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County Judge Jerry Hogan: 2011 year-end report

By Rockwall County Judge Jerry Hogan. He can be reached at jerryhogan@sbcglobal.net or 214-394-4033.

Rockwall County at year end 2011:

I think I can say without much opposition that people are generally fed up with how our government operates and how our politicians are mired in self-serving ways of inattention to the needs of our country. Witness the continuing trend of “appointing a special committee” to solve the major problems facing our country that continue to be debated and then locked into “no decision” results. What a waste of time, talent, money, and failure to fulfill the desires and needs of the voters.

That’s at the National Level of our country. Let me talk about a part of our government that doesn’t operate like that and does have positive results; our Rockwall County government.

First, Citizen Involvement. This last year, over 120 volunteers joined together to develop the first stages of a 5 year Strategic Plan for the County. The guidance given to them was simple: “Develop a Strategic Plan that lays out specific objectives of what you, the citizen, want our County to look like in 5 years.” Pretty simple instructions, you might say, but just the simple logistics of getting that many people focused on a cohesive plan was challenging. And it was accomplished; organized, directed, published, and briefed to the Commissioners Court by volunteers, where it was then accepted as the start of the Rockwall County Strategic Plan going forward.

Because of the Census every ten years, the County must go through redistricting of our political boundaries just like the State does. Again a 15 person volunteer Citizens Redistricting committee was formed to assist and advise the Commissioners Court on new Precinct divisions in the County. The realignment was reached with little disagreement and the recommended divisions of the County were forwarded to the Department of Justice for approval.

We dedicated our Rockwall County Veterans Memorial on 11-11-11. Over a thousand citizens attended this one hour event that included airplanes, firing squads, bands, choir, speeches, presentations, honoring of veterans, and the memorial itself. All of this was organized and conducted by a volunteer citizens committee from our County.

Second, Visibility Into Government. The policy-making organization within the County and the group directly responsible for the finances of the County is the Commissioners Court. This Court meets every week on Tuesdays at the Historic Courthouse at 9:00am. But that’s the time when many of our citizens are working and don’t have the opportunity to actually observe and hear what is being discussed and what decisions are being made.

Several things have been done to improve on this. Now all of the Commissioner Court meetings are audio streamed so any citizen, simply by going to the County website (www.rockwallcountytexas.com), can key on the icon and be immediately connected to the audio from the meeting. Also, the Court now has night Court meetings at least once each quarter so again the citizens have the opportunity to actually sit in the meetings and observe all of the activities. The County Judge also holds Town Hall meetings at least once each quarter so citizens have the opportunity to address any issue of their choosing directly with a member of the Commissioners Court.

At least once each month an article addressing County activities is written by the County Judge and published in the local newspapers. These articles are not “sales pitches;” they detail what is happening in County government: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!

Third, and very important, is Finances. No one wants taxes raised…and no one wants their entitlements reduced or taken away. And that’s the major problem facing all governments today. The County is no different, but intense focus has resulted in good results.

The County budget this year (Fiscal Year 2012) is a balanced budget with no tax increases. It was not easy to accomplish. For the first time, the County had a RIF (involuntary reduction in workforce); leases on buildings were terminated; several buildings owned by the County were vacated and put up for sale; capital expenditures for vehicles, office equipment, etc, were significantly reduced; a small COLA of 1.5% was allowed for non-elected officials, but no other raises for employees; most departments took a 5% reduction in their operating expenses; and several additions needed within the County structure were not added. That was on the Operating side of the budget.

On the Capital side, we pulled about $5 million from our Reserve fund to complete our obligation for the new courthouse. This payment was authorized back in December of 2009 and completes the $7.2 million that was added to the $30 million tax note action to fully fund the completion of the new courthouse. The courthouse was completed on time and in the budget approved in 2009 of $37.2 million. Our unaudited Reserve fund now has a balance of about $14.5 million. Our stated financial policy on this fund, and the one communicated to all Bond agencies, is to have 4-6 months of operating cash in the Reserve fund. We currently have significantly more in the fund than required by our rating agency policy.

As you have probably observed, we are also moving forward on building the roads our citizens approved in the 2004 and the 2008 bond elections. The John King overpass and FM 740 North in Heath are both in the middle of construction. Approval has been obtained from the State, and they are obligating the money to go along with County money, for the construction of the Irby-Campbell overpass in Royse City, the FM 551 overpass in Fate, the FM 3549 overpass between Fate and Rockwall, and the FM 740 South road completion in Heath. These road construction projects, while annoying when you have to wait for traffic while they are working on the roads, are the key to the continued expansion of our County and they have the highest priority of the Commissioners Court.

Finally, Attitude of the Court. As mandated by the Texas Constitution, each county in Texas has a Commissioner Court made up of four Commissioners and one County Judge. This group is the policy-making organization for each county and the developer of the annual budget. The group is very limited by State statute in terms of what they can do. (My personal frustration with the county system of government as dictated by the State is that it is inefficient, no one is in charge measured, and held accountable, and everyone is always telling you what you can’t do rather than how to make something work.)

Some Courts are effective; others are dysfunctional and accomplish little other than making the newspapers in a non-flattering way. Our Court in Rockwall County has several advantages over many: all the members are conservative, all are from the same political party, and all have the best interests of the County. That is not to say the Court is always in agreement; in fact quite often members of the Court are at opposite ends of an issue when it is first raised. Civil debate and discussion, however, focuses the issue and acceptable solutions are most often reached. It takes three votes on the court for an issue to be passed; it takes five votes for something to really be implemented well.

Do the citizens always agree with the decisions of the Court? Absolutely not. Do a majority agree? In most cases, Yes. Has the Court made errors? Yes. Has the Court made major errors this last year? No! This Court is an effective Court; it is working to become an excellent Court.

Your help is needed as we go forward. Our County government is not mired in the mess of endless political battles that reach no conclusion, does nothing for our citizens, or continues to drive us deeper and deeper into debt without addressing and fixing the problems facing its citizens. Tell us what you want; get involved; become a volunteer; let us know your expertise and where you would like to volunteer; talk to your elected officials and grade them on how well they meet the citizen’s needs; and finally, don’t give up on us or America. Concerned and involved citizens can help lead the way going forward.

 

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