Victoria County Judge Ben Zeller has big plans for the county in the new year.
During Victoria County commissioners’ Monday meeting, Zeller presented an array of suggestions and proposals for the court to consider, an effort he called “Innovation 2020 & Beyond.”
“As we go into 2020, that’s not only going to be a new year but a new decade, and really, most importantly, a new era, I think of county government as we deal with challenges and opportunities,” he said.
Victoria County shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that the way things have always been done is still the best way to do things, Zeller said. So, the purpose of “Innovation 2020” is to streamline county government, improve county procedures and ensure the county is following best practices. The effort will have multiple phases, the first of which Zeller presented Monday.
Some of the initial proposals includes creating a court liaison program; conducting an analysis of the county’s procurement policy and purchasing practices, increasing cybersecurity protections; updating commissioners court rules and procedures; reviewing the reserve fund and debt issuance policy; and enhancing services and safety without increasing taxes.
The court liaison program was discussed in part during the county’s budget process this summer. Zeller said the idea, which is to “enhance communication and reinforce understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by county offices and departments” by assigning each county office or department a member of commissioners court to serve as their liaison, has been successful in other counties. He said the program would be advantageous for both the court and all county departments.
During the budget hearings this summer when each department presented to the court, Zeller said, some department heads said the court doesn’t necessarily have a complete understanding of the challenges that department is facing. Having a member of the court acting as a liaison would help address that problem, he said.
Also, having court liaisons would work to fix the notion that there is a “gatekeeper” people would have to go through to access commissioners court, Zeller said, as offices would have a clear, more direct line of access to the court. However, it wouldn’t mean any member of a county department can’t reach out to any member of the court or come to commissioners court to address issues directly, nor would it mean that the court liaisons in any way “act over” the departments.
One of the other initiatives kicked off in November, when commissioners approved a new committee that will examine all aspects of the county’s spending and procurement practices and write a policy that will act as a guide for county officials to follow.
Further, Zeller explained one of the initiatives will be to study the feasibility of a county assistance district and a public defender’s office. In short, he said, the county could implement a county assistance district that would allow the county to raise the sales tax that the county collects outside of city limits.
Currently outside of the city limits, half a cent is collected in county sales tax, but that could be increased all the way to two cents, which is the same amount collected within the city limits, he said.
The change would need to be approved by voters but in essence would enable a new non-property tax revenue source to help fund certain county operations, Zeller said, such as public safety and economic development operations.
Additionally, earlier this year the county considered forming a public defender’s office, but Zeller said previously the county did not seek the funding available for the office “largely due to our stakeholders not being on the same page and us still having some unanswered questions.”
At that time, with a public defender’s office, the state would have paid for 80% of the costs in the program’s first year, 60% in the second year and 50% for all subsequent years. But that’s now been increased to the state paying two-thirds of the costs annually as opposed to 50%.
“Given that fact alone, I think it merits additional review,” Zeller said.
The plan is to research the feasibility of both the public defender’s office and the county assistance district, Zeller said, before the matters return to the court for further discussion. He said he plans to discuss the next phases of “Innovation 2020 & Beyond” in the future.
Also on Monday, commissioners revisited a discussion about the county’s courtroom renovation project. To address a lack of courtroom space and increasing courthouse activity, county officials agreed on a plan to expand available courtroom space and reconfigure part of the 1967 courthouse last year, when they decided to use the room where commissioners court currently meets as an additional courtroom for a county court-at-law judge. Commissioners would meet in the renovated space of County Treasurer Sean Kennedy’s office.
The matter has returned to the court multiple times, including after it became clear that the work could cost $124,000 more than originally anticipated. After that discussion last month, commissioners voted to begin the work in-house, and County Commission Gary Burns went on to work with a crew to begin demolition of the walls and clearing the space.
The biggest area of concern for commissioners is a vertical beam that is in the space but would block part of the audience’s view in the renovated courtroom. The county received only one bid for the overall renovation project, which came from Weaver & Jacobs Constructors in Cuero for $442,000.
However, Burns suggested Monday that commissioners reject the bid from Weaver & Jacobs, saying he believed the county could save money moving in a different direction. He said John Clegg of Clegg Industries had verbally proposed removing the beam for $48,000, and then the county could do some of the rest of the work in-house or could rebid it out. Burns said this option could save the county a significant amount of money.
Commissioner Clint Ives said, however, the decision needed to be made in the interest of expediency as well. Choosing to reject the current bid and begin from there could add a few months to the timeline, though even with Weaver & Jacobs’ bid, it is unclear when work would start, said Kelly Hubert, the county’s facilities manager.
The situation becomes complicated quickly, Hubert explained, because the county is unable to formally discuss the project with Clegg or any other contractor until it rejects the current bid on the table.
Ives said the choice to accept Weaver & Jacobs’ proposal would be more efficient because Clegg’s proposal hadn’t been formally approved by an engineer. Though going with Burns’ suggestion could save some money, Ives said, there’s no way to guarantee that fact until rejecting the bid from Weaver & Jacobs, which has been approved by an engineer.
An engineer had reviewed Clegg’s proposal however, Burns said – though not in the formal sense as Weaver & Jacobs’ had been – and Hubert added he had “confidence it would likely work.”
After a lengthy discussion, commissioners voted to approve the Weaver & Jacobs contract in its entirety and move forward with the project in that direction. Burns voted against the plan.