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2017-08-24

Through the lens of a rural county judge

By Bev Barr BCC Editor

BCC Staff photo by Bev Barr
The Honorable Judge Evans spoke at the Bandera County Board of Realtors Tuesday, Aug. 22. Evans sprinkled his talk about county government and the $20 million special session with humorous anecdotes, and answered questions from a roomful of people on a wide range of topics.



The Honorable Judge Richard Evans spoke of some of the challenges and pleasures of being a county judge at the quarterly meeting of Bandera County Board of Realtors Tuesday, Aug. 22. Judge Evans discussed the county budget, which is approximately $20 million (double the amount when he began his career as county judge, 6 terms ago) and shared one of his fiscally conservative approaches to making a budget work: “Want. Need. No,” he said. “Do you want it? Do you need it? If you don’t need it, then no.” Evans posed the somewhat rhetorical question, “Will anyone die without it?” — because he definitely doesn’t want anyone dying because of a budget item. Which brings us down to brass tacks.
For example, the county budgets about $900,000 for EMS. That is a big expenditure, but well worth it, he thinks, given that Bandera has no hospital. Lives do depend upon Bandera County having an effective EMS.
The county also partially funds 3 libraries. If the commissioners’ court didn’t allocate a bit of the budget to support these libraries, he might be afraid to walk down the street, he quipped. In most counties, Judge Evans said, cities support public libraries. But in Bandera County, private donations, some grants — and what has so far been financial support from the county to pay some of the cost of our libraries.
Judge Evans also expressed dissatisfaction with our state representatives and described them as “intellectually dishonest.” He referred specifically to the so-called proposed reduction in tax rates.
“It’s a sound bite,” Evans said. “But you can’t govern with sound bites. You have to govern with policy that supports long-term goals. … The only way to have real tax relief — in my opinion — is for the state to finance schools.”
Judge Evans shared a few details that reflect the county government’s long-term goals of keeping tax rates low, reducing liability and avoiding preventable expenses. For instance, before the new jail and justice center was built, the county spent $560,000 to house prisoners at jails in neighboring counties. Now, the county is on track to receive about $400,000 for housing prisoners from other counties. That’s about a $1 million dollar move in the right direction.
But even a $1million move in the right direction can’t withstand the effects of the ongoing barrage of unfunded mandates that our state legislators impose on rural counties. Evans mentioned a few, such as the $300,000 it cost to convert a filing system to an e-filing system paid for exclusively by counties; a $254 million bill for state appointed attorneys in which the state chips in $38 million; and the ever-escalating cost of indigent health care.
Very recently, rural counties fought back in a way that really worked. Our state government decided that they would make counties pay the Department of Public Safety for lab work. Rural counties reacted to this new expense by sending bills for what had heretofore been all-expenses-paid office spaces and secretaries for the DPS. According to Evans, there was such a backlash to charging rural law enforcement for lab work; the governor took his email off-line. His fax machine mysteriously stopped working. Then, the state found money to resume lab work for law enforcement.
The judge pointed to the purchase of the property that houses county offices as another move toward financial sensibility.
“Everything we occupy, the tax payer owns,” Judge Evans said.
The judge answered several questions about matters including rising property taxes, abatements and economic development, encroachment from San Antonio and the possibility of incorporated townships becoming a buffer to that encroachment, and the limits and of sewer and water and other aspects of infrastructure.
Judge Evans briefly described the seriousness and challenges regarding the closed road that runs along the top of a dam leading into the Twin Lakes subdivision. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) ordered that the dam be removed or breached. Simple enough on first glance, but complicated by legal action between the developer of the subdivision and its residents (who have been advised to refrain from commenting on the case in any way). Judge Evans did not disclose details discussed during closed executive session at the last commissioners’ court meeting, although he offered what seemed like reticent assurances that emergency responders would be able to get to the subdivision in the event of a fire or medical emergency.
In closing, Judge Evans provided an analogy for the way county government works, which he described as “opposite” from city government. When an incorporated city government decides to do something or cause something to be done, it passes or changes an ordinance. County government is an extension of the state and can only do what the state says it can do.
Judge Evans said county government was like a chain. A chain is something that can be pulled — but not pushed. It requires cooperation — forces cooperation in order to work. It cannot be pushed. In his analogy, Judge Evans did not include mention of the infamous weakest link.
“It’s a bad time for rural Texas, with the leadership we have. Travis County does not know what we need,” concluded the Judge.