The county’s rapidly increasing debt and how to prevent ballots from going missing again were two of several topics taken on by candidates vying for a spot on the Hays County commissioners court Monday night.
According to its fiscal year 2017 budget—which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30—the county is $354.76 million in debt, as the commissioners are reminded during citizen comment every Tuesday at their weekly meetings.
On the tax rate
The question of whether to adjust or lower the tax rate was posed to candidates at the League of Women Voters debate.
Colin McFerrin, a lawyer and veteran running for Precinct 3 commissioner, pointed to the fact that the county has the eighth-highest effective property tax rate—the rate that would generate the same amount of revenue as last fiscal year—in the county, which has a total of 25 taxing entities.
In FY 2017-18, Hays County’s effective tax rate was 0.4342 per $100 valuation. Its adopted tax rate was 0.4450 per $100 valuation, 2 cents lower than FY 2016-17’s tax rate.
The budget is nearly double what the county spent last year because of voter-approved bonds, including $100 million for public safety facilities, $25 million for road improvement bonds and the final issue of pass-through road bond funds of $38 million.
The new tax rate will yield $4.5 million in property taxes, $3.31 million of which is from new property added to the county this year.
In passing the budget last year, the county expects to have $195 million in expenditures.
“Commissioners court willy nilly hands out our money,” McFerrin said. “We’re spending money that we don’t have, and we keep doing it, and then we blame it on growth.”
Lon Shell, acting precinct 3 commissioner, pointed to the $133.17 million owed to the county by the Texas Department of Transportation through a 2006 agreement that authorized Hays County to make improvements to several roads, including FM 110, FM 1626, I-35 and US 290. According to the agreement, TxDOT will reimburse the county for the cost of the projects once they are complete. The agreement says reimbursements will be no less than $6.66 million and no more than $13.32 million annually.
He also said Hays County had the lowest tax rate in 21 years and the county had no control over how the other 24 taxing entities set their tax rates.
Walt Smith, a Republican from Dripping Springs running for Precinct 4, said he wanted to “think outside the box” when it comes to maintaining or adjusting the tax rate. He also said he wants to look at increasing the general homestead exemption, where a portion of property owners’ value from taxation is removed.
His opponent, Jimmy Skipton, pledged not to raise taxes.
According to the FY 2017 budget, the Hays County Precinct 3 commissioner’s salary is $82,151, something McFerrin—a small business owner—said he would not accept if elected.
“I’m not going to come in there and take a job so I can get paid and get big fact paycheck,” he said.
Skipton, who works at Whim Hospitality, said he would quit his job “immediately” if elected to commissioners court.
“This would be a full-time job for me. This would be what I do,” he said.
Smith, who runs a government relations firm, disagreed with his challenger.
“If I was elected to this job, yes, I would definitely step back from my business, but I definitely wouldn’t sell it,” he said, adding he wouldn’t turn down a paycheck.
On voting equipment
In November 2016, more than 1,800 ballots went missing after a memory card holding the ballots was misplaced and discovered weeks after Election Day on Nov. 6.
The confusion regarding the November election has led many Hays County residents to call for the use of paper ballots, which advocates say could give voters peace of mind that their vote has been accurately recorded.
In June a committee composed of Hays County citizens, elections office officials and others involved in elections in the county recommended the purchase of new equipment from Hart InterCivic, the county’s election equipment vendor.
“The court was clear during the budget cycle that they would revisit the election system upgrades in 2019,” Elections Administrator Jennifer Anderson told Community Impact Newspaper in an email last November.
All candidates said they would favor electronic voting equipment that came with a paper trail.
Smith said some paper trail voting equipment assigns a serial number to each voter, something he would not advocate for.
Abel Velasquez, a Democrat running for judge, said cost would be irrelevant when choosing new equipment.
His opponent, Ruben Becerra, said his vote was one that went missing in the November 2016 elections. He said the way the county runs elections is something he’d like to look into, calling it inconsistent.
Early voting for the March 6 primaries begins Feb. 20 and runs until March 2. See all the candidates running and where to vote here.