The political battle for Smith County judge ramped up Friday as candidates faced each other during the first of three expected debates.
Incumbent County Judge Joel Baker and retired Texas Army National Guard Maj. Gen. John Furlow answered questions and shared their respective platforms at a forum held by Grassroots America — We the People. More than 150 people attended.
Baker, 45, is seeking his third term as county judge. He said he was proud of his tenure and the progress the commissioners court has made since his election in 2006.
During that time, members brought civility to a court that had become hostile — to the detriment of the county’s business, Baker said. He said he fostered an environment of collaboration and respect for differing opinions that has allowed the court to get more done in seven years than in the previous decade.
Baker said he is proud to see the court improve transparency, reduce waste with new policies and procedures, and address the county’s facilities needs, including $10 million in “pay-go” improvements to county buildings, including courthouse renovation projects. Pay-go means projects were paid for in cash and required no debt.
“We improved county buildings that had been neglected for decades, and I am proud of that,” he said. “It’s your infrastructure. You paid for it.”
Furlow, 57, who also is a local certified public accountant, said Baker’s record is one of reactive leadership and marred by little-to-no long-term planning.
He said core functions, such as county roads, have continued to degrade because Baker has not made them a priority or planned for the long-term costs associated with maintenance of one of the largest county road inventories in the state.
Furlow said he would implement a long-term road plan for upgrading county roads, a fleet management program for county vehicles and begin every budget process with a $0-based budget requiring every department and elected official to justify each dollar spent.
“Things that should have been done haven’t been done,” Furlow said. “Moving into the future, we need true leadership, accountability and action.”
Furlow said the county has not adequately funded its Road and Bridge department since major funding cuts reduced its annual budget from $10 million to about $6 million in 2009. He said the last cost estimate for improving county road standards was $17 million, and there is no plan to address traffic volumes, safety upgrades or surface degradation.
Baker agreed more funding should go toward roads. He said the court has considered hiring an engineering firm to conduct a road study, but it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The court has unsuccessfully searched for a qualified road engineer to direct the department in recent years, he said.
He said it would take much more than $17 million to upgrade county roads, and the court is looking to develop a long-range plan. The court began the process with traffic counts beginning early last year, Baker said, and put more money into the road department during the 2014 budget process.
Furlow said throwing money at the problem doesn’t address the long-term needs and lack of planning.
“Road and Bridge is being neglected. We need professionals, engineers, to come in and create a plan,” he said. “Because of your lack of leadership, we’re no further along than we were in 2008.”
Furlow continued to rail on Baker for the lack of long-term business planning in the county. He said the county’s debt — more than $33 million, which includes the recent $35 million jail bond package under construction now (Furlow said it was a good jail plan) — combined with a lack of strategic planning is pushing the county toward California-style bankruptcy.
Baker countered by saying the county is fiscally strong and “nowhere near” being in that situation. He said the county has a healthy reserve, and the court averted problems by making tough financial decisions when the economy dipped.
Furlow said Baker should, as the county’s budget officer, prepare for more unfunded state mandates and fewer federal dollars. He said the court’s consideration of creating a Transportation Reinvestment Zone around the Toll 49 corridor would pass on debt to county taxpayers.
Baker disagreed. He said the zone is a funding option that would enable the completion of the toll road, which will reduce traffic on other routes and improve the quality of life in Smith County.
Furlow said court members tried to push creation of the transportation zone through without properly investigating the financial implications. He implied the court was prepared to approve the zone before understanding its effect on the county’s financial future much like lawmakers who approved “Obamacare.”
“It all goes back to no plan. No master plan and just picking up each option as you go along,” Furlow said. “There’s lots of sexy ideas, but we need to move toward a place where we are solvent.”
Baker said he works daily with other elected officials, business leaders and legislators to monitor how actions in Austin and Washington, D.C., may affect Smith County. He said it is a collaborative effort between court members that has created Smith County’s strong financial standing while maintaining the 21st lowest property tax rate in the 10th most populated county in Texas.
“What you said shows a lack of understanding for how county government works,” Baker said. “We do not have a comprehensive plan, but we have done more to address county needs in seven years than in decades. It’s on paper.”
Furlow said the county is not transparent, and commissioners court agendas should have dollar amounts on court agendas. He also said there should be fewer instances where commissioners enter closed session to discuss county business.
Baker said the county has received numerous awards for implementing transparency initiatives including an online check registry, where the public can view each transaction, and online video and audio access to commissioners court meetings.
Furlow reminded the audience about Baker and other court member’s approval of a plan to increase Smith County employees and elected officials’ salaries.
He said Baker should not have accepted the pay increase and pledged he would reduce his salary 45 percent, to the pre-approval level.
Baker said he regretted taking the salary increase without first facing re-election, but the salary plan was the correct decision and has improved the county’s ability to retain and hire highly skilled employees.
Furlow said the judge should reduce his salary. Baker said his initial decision was wrong, but he faced re-election and would not reduce his pay.