John Furlow, the challenger in the March 4 Republican Primary for Smith County judge, said he has the vision and experience to lead Smith County into the next decade and address lapses by the current administration.
Furlow, 58, a retired major general in the Texas Army National Guard and local accountant, visited with the Tyler Morning Telegraph editorial board recently to discuss his candidacy.
He will face incumbent County Judge Joel Baker, who is seeking his third term, for the Republican nomination. The winner of the Republican primary will become county judge because there is no Democrat running in the general election.
Furlow said his time in the Texas Army National Guard and as a certified public accountant/forensic accountant gives him the leadership experience and financial management background to lead Smith County into the future.
He said he has managed movements and operations of 20,000 state troops and a $750 million budget during his 31-year military career (he retired in 2009). His small accounting firm handles about 50 clients, he said.
His son will take over day-to-day operations of the accounting firm if he is elected, he said.
Being county judge is a “full-time job.” “It takes a yeoman’s work to be county judge,” he said. “There some true failures that I think need to be addressed.”
Furlow said poor infrastructure and poor long-term financial planning could limit Tyler/Smith County’s economic growth potential.
Roads, a core county function, have been neglected too long, he said.
He said the court under Baker’s leadership has not produced a comprehensive plan to address safety concerns, increasing traffic volumes and road degradation for years.
The county has no plan to address more than 1,200 miles of roads, of which 71 percent were rated “bad or poor” by the transportation department in 2008, he said, the last time roads were rated.
Furlow said there is not a revenue problem for addressing county roads.
“Instead they react to complaints, with less money dedicated to Road and Bridge and no plan going forward,” Furlow said.
Furlow said the county is about $30 million in debt and facing more mandates and fewer dollars from federal and state governments.
He said the lack of financial and long-term contingency planning makes the county vulnerable to expected federal and state funding drawdowns.
Implementation of a zero-based budget process would be a way Furlow said the true cost of running Smith County departments and elected offices could be determined. He said the budget process now starts at the number budgeted the previous year and elected officials and department heads should justify every dollar spent.
Furlow said he doesn’t believe his management style would cross department heads or elected officials. The county judge can, as the chief budget officer, influence elected officials via funding but has no control of day-to-day operations.
Elected officials can file complaints with the state if they feel budgets do not allow them to perform their constitutionally appointed duties.
“Most of the people I dealt with (during my military career) came from differing backgrounds and upbringings and had different agendas,” he said. “You’ve got to keep the objective in mind and find buy-in.
“Once that’s accomplished you facilitate that everyone is on the same page to achieve the mission.”
Furlow said he would not act as “dictator” or attempt to “micromanage” officials or department heads.
2007 PAY INCREASES
Furlow said part of his “lead by example” pledge includes reducing the county judge base salary to $72,000 from $82,400, which was approved by Baker and court members in 2007. He said it showed poor leadership for Baker to accept portions of his raise while making department and staff cuts in 2010.
Furlow compared the commissioner’s court consideration of creating a Transportation Reinvestment Zone, designed to capture revenue for county roads and Toll 49, to congressional passage of “Obamacare.”
He said court members were rushing to approve the zone before completely investigating the impact and cost of diverting funding away from the general fund.
He said the county tried to rush the process but pulled back because of public backlash.
Furlow said the court enters far too many executive sessions and without full disclosure of monetary impacts their decisions make on the budget.
He said agendas should list dollar amounts in regard to purchasing or contracts. Furlow said court members “speak in code” during meetings to avoid disclosure of financial details and insinuated that improper discussions occur.
The result is there is little public discussion or disagreement.
“Some of the action gives the impression there has been pre-discussion, so there is no debate,” he said. “In order to have debate you have to have dissent but meetings are more like synchronized swimming.”
Furlow said he has been open with the public regarding pending litigation with the state.
He is being sued by the Attorney General’s Office for almost $130,000 in “excess” compensation. The state has sought repayment since 2009. He filed a countersuit disputing the accusation and is seeking his day in court, he said.
He said the state has not released any evidence in the case and he would be vindicated. Furlow said the lawsuit is being used as a “political smear” to distract voters from failures during Baker’s tenure.