By GRACE GADDY
PALESTINE — Primary election candidates for County Judge, County Treasurer and District 8 State Representative expressed where they stood on current issues Monday during an open forum hosted by the Anderson County Republicans Club.
Members from the audience penned questions on index cards for the candidates, which were collected and posed by moderator Judge Jeff Doran. Each candidate was given given three minutes to answer, with one minute reserved for response by the opposing candidate.
Candidates represented at the forum are as follows:
• County Judge – Robert Johnston and James Westley
• County Treasurer – Rafael Hernandez and Tara Holliday
• State Representative – Byron Cook and Bobby Vickery
When asked what a county judge can do to enhance economic development in Anderson County, current county Judge Johnston gave details of progress he has seen through his first term.
“I have developed a very good relationship with the Palestine Economic Development Corporation, along with the City of Palestine, so the three of us have come together and in the last three years, we've brought over $700 million in new economic development as far as three different businesses are concerned,” he said.
“We brought Sanderson Farms to Palestine, which is going to be $250 million in economic development, along with a $24 million annual payroll and up to 1,200 jobs. So we're doing four tax abatements in one year, in 2013—the first time we've had four in one year ever.”
Westley, Justice of the Peace for Precinct 4, responded by agreeing that Anderson County was competing to bring in new industries, but the landscape is changing. He said 50 years ago the railroad and glass industry were chief employers.
“Now, our chief employers are the prison systems, Walmart warehouse and the oil field,” he said. “In the next 25-30 years, we don't know what the landscape will look like. We always have to be looking for what we can bring in. We have a great area, we have land, we have water. Those are two primary resources that most counties don't have.”
To bring in more industries, Westley said the county needed to work effectively with other agencies.
A followup question posed to Westley asked what he would you do differently than Johnston as County Judge.
“The first thing I would do is decrease the travel budget by $6,000 a year, plus reduce the conference budget by $5,000, which is 50 percent of the budget,” Westley said.
He said he also would like to see the county adopt a step pay on the standardized pay scale.
“If we have experienced employees that come in from other areas, right now, they start in at the same salary that everyone else does,” Westley said, adding he'd like to give more credit to workers' past experience and increase incentives.
In response, Johnston acknowledged that he did employ substantial budgets.
“I do travel a lot, spend a lot of time in Austin, and because of that, and the work the county judges do and the commissioners do in Austin, we go down and we talk to these reps and these senators and the result of that is a $350,000 grant we're fixing to be awarded,” he said, “to get (the Texas Department of Transportation) to turn loose of some money for county roads that have been destroyed by the oil and gas industry.”
Johnston also acknowledged conference time, stating that the county was number six in the state last year for its number of hours spent in judicial training.
“It does cost money, but it does pay off. I wouldn’t be able to get through the doors... in Austin if I didn’t spend as much time down there as I could, to meet people that can help Anderson County.”
Westley was asked if he could explain the county’s insurance problem, how he would have handled it, and to comment on an 8 percent increase in Commissioners Court budget vs. a $50 increase in employees' insurance deductibles.
“The insurance problem has been an ongoing battle with Commissioners Court over the years. What they've done is they’ve continued the contribution on the county’s end rather than pass it on to employees... A lot of what's raised the insurance this year is because of the enactment of Obamacare,” Westley said.
Johnston responded by explaining that the county's insurance problem was not unique — that others have experienced an increase in rates as well due to the Affordable Health Care Act.
“For the past few years, we have the employees paying $50 a month for their insurance. The county pays $7,200 a year, $600 a month for the employees' insurance,” he said. “We’re self insured. It all goes into a pool.
“We raised the deductible of the dependent coverage this year for the first time in a long time. We felt that it was the right thing to do and not ask the tax payers to pay for the dependent coverage by increasing the amount that we contributed to the employees, so it’s a very complicated issue.”
Another question posed to Westley regarded how he would go about funding employee raises, veteran benefits and other matters he had previously mentioned.
Westley acknowledged that while the county could not compete with free enterprise as far as salaries go, it still had a responsibility to “make it worth their while” for employees — whether it's through benefits, stipends or a pay-back system for sick leave.
“There's money that we have within the budget, it's just a matter of prioritizing — you take care of people's needs first,” he explained. “You look at what's most important to their health, welfare, safety and protection.”
Johnston responded by referencing past efforts that had been made to increase benefits.
“I came in with a budget that was a $1.1 million deficit budget. We have had three balanced budgets the last three years and managed to give a raise on top of that,” he said. “We have returned over $1 million to our general fund in the last three years strictly by taking care of your dollars, by going out and having our insurance re-bid and saving a tremendous amount of money — over $250,000.”
When asked how she was qualified to manage the county's $20 million budget as County Treasurer, Holliday referenced past experience.
“I’ve worked in the Auditor’s Office for over six years now,” she said. “I've worked myself up to First Assistant. I handle the payroll for Anderson County, I believe that with my knowledge and everything I do in the Auditor's Office will help me to transition into the Treasurer’s Office.”
Hernandez responded with his experience as a business owner and budget director in past positions.
“I was employed with budgets, so that gives me the opportunity — that gave me the training rather — to run the budget of the county,” Hernandez said. “The only thing about budgets we need to know is: don’t spend any more than you have on hand, and I call that checkbook economics.”
A followup question put to Hernandez regarded what he would change to make the office more effective and responsive to the needs of the county.
“What I would do is I would develop teamwork to reach common goals, I would set a checks and balance system to ensure efficiency in the office,” he said. “In other words, I would cross train all my employees so each one would know the other one's job, and in the event someone is out of the office for a period of time, someone else can move in and take care of it.”
Hernandez made reference to a $1,404.57 fine the county paid to the IRS in 2012 for having insufficient funds, stressing that would “never happen” on his watch.
“Most of the publications I have read about the Office of the Treasurer have been negative. I want to turn this around and make it a positive environment for everyone to work and enjoy themselves,” he said.
Holliday responded to the issue by explaining the county accrued the IRS fine due to a processing error.
“I think what happened is the treasurer was out of town and her assistant made the tax deposit by phone, and we do it now online,” she said. “So the phone transfer was actually from our previous bank account, so there was insufficient funds, and the IRS does not care about that.”
Holliday was then asked what she would do or “fix” in the Treasurer's Office.
“I would give 110 percent of my time to be there and answer anyone’s questions and just take care of county business,” she said. “I will have an open door policy. I will be there for the people and bring back unity from the Treasurer's Office to all the other department heads.”
Hernandez reiterated that he would establish “a checks and balances system.”
“First off, I would make an assessment of the whole office and personnel before I start trying to take corrective action,” he said.
Doran then asked Holliday for an explanation of the problem with jurors sometimes not receiving compensation from the county.
“Sometimes the checks don’t come in,” Doran said. “They won't get a check for months — or ever.”
“There was a backup on paying jurors,” Holliday said. “I don't know what was going on, but the Auditor's Office actually had to take over and pay the jurors — it was about five months behind. Right now, the County Clerk and the District Clerk are processing those checks in their offices. I would like to handle it in our office where it needs to be handled.”
In response, Hernandez said that when dealing with people, the problem is people.
“First of all, I will train my staff to do all duties in the office and cross train to make sure everyone knows what everything in the office is all about,” he said.
Byron Cook was not present for the forum.
Doran began by asking Vickery how accessible he would be to voters of Anderson County.
“Accessibility — that’s very important to me. When you're an elected representative, you become a servant of the people, and I will have a district office and I will empower the workers in that office to be my employees,” he said. “Anderson County is very important to me. I want to see it grow, I want to see it prosper, and I want to make sure the district’s needs are met.”
Doran then asked Vickery what he would say to convince Cook's supporters to vote the other way.
“I would say that over the last 10 years that he's been elected office, look at his participation in the communities, look at his voting record through conservative voting eyes...,” Vickery said. “In my opinion, he’s gotten more like Austin or more like Washington, instead of more like the state representative we elected 10 years ago.”
Vickery said he would look to the Constitution when voting on issues, the morality of the issue at hand and at what level the state legislature needed to be involved.
“I feel like if you vote for someone, and they get elected for too long, they forget about those common core constitutional principles,” he said, noting he would not vote for a budget that increases spending by 24 percent. “As a conservative, and as a Republican, you're not going to see me vote for the expansion of Obamacare through Medicaid, and you won't see me push a bill that tries to give drivers licenses to illegal immigrants... So there's a fundamental difference between me and my opponent. I'm running against his voting record.”
Doran then reworded questions for Vickery that had originally been for Cook.
“Mr. Cook voted against providing financial assistance to volunteer fire departments,” Doran said. “What would be your stand on that issue?”
“We as the state of Texas are going to have to take care of our volunteer fire departments, and either put them under a county jurisdiction or some type of insurance jurisdiction, and we're going to have to be there to take care of these volunteers,” Vickery said. “As State Representative, I will do whatever I can to protect them, to properly fund them.”
Vickery was then asked about his stance on abortion.
“There are no if's, and's or but's about it. I will stand pro-life. I will always vote pro-life. And if I have the opportunity to put pro-life bills before the state, I will do it,” Vickery said.
Doran followed up by noting that Cook had voted in favor of Amendment #84 on SB 1 — which would have added special protections for homosexuals in the Education Code — and asked to know of Vickery's stance on this as well.
“I would never ever vote for anything that taught anything other than Judeo-Christian values,” Vickery said. “I just cannot understand why we have to demoralize our education code to Muslim, to Islam and other things. I feel like we need to teach a history level of where we came from as Christians, and homosexuality is just not there.”
Vickery said he always would vote as a Christian, as a conservative and as a Republican.
When asked about his alignment with groups providing campaign funds, Vickery said that 90 percent of his money came from the districts and that his allegiance was to the voters.
“I want to be loyal to the people who elect me. This is my job interview to you, so I don’t want to buy your vote, I want to earn your vote,” Vickery said. “Hopefully I don’t have to go to those lobbyists and cater to their wants and needs. I want to cater to your wants and needs as a constituent.”