by Anita Miller
Preserving natural resources in the face of continued growth, managing budgetary shortfalls during the COVID-19 pandemic, access by local law enforcement to surplus military vehicles and supplies and the future of criminal justice were all topics addressed by candidates in the race to represent Hays County Precinct 3 on the Commissioners Court.
Incumbent Lon Shell, Republican, and Democratic challenger Lisa Prewitt participated in the League of Women Voters forum Sept. 29. Moderator was Teresa Carbajal Ravet.
In opening statements, both touted their experience. Shell said he was shaped by growing up and attending public school in San Marcos. He holds a degree in mechanical engineering from Texas A&M University and returned to Hays County 14 years ago to raise a family.
“I take myself seriously. I’m a hard worker, I’m pragmatic and I love this place dearly,” he said.
Prewitt, who described herself as a mother, a small business owner and environmentalist who served six years on the San Marcos City Council, said, “We need to continue to think globally and act locally.”
She said she is seeking to represent Precinct 3 out of a desire to “expand voter access and modernize our family criminal justice system” in Hays County. “One of our big decisions is protection of our watershed. We want our drinking water to remain clear, our rivers and creeks continue to flow and to make sure our stormwater from rain events is managed effectively and properly … I believe in government transparency and that government should serve all people and not a few.”
When questioned about how they would address the competing interests of preserving aquifers and parkland against the pressure of development, Shell noted that Hays County continues to be one of the fastest growing in the nation. “That puts a huge demand on our natural resources especially in the western part of the county which I represent.”
Groundwater is a concern both in “quantity and quality,” and he pointed to the partnerships the county has formed with groundwater conservation districts as well as the scientists at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment “to develop sound science to protect out natural resources” at the same time that Texas counties have “low levels of authority.”
“Our groundwater and land use go hand in hand,” Prewitt responded. “We have the potential to become an innovative leader in protecting groundwater and making sure conservations districts have the tools they need to ensure” drinking water is safe. She also addressed the problem of nonpoint source pollution. “Protecting nonpoint source pollution at its sources protects both public and private wells.” In the future, she said the county needs to “adopt innovative development practices using ‘one water’ principles for a green infrastructure and sustainable future.”
Regarding the continuing impact of COVID-19 on the county budget and how those deficits should be addressed, Prewitt said that first, budgets should be “slim” and that “every taxpayer dollar” is going to the right place. “We need better oversight. COVID-19 has caused death. It has caused unemployment. It has caused us to reimagine our entire educational system. When we start to recover, we should have a task force looking at small businesses and how they are going to proceed.”
She took issue with “corporate welfare” and the impact it has had on local governments. “We continuously give taxes away and put that burden on families and small businesses carry the tax needs for all the amenities our county provides.”
Shell countered that good practices in the past have Hays County in an enviable position. “Our county is strong financially. We’ve maintained our AAA rating and have over $50 million in reserves and the lowest tax rate in 50 years.
Moreover, he said sales tax revenues, which make up about 20 percent of the county’s revenue, have remained strong. “At this point in time we’re not negatively affected, but we have to look toward next year, toward what type of development and construction is coming, especially along the corridor — our high growth area. We don’t want to put that on citizens as appraisals continue to go up. That’s important to watch as the economy recovers from COVID-19.”
When questioned as to the role of military surplus being made available at local law enforcement at little or no cost to taxpayers through the 1033 program, both pointed to limited use of the program with a focus on public safety and disaster response.
Shell said the program should be used “mainly for public safety, working toward being safer in times of disaster.” He pointed to acquisitions like first aid kits and supplies and equipment used in times of flooding, such as vehicles that can negotiate high water. “I think that’s what it’s best suited for.”
“Military vehicles do have their purpose for disaster recovery and response,” Prewitt said, adding, “One of the biggest things we need to remember is we need to be planning so we don’t put our community in situations where we have to bring out our disaster response vehicles.”
She noted the county’s decision to build a co-location communications center and public safety building in a floodplain. “Emergency vehicles won’t even be able to get in and out,” she said. “We need to properly plan communities safely so military vehicles won’t have to come in when we have our next flood event.”
When pressed for solutions to the problem of a jail population growing faster than that of the county at large and the fact taxpayers have been spending more than $4 million each year to outsource inmates to other jurisdictions, Prewitt said “the scales of justice are definitely off.” She suggested allocating more taxpayer money to areas like affordable housing, workforce development, fundamental health services and putting people in drug programs instead of jail.
She noted that the county’s criminal justice committee did not even meet for seven months, in part because of the coronavirus, “at a time when one in four inmates were affected by COVID-19. We spend more to prosecute the poor than to defend them,” she said.
Shell noted that on the day the forum occurred, a total of 437 inmates were outsourced, noting, “that’s one of the lower levels in the past few years.” He pointed to factors outside the county’s control like its location on the International Interstate 35 corridor and the percentage of people arrested locally who are from out of county.
“Much more work remains to be done in criminal justice reform,” he said, adding that the county’s prior efforts at indigent defense “can be built upon.”
An additional question about the possibility of a public defender’s office, possible funding and a timeline, Shell said he would continue “working toward finding the best solution for a public defender’s office in combination with other services.”
He said he had been observing how Travis County has responded to the issue. A public defender’s office “won’t solve all the problems. We have to, at the same time, look at exiting programs.”
Prewitt supports a public defender’s office. “It’s actually right for the county,” she said, pointing out that commissioners passed on a grant to help fund one, saying they would do it “next year” before the coronavirus hit and the criminal justice committee did not meet.
“We need a centralized system. A public defender’s office,” she said, “could pull resources in.”
In closing, Shell said the Hays County community is dear to him. “I want my daughter to experience the Hays County that I grew up in and I’m willing to talk to anyone and everyone and listen and come up with ideas.”
He said he seeks what is “best for all of us.”
Being commissioner, he said, “is not an easy job and sometimes not very glamorous. I just like to get to work. I’m excited to get to work for this county and everybody who lives here, regardless of party affiliation and where they come from.”
“I’m a forward thinker,” Prewitt said. “I believe in teamwork. I listen and make decisions based on science and facts. We need to elect people that get the work done. We are not measuring up to our commitment to be a peaceful and just society.”
She noted that women are still underrepresented at all levels of government and that no woman has ever been elected or appointed to serve as commissioner of Precinct 3. “Hays County is evolving and leadership needs to evolve too. We must move into the futuree with the best plan for all of Hays County.