County judge candidates debate taxes, spending (w/video)
Victoria County judge candidate Ben Zeller is making the property tax rate his foremost priority.
During two events Tuesday, a debate and a candidate forum, Zeller and incumbent Judge Don Pozzi laid out their plans for how they want to lead the county during the next four years.
Zeller, 29, said the difference between him and Pozzi, 70, is "someone actively fighting to lower taxes and someone giving justifications as to why taxes keep going up."
Pozzi's tenure leading the commissioners court has given him an opportunity to leave his mark on the county and inside knowledge of the detailed workings of each department and budget.
Throughout each question during the two events, one sponsored by the Victoria Advocate and a second by the Victoria County Republican Woman's Club, Zeller turned his answers to spending and the tax rate.
Under Pozzi's 11-year leadership, the tax rate has remained 39.86 cents per $100 valuation. However, values have increased, leaving property owners with larger tax bills each year, Zeller said.
Pozzi, who is running for the first time on the Republican Party ticket, defended the budgets, saying, "My opponent's favorite word is conservative."
He said the county has been praised by Fitch, a national financial rating agency, for having "conservative fiscal management."
The county has a AA rating, according to Fitch.
Zeller's points were hung on the thought that the county's budget had increased 70 percent under Pozzi's leadership.
When Pozzi was elected, the general fund - which covers the sheriff's office, commissioners court, justice of the peace, administrative service, fire marshal, district court and other offices - was $23 million and is now $36 million, an increase of about 57 percent.
Of the $13 million increase during Pozzi's watch, $10.5 million went to the sheriff's office and law enforcement.
"I would challenge anyone to say those were not necessary," Pozzi said.
Zeller offered a message of conservative spending and lowering the tax rate. His only specific suggestion was to cut spending by reducing the $300,000 administrative services department, mentioned during the Advocate's debate Tuesday morning.
He called it "a clear example of a budget-line item that would be in need of a reduction."
Both candidates said they would oppose selling Citizens Medical Center and that they want to see improvements at Victoria Regional Airport.
In Zeller's final statement, he said he would make it a priority to adopt a tax rate that would not increase taxes over the previous year.
"I don't pretend to know all the answers to all the questions related to the intricacies of all the departments; my style is one of collaboration and teamwork," Zeller said.
As an outsider, he said he would do the job by looking through "an objective lens" to make decisions based on priorities of taxpayers.
Pozzi thanked his supporters for being with him during his three terms and said this would be his last run for office.
"Although I appreciate all the support I have gotten over the many, many years, I am beholden to no one," Pozzi said. "I do a job with the great help and assistance of the commissioners court. We have done very well over the last 12 years, and I ask you to allow us to continue the progress we have made."