Smith County Judge Joel Baker said the county has experienced much success during his tenure but work remains to maintain momentum for the future. He believes his proven experience and personality are assets to the position which make him a better choice than his challenger.
Baker, 47, a local attorney, discussed his seven-year tenure, the successes and challenges the county has faced with him at the helm and future challenges facing Smith County during an editorial board meeting with the Tyler Morning Telegraph.
Smith County government has improved in several ways since he took office in January 2007, he said.
Baker said it has taken a concerted effort to change the culture of county government, but it is operating better today than in the past.
Baker said there is collective respect for differing opinions and civility among court members and the environment fostered progress on many important county government responsibilities amid a hierarchal structure that lends itself to dysfunction.
“I feel like I work well in this environment,” he said. “My personality lends itself to the structure, and I think we’ve done more in seven years than in previous decades.”
The county passed a jail bond that will end shipment of inmates to other counties, which has cost the county $18 million since 2004, and addressed facility needs and building maintenance that had been neglected for decades.
The county invested more than $10 million in “pay-go” projects to improved existing facilities and renovate nearby buildings, he said. Department heads with private business backgrounds were hired and have changed the way county business and customer service is conducted, he said.
The commissioners court made small changes that have made a big difference, he said. From changing the county’s culvert installation policy, which has saved more than $100,000 annually to the establishment of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, which has opened the lines of communication between justice system stakeholders, including the sheriff’s office, district clerk and court justices, to expedite processes and reduce inmate numbers, Baker said the court is looking for new ways to address costs and operate better.
But Baker said the county could do more.
Baker agrees with his challenger, John Furlow, that the county needs a comprehensive long-term plan to improve and maintain its county road system. The county is interviewing potential road engineer candidates to fill the position. He said hiring an engineer and possibly consultants to prepare a long-term plan would be part of a solution but paying for implementation will be the real challenge.
“The bottom line will always be the challenge,” he said. “I love Smith County, and the success of this community is important to me, and I enjoy being a part of facing those challenges and accomplishing things on its behalf.”
Furlow, during his own editorial board meeting, said there is trouble brewing between the Sheriff’s office and Baker regarding jail occupancies once the jail expansion is completed, and how many federal inmates would be accepted. An oft-stated benefit of the jail expansion was that beds could be rented out to other counties and for federal prisoners. Counties receive about $75 per day per federal prisoner compared to the typical $40 per county inmate.
Baker and Sheriff Larry Smith said they worked out differing views on how many jailers would be needed when the jail opens, but there has been no discussion or disagreement regarding taking or not taking federal inmates.
“We haven’t even started the negotiation process on that, so where he heard that I have no idea,” Smith said.
Baker wants consultants to develop a five-year road plan, which would be implemented by the Road and Bridge Department’s engineer (a position yet to be filled). He said court members must consider all options, including the Transportation Reinvestment Zone, regarding funding because the state continues to pass core responsibilities to local entities, including road projects.
He said he also would be open to bidding out all major road projects to local contractors to save money. Baker said he also would be open to dedicating a larger portion of the property tax rate to roads.
Baker said the county is in discussion regarding several options to address animal control with the city of Tyler or area nonprofits. He said it is a community concern that has been historically low on the county’s priority list.
But Baker said there is opportunity for the county to enter a partnership that would provide an important service and relieve the Sheriff’s Office of the responsibility of policing people and animals.
Baker views the reinvestment zone as an opportunity to dedicate money to county roads and a needed regional transportation project — Toll 49. The details, whether percentage of the tax revenues diverted or what percentage should go to the county general fund versus those put toward county roads, will likely determine the zone’s fate among court members.
“It holds some promise for the county,” he said. “People say (road projects) are the state’s responsibility, and I agree 100 percent, but we’re working with the funding reality that if we don’t use innovative financing tools, these projects won’t get done for decades and decades.”
Baker said he is proud of the facilities improvement investment by the county but said there are still needed projects. The county has begun preliminary work to improve a 10,000-square-foot building, the former Crescent Laundry. He hopes to move the county’s record storage department from the Cotton Belt basement.
He also wants to reconfigure some courtrooms within the courthouse once the fifth and sixth floors are ready for renovation. Baker said the county continues to work on long-term plans to build a multi-model facility, which could include a parking garage.