Ben Zeller

Ben Zeller

Victoria County has had a year marked with success, County Judge Ben Zeller said during his state of the county address Wednesday.

Zeller presented his address to community and business leaders at the monthly Victoria Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday at the University of Houston-Victoria.

“The role of your county government has never been more important,” he said. “We’ve also never faced greater challenges in providing you the services that you deserve; but, our success is measured in how effectively we overcome those challenges.”

Though the county has not approved next year’s budget, Zeller gave a brief update on the county’s financial position. He said the size of the county’s budget is about $57 million, and about $39 million is the general fund.

The county added about $1.4 million to its reserve fund at the end of last year, Zeller said, bringing the county’s total reserve fund to about $18.6 million. He said it is a priority of his court to be conservative and responsible in regards to the budget.

Zeller highlighted how in 2018, the county brought in $12.5 million in grants. “We’ve been very successful there and are proud of our grant efforts and success in bringing those dollars home,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges the county will face as 2020 approaches, Zeller said, will be receiving millions of dollars worth of budget requests from the county’s offices and departments, without having a corresponding increase in revenue to grant each of those requests.

The challenge is not unique to Victoria County, Zeller said, adding that the budget process will be “as much an exercise of prioritization as well as it will be allocating resources.”

Another challenge facing the county is the ability to remain a competitive place of employment in light of low unemployment, Zeller said, a challenge also not unique to Victoria County. To overcome the challenge, Zeller said it is a priority of his is to provide a cost of living raise to county employees. Last year, employees received a stipend, but employees haven’t received cost of living raises in recent years.

Among successes in the county, Zeller discussed a shift regarding health care at the Victoria County Jail.

In May, Victoria County commissioners approved ending the jail’s contract with the University of Texas Medical Branch, a decision that came after UTMB began shifting away from working in county jails.

The change led the county to bring care in-house with Victoria psychiatrist Dr. Kourtne Roberts, who will begin working with inmates in mid-August to provide psychiatric care on a weekly basis. Because mental health is a big focus of the community, Zeller said, this is “a big step forward.”

Another recent accomplishment of the county was finalized just this week, when commissioners approved the closing documents regarding the purchase of the building at 311 E. Constitution St. The county plans to convert the building into a disaster recovery and response center to be used primarily by the Victoria County Long-Term Recovery Group, which has helped thousands of families rebuild their homes after Hurricane Harvey.

The building currently houses the Victoria Advocate, which plans to move into new offices in downtown Victoria.

Zeller also addressed the Advocate’s recent coverage of concerns by airport commissioners in June regarding how and why insurance money was spent after Hurricane Harvey.

“One of the truisms that I’ve seen time and time again in my five years in office is that there’s two sides to every story, and anything sounds true until you hear the other side and know what both perspectives are,” he said.

County commissioners and airport commissioners have scheduled a joint meeting Monday, which should alleviate any concerns and be a productive and informative meeting, Zeller said.

“Overall the county is doing well, and we’re continuing to look for ways to best serve our community,” Zeller said after his presentation Wednesday. “I’m overwhelmingly honored to serve in this role and am glad we are seeing so many good things happen.”

Morgan Theophil covers local government for the Victoria Advocate. She can be reached at 361-580-6511, mtheophil@vicad.com or on Twitter

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