County Judge candidates discuss Tomball Tollway, tax rates at Montgomery County Eagle Forum

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Montgomery County judge candidates Mark Keough and incumbent Craig Doyal discussed population growth, taxes and the Tomball Tollway, during a forum hosted by the Montgomery County Eagle Forum, held Jan. 18.

Each candidate had the opportunity to respond to questions from audience members during the evening. Here are a few of the discussed topics:

On accommodating population growth:

Doyal:
“I’ve watched where we have come from and where we are today at abut 560,000 people. We’ve worked with developers that have come in trying to encourage partnerships with other developers through our major thoroughfare plan.

This last budget, we put 53 new law enforcement positions in place, because we know as we grow, we’re going to have to continue growing our law enforcement presence. We hired a new forensic director this last year because our forensic facility is growing and we wanted someone from the top of the list to run that operation.

We hired a new emergency director this last year with 30 years of experience in Fort Bend County to make sure that we are prepared to do the right things going forward. We look every day to find every way to cut our budget; we cut our budget this last year by 5.5 percent and still met the needs of this rapidly growing community. We want people to continue to want to come here, they’re going to come here, so we want to make sure that the quality of life is protected and preserved as that happens and that we’re setting ourselves up to make sure than infrastructure, law enforcement and all the necessary facilities are in place for that growth.”

Keough:
“The first thing is that we need to have a universal mobility plan that will go for the entire county. Right now, each commissioner…is deciding what he wants to do with the resources they have in order to move traffic. What I believe we need to do, and we’ve talked about it, there are numerous plans that have come up over a number of years, we need to get everybody together and put those plans together, then we need to go before commissioners court and entertain a motion that we can have an open dialogue about what we need to do about mobility. At the same time what we need to do with that is bring in community involvement. So we have a huge mobility issue here, the population is growing—by January 2019, we’re probably going to be sitting at 600,000 people.

Now what we keep hearing is that if we’re going to do this, we need to broaden the tax base so that we can keep our quality of living. The problem here is that as we broaden tax base, what we keep doing is we keep punishing the people who are here by increasing their taxes. Over a 10-year period, we reduced the tax rate by two cents, over a 10-year period, while increasing assessments on property 144% for a net result of 133 percent increase in our taxes—that’s a problem. If we’re going to continue to grow this community, as the appraisals go up, the rates must go down. And we’re not going to increase our community on the backs of the people who built the community—because that’s basically what we’re doing in our tax structure.”

On committing to lower the tax rate to compensate for rising appraisals:

Keough:
“[We need to] lower the tax rate as it relates to our appraisals so we don’t beat up the people who built the community—that’s what we’re doing now. We keep hearing about lower rates—I’m not against appraisals going up; everybody wants their home to rise in value. The problem is that when homes rise in value, we keep getting pounded with higher taxes. What should happen is we want the appraisals to go up, but the rate should go down so that the actual tax rate pretty much stays the same—except for new construction. That way we broaden the tax base by this record growth that we’re having rather than taxing the people who built the community, but we’ve done the opposite. So yes, I will commit to that.”

Doyal:
“I will and have [committed to lowering tax rates]. We’ve lowered the tax rate a number of times—five times over the last 10-11 years here in Montgomery County. We did a 20 percent homestead exemption last year for the taxpayers of Montgomery County. We cut our budget by 5.5 percent below 2016’s spending.

All the while, you probably won’t feel that because, Mr. Keough, when you were in the legislature you voted for SB 1, which is the budget for the state and if you look at page 3-5, it says that the budget will require a 13.8 percent increase in school tax collections over the next biennium to fund this budget. So whatever we did at the county [level] got wiped out by a 13.8 percent increase in school tax—that’s the largest percentage of your tax bill. We’re about 16 percent of your tax bill and we’ve done everything we can to try and cut that—homestead exemption, tax rate cuts, lowering the budget—the problem is the school finance—that’s where the biggest portion of your tax bill comes from…. So yes, we will continue to work to lower your taxes at every possible opportunity.”

On ethics and transparency:

Doyal:
“This last year we passed one of the strongest ethics policies of any county in the state of Texas. The only other one I think is El Paso County that has a little bit stronger language because the legislation was created to do that. I believe in transparency. My door is an open door, if there are questions that you all have—come ask me. I get very few people who call me. I read a lot of things on blogs that don’t make any sense at all and I get very few calls actually asking me questions.

If you have questions or concerns or thoughts about what’s going on in my office, my door is open every day. People can come by any time you want or call me anytime you want—I’d love to talk to any one of you. I have an open door policy so if you have any questions, please feel free to come by any time.”

Keough:
“I believe we have to have an open book policy. It’s your money, you ought to be able to look at whatever we’re doing with your taxes. As a matter of fact, I came out with a bill in the first session on transparency in local government for the house of representatives—to tell you how many people there wanted to do it, I couldn’t get anybody to do it, I couldn’t get it out of committee. When it was addressed by our local government here, I ran it by our county judge and he said ‘we could never afford to do that.’ You know what I did? I got on the telephone and called Travis County because I went online and it wasn’t easy to find but I found it and they have a check register and I asked them how much it cost them and they said it didn’t cost them anything—she said they started out with an Excel spreadsheet…every check that was written we knew who the check was written to and how much it was for…it’s almost a no-brainer.

I think you need to have transparency in the books, it’s not our money—this is not my county or my people, this is the people’s county and it’s their money to do what they want with. We are elected representatives, we represent the people. Whether it’s showing books, whether it’s open records—whatever the case may be—and I think that’s essential.

The second thing is I think we need to avoid any type of appearance of conflicts of interest.”

On Tomball Tollway:

Doyal:
“We went to Austin to lobby for a road in west Montgomery County—the 249 project—[the Texas Department of Transportation] made it very clear…that if that road is built, there will be a toll component, plain and simple. They’re not going to build it for free and to believe that is a fallacy. We asked for a free road, it was not an option.

So we said, ‘Okay if it’s going to be a toll, we would like to operate it.’ We have privacies given to us through the legislature and we have a resolution fro the City of Magnolia, the chamber, the emergency services district, the school district, law enforcement, first responders and said that if we have to have a toll road to get a road—we’re desperate for one. Imagine if the Hardy Toll Road wasn’t here and you had no other option to get to Houston but I-45. In fact, in Magnolia they don’t even have a freeway, they just have the 249 feeder roads, so those people are desperate for a way to get there. They’re willing to do it as a toll road. Would we prefer not to? Absolutely. But the fact is, that’s the only way it’s going to get built.

Now, revenue bonds are being sold based on the traffic and revenue study—there was one already done, it’s being updated and the draft shows that it is a very toll-viable road, there’s no question about the revenue being there to appease the debt. Now, what happens if it does fail? Then the bond debt just gets restructured, no one’s going to foreclose on a toll road, it doesn’t happen that way. But if you look at the study, we’ve got information from our financial advisors that this is more than adequate funding to serve the debt on that project. I wish there was a way that we could do it for free…but they flat said that it’s not going to be funded by TxDOT without a toll component. So that’s the only way we can get a road built for the citizens of Magnolia.”

Keough:
“When a county government goes to Austin and lobbies for a toll road, when voted on by the commissioners court in Montgomery County 3-2 and then Grimes County votes against it and goes and gets a free road with no toll—longer road that what we have—…something is not right here. We lobbied for a toll road across the board…the toll component of roads is beginning to cease. The governor, the lieutenant governor, the legislature, the senate, the Republican party of Texas recently had to fight to put this on the agenda for a vote for the people coming up in the primary. So we’re sitting here and our county government is lobbying for a toll road when we didn’t even try not to get the toll road…As a sitting state representative, where I have the authority to call and ask these questions, they told me they could switch that road over from us to them and it would only take six months—we were told if we didn’t build this road it would take 10 years. We were also told it would be possibly in the form of an FM road but we don’t really know that because we didn’t try. At the end of the day, I think if we try and do our very best and that’s what it has to be—looks like it’s going to be now, that’s a problem when other counties don’t have to pay.”

Doyal:
“We went to Austin to lobby for a road and the Highway Commission told us that the only way we could get that road would be if it was tolled—plain and simple. That was their answer to us. If Rep. Keough says he talked to someone in TxDOT, I’d like to know who that is. Because I would hope that you used all your power as a state representative to influence that person to build that road as a free road—but it didn’t happen, it’s not happening. The sad thing is, we’ve been negotiating this road for 4-5 years and in that time, not one time did I see Rep. Keough at a 249 Partnership meeting or a Highway Commission meeting, I’ve never got a phone call from you saying, ‘Hey, there are other options.’ What I have seen is you attack that road that is needed and supported by the west side of Montgomery County for political purpose. That’s very frustrating, pitting two sides of the county against each other—that’s not leadership.”

Keough:
“As late as October of last year, the governor stopped 15 toll projects and I’m sitting here like ‘why are we still doing 249 [as a toll road]?’ I’m not against 249, it’s the people in Magnolia who are going to take it in the chin as a result of this. The county government is requesting it, not the people.”

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Hannah Zedaker
Born and raised in Cypress, Texas, Hannah Zedaker graduated from Sam Houston State University in 2016 with a bachelor's degree in mass communication and a minor in political science. She began as an intern with Community Impact Newspaper in 2015 and was hired upon graduation as a full-time reporter for The Woodlands edition in May 2016. She covers business, transportation, health care and other local news, specializing in Shenandoah City Council and Montgomery County nonprofit organizations.
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