County, state leaders set priorities
Legislature at start of new session
Round Rock Leader
Friday, January 11, 2013
As the saying goes: Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.
Williamson County government officials met with state legislators during a two-hour forum Thursday, discussing how to provide programs and services to taxpayers without necessarily spending more money.
County commissioners and other elected county officials shared priorities, concerns and other ideas with District 5 state Sen. Charles Schwertner, plus the three state representatives governing Williamson County.
The Texas State Legislature’s 2013 session started Tuesday and is scheduled to last 140 days.
District 52 state Rep. Larry Gonzales of Round Rock – back for his second session in office, after serving nine as a legislative aide – said state government’s projected $8.8 billion surplus is better than the shortfall, from two years ago, but is no cure-all.
He said the state owes millions of dollars in funding, for public education and Medicaid, that lawmakers didn’t pay for in 2011.
Former Cedar Park City Councilman Tony Dale – elected last November to the newly created District 136 seat – agreed.
“At the end of the day there’s not as much of a surplus as you might have read in the papers,” Dale said. “You have to make priority decisions.”
County officials presented the state leaders with a long list of priorities, covering diverse topics such as water planning, property appraisal caps and mental health. All were deemed important, but commissioners delivered their most strident remarks when the topic turned to roads.
In recent years county commissioners – often using taxpayer-approved bonds – have funded literally hundreds of millions of dollars in road construction projects.
“We’re stepping up and doing [RM] 620,” said Pct. 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman, who chaired the meeting in County Judge Dan Gattis’ absence. “We did [FM] 1460. We did [U.S. Highway] 79.
“In a county that is continuing to grow, we are going to have to continue [building] roads. But as far as long-term, you are going to have to come up with a way for [building] state highways and keeping them maintained.”
Pct. 3 Commissioner Valerie Covey of Georgetown emphasized the cost of road projects, which come with a high price tag.
“It takes $30 million to do a direct connect – from a flyover – from a southbound [route] to a westbound [route],” she said.
Gonzales said Williamson County has done its share – and then some – encouraging more cooperation between various levels of local, state and federal government. He also called for more public/private partnerships, as has been done with some toll roads.
“The county has put $500 million into redoing state highways,” Gonzales said. “They have stepped up and done it. Because guess what? The people are coming. We [the state] haven’t paid for it. This has been systematic, for session after session.”
On a related note, county leaders – just as they did during a similar forum two years ago – called on legislators to amend the Texas Water Code, for the purpose of shifting road-maintenance costs in municipal utility districts.
Currently, county governments repair those roads. Williamson County commissioners want it to be a requirement that new MUDS have to take over their own road and street maintenance after 10 years – or have a plan for annexation into a city.
“Counties can’t afford to pay for the level of road maintenance people want,” Birkman said.
County leaders stressed what they are proposing would not apply to existing municipal utility districts – such as Brushy Creek or Fern Bluff – only new ones created after the rules are changed.
Mental health matters discussed
Forum participants also discussed funding for mental health initiatives.
Officials said the county’s 16-bed respite center – a short-term facility for those who are not a danger to themselves or others – has, the past several years, been a positive addition.
“As our county has grown, our mental health needs have grown,” Covey said. “We’re trying to head them off before they end up in our jail, or the emergency room of a hospital, where it’s going to cost us more in the end.”
County leaders also called on legislators to not reduce funding for Austin State Hospital and similar facilities statewide.
But how to pay for all this? After all, Williamson is just one of the state’s 254 counties. All of them have needs, wants and wishes. That’s where the Legislature’s prioritizing will come in.
“There’s never enough money for all these issues,” Covey said. “You can increase the pie some, but that’s not necessarily what we’re about. We’re not just going to ask for more money. We want it targeted to what works.”