured chaos," he said, "Every so often I get a call telling me I should 'fire' so and so. Well, I don't have the authority to do that. By its nature, county government is divided and that's the way it was set up during Reconstruction after the Civil War. You can't push a chain. You have to pull it. And, to do that, everyone has to work together."
The county's largest debt remains the bond passed to build the jail and justice center, but even that remains on schedule, Evans said. "The jail is running at one-third its prisoner capacity which puts us on track for our 20-year plan."
Although the county has been fortunate in recent years with housing out-of-county contract prisoners, Gillespie County's new jail will be completed soon. "Fortunately when we built the jail, our fiscal projections did not include having outside revenue, but it was nice to add the money to the general fund," Evans said.
The newly opened animal control facility also helps the county by providing work opportunities for prisoners. "If you keep them busy, they'll be less trouble," Evans said. "It also saves taxpayers' money when prisoners take care of the animals."
He noted that the current animal control order mandates that the county keep stray dogs for five working days. However, Evans also noted that, in the past, many have been kenneled for far longer than that. "We work with rescue groups to get as many adopted as we can, but some dogs just aren't adoptable and must be euthanized." However, he also granted that the larger facility gives the county more latitude in that area.
Nice being
'consistently poor'
Given the current market, Evans commented that the county was fortunate not to have been burdened with gas and oil. "There's something to be said for being consistently poor," Evans said. When boom counties go bust, taxation for residents inevitably becomes a real problem. "A county with a consistent economy makes budgeting easier," he said.
According to Evans, county government must take a "defensive posture" regarding the unfunded and underfunded mandates sent from Austin. "When lawmakers keep dedicated funds rather than appropriating them, some think that might constitute fraud," he said, adding slyly, "I'm surprised there's no wind farm in Austin. All they'd have to do is open each end of the Capital Building."
Mandates 'killing county'
Evans characterized unfunded - and underfunded - mandates as "killing" the county. "It costs Bandera County $300,000 a year for court-appointed attorneys and the state only gives us back $15,000," he noted. "We're also required to spend 8 percent of tax money for indigent health care. That should be the state's job, but we have to do it."
E-filing of court documents sounded like a winning proposition until the $60,000 to $80,000 costs to the county was factored, which included computers, printers, servers, paper and ink. "E-filing makes it easier for large law firms to deal with small counties," Evans said.
Reiterating his conservative approach to governance, he noted that commissioners have not increased taxes in six years. The county no longer rents buildings to house departments and employees. "As taxpayers, you own those buildings," he said.
Advocates for
rural counties
Responding to a question about increased local authority, Evans ceded that although the last legislative attempt failed, "we'll try again." He also felt it would important to identify politicians who would advocate for rural counties, such as Garnet Coleman, a Democrat representative from Harris County. "We still have friends in Austin, but we need coalitions and people who understand rural counties."
Evans continued, "The new governor and lieutenant governor can't really be considered rural, but hopefully they have enough roots to understand rural Texas."
He expressed a desire to connect with Bandera County's State Senator Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, saying, "I've never met the man although I've tried."
Illegals here?
'Don't know.'
When Evans was asked if illegal immigrants were currently being housed in Bandera County, he replied "I don't know." Referencing the undocumented children from Central America who were kept in camps across the county last spring, Evans added, "The authorities didn't even tell the sheriff. That's a major disconnect between local officials and the federal government."
He mused about what would have happened if there had been a flood or fire or if "someone in a drug cartel decided to come and get their kids. No one told us about these children. That was stupid because we had an obligation to take care of them. You have to have enough road to finish the trip. The government didn't think about the 'what if's'."
Switching gears, Evans reiterated that the county is in good fiscal shape. At the end of this budget year, he anticipated ending up with a $136,000 surplus. "The county's only debt is the jail and decreasing gas prices will help us this year," he said.
Participate in process!
When asked about future projects, Evans said there were things that could be done, such as consolidation of certain offices. "But the financial climate must be right and I don't expect to expend capital in the next few years when the world is in such turmoil."
He continued, "When dealing with the budget, the three most important words are 'want, need and no.' You have to be fiscally conservative."
Wrapping up, Evans made a plea for more citizen participation in government, particularly in the voting process. "Being a good citizen is not a spectator sport. You need to be engaged. If you don't participate, you don't count."