What do you consider the number one issue affecting our county and what will you do to address it – be specific?
Dennis DeWitt, who answered the question, said finances is the biggest issue facing Bee County: “If we don’t have the money to pay for things, we are in a world of hurt.”
He said the county has to pay for utilities, salaries for workers, equipment and supplies, fuel, to name but a few expenses.
How do you pay for all this? he asked.
“Well, I don’t think you can scrub the budget more than they already have. I have to admit the court has already done all it can to scrub the budget. They’ve looked at everything. (Any more cuts) and it will begin to affect government service, which is never good.”
His proposal to generate more revenue is to find alternative revenue sources, such as operating the weigh stations on the bypasses with sheriff’s deputies. Other counties which have done so have raised between $50,000 and $90,000 a month, he said.
Another revenue source is state and federal grants, as well as collecting unpaid fines owed to the city, he added. DeWitt said he understands that some $500,000 and $1 million in unpaid fines are owed to the county.
“There are alternative methods of funding out there and we need to find them,” he said. “We need to get these new ideas, these new innovations in place. And we can do it.”
Not many years ago the county’s reserve fund was $2.5 million. Now, it is below $1 million. How do you think we got to this point and what is your plan to ensure the county remains financially sound without further tax increases or taking money, whether it’s interest or principal, from the health care funds?
Susan Stasny, who answered the question, said past commissioners courts adopted tax rates below the effective tax rates for several years, which led to less tax revenue.
“In the 1997-98-99 budget years, the commissioners court reduced taxes by two cents below the effective tax rate, and that was done at the recommendation of the county auditor at the time, and it seemed like a good decision and I voted for it. But those taxes (revenue) were lost forever and I think the outcome of it was not a good decision. I talked to a lot of businessmen in the community at the time, and only one of them — Tom Marshall — told me, ‘Susan, don’t do that. It’s not good business.’ They all wanted lower taxes and it sounded like a good thing and it’s hard to vote against not increasing taxes and I did it, but I am not sure it was the right thing to do.”
Over the next eight years, county commissioners voted to use money in the reserve fund to balance the budget to keep from raising taxes and to cut spending, she said.
The ongoing dispute between the county and BISD over tax collection costs made it clear that we need elected officials that think pragmatically and are willing to put the citizens of this community first rather than get involved in tit-for-tat politics. How would you have handled and resolved the dispute?
Kenneth Chesshir answered that opposing viewpoints are common in politics but he has brought opposing sides to a consensus on issues over the course of his 14 years on the City Council.
“People get on one side of the fence and say, ‘We are all right and you are all wrong.’ It’s always been a good political thing (for a public official) to say, ‘We’re gonna agree on what we can agree on.’ That’s a good campaign promise, but most people don’t do it. And I feel I have done it. I have worked on issues in which lines were definitely drawn and I have found common ground on almost every one of them, and I think I could on this (issue) as well.”
What should Commissioners Court do to bring more jobs to Bee County? The federal stimulus bill saved a few jobs at the sheriff’s department, but what can Commissioners Court do to stimulate job growth in this community?
Stasny’s answer: “There are very few things a commissioners court can do to promote economic development.”
Some of the things that can be done include the creation of the Main Street program, which she helped start. “So as a county commissioner I was able to coordinate with the city and help make that program happen.”
While talking to business owners on the 27 blocks that now make up the Main Street program area, Stasny said the biggest cause of concern to business development downtown was flooding. “They told me, ‘We need to have the drainage fixed downtown. We’re not fixing up my building or expanding my businesses until that is done.’ She said she promised to help in that regard. And with help from the Main Street director Molly Young, and a 14-inch flood in 2006, the Texas Department of Transportation agreed to improve the drainage along the main thoroughfares in the city. That work was completed last fall, Stasny noted.
Are you willing to consider a freeze in your salary for the next four years and would you work to convince your fellow commissioners to accept that freeze?
Dennis DeWitt said the commissioners should not only freeze their pay but consider giving some of their salary back. “I think a freeze is an oxymoron. There’s no money for raises anyway. Instead of a freeze, we need to be talking about a reduction (in commissioners’ salaries). If you ask a commissioner, ‘How much do you make, they will probably tell you around $38,000 a year. Well, that’s not quite true.’
He said when you figure in the fringe benefits — the gas allowance, the health insurance, the retirement — a commissioner earns closer to $50,000.
On the other hand, some county employees earn as little as $14,000 per year, he noted, hardly a “livable salary.”
We often hear that we need to reduce spending, but still maintain or improve the county’s infrastructure. Do you think it is possible to meet these two competing objectives?
Kenneth Chesshir answered this question by saying he has experienced the same issue while serving on the City Council.
“Well, I know that in our budget for the city, we bring it in and we have a workable budget, but then people start coming in and wanting this and wanting that. You have to try to weigh it out. But it seems like a lot of times when you think you’ve cut everything, you can cut again. You just have to go over (the budget) and over it and over it again. We have had budgets (for the city) that we thought we had cut to the quick, and we went through it again and cut a little more.”
It’s a tough decision, he concedes. “Do you want to cut the budget or do you want to raise taxes. It’s just like everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.”