Citing fiscal responsibility and economic growth during his first term, Anderson County Judge Robert Johnston hopes to continue that positive work in a second term in the county's top office, running on the March 4 Republican Primary election ticket.
Johnston was elected as county judge in November of 2010, taking office on Jan. 1, 2011. His current term concludes on Dec. 31, 2014.
“When I ran in 2010, it was on the premise of unity and fiscal responsibility and bringing those things to Anderson County,” Johnston said. “I feel that I have achieved those goals in turning the budget around with three consecutive balanced budgets and have been able to form relationships to bring economic development of Anderson County through working with the City of Palestine and the PEDC.”
Regarding the county's financial status, Johnston reported that the last three county budgets — for 2012, 2013 and 2014 — were balanced, each including raises for county employees and only a one-cent tax increase that occurred in 2012.
“When I took office in 2011, the budget was already set,” Johnston explained. “It was a deficit budget (of $1,237,127), with money being spent out of the fund balance. That first budget, in 2011, was actually less money than the 2012 and 2013 budgets.
“In 2012, over $500,000 was put back in the fund balance, which had been depleted previously,” he said, “and 2013's budget will be the same.”
Also during his tenure, the county saw the refinancing of bonds used for construction of the courthouse annex and jail improvements — a move that would save over $667,000 during the life of the bonds, Johnston said.
“We rebid the county's property-liability insurance, saving over $490,000 in a 3-year period,” Johnston said. “We also rebid the county's workers' compensation coverage, saving over $60,000, and rebid the county's electric contract, which will go into effect this year.”
In terms of economic growth, 2013 was a big year for Anderson County, Johnston said, reporting that the commissioners court approved four tax abatements — the first time that has ever occurred in a single year.
The biggest project, Sanderson Farms, includes a $124 million complex which consists of a feed mill, hatchery, poultry processing plant and wastewater facility. The main plant and hatchery is being constructed in Anderson County and the feed mill will set up operations in nearby Freestone County.
The plant is expected to bring more than 1,000 full-time jobs to the area, adding an annual payroll of more than $21 million to Anderson County.
APEX Energy, a compressed air facility in Bethel, will have invested $450 million at completion of the plant and will provide 25 to 30 full-time jobs. Construction is set to begin in April, with an expected 250 construction jobs.
“We also approved abatements for Eagle Railcar Services in Elkhart, who is planning a $1.1 million expansion and the addition of 30 jobs, and for Frankston Packaging (a box/carton manufacturer),” Johnston said.
The Palestine Economic Development Corporation and the county also have recently helped secure the old Alcoa plant — a 300-acre site located on U.S. 79 towards Jacksonville — for sale to Union Pacific for $4.7 million.
“There are two ways to increase services for residents of Anderson County — to bring in economic development and new businesses, which grows the tax base; or to raise taxes,” Johnston said. “We chose economic development — to bring in jobs and more taxable property to Anderson County.
“The money invested from the creation of new jobs turns over seven times a year, which means a big increase in sales tax money,” he said. “This kind of growth brings in new businesses, a boom in the real estate market and will provide full time jobs with benefits — it's just a win for everybody.”
The success of this economic growth is attributed by Johnston to the working relationship between Anderson County, the City of Palestine, the PEDC and the local chamber of commerce.
“Those relationships are the reason all these things are happening,” Johnston said. “We are working hard with (them) to bring people to the town. We all have to work together to get it done.
“What's good for Palestine is good for Anderson County.”
Johnston also praised the great working relationship between himself and the four county commissioners.
“We have a very good commissioners court and I am very happy to be able to work with them,” he said. “If a business is looking at coming to a community, they don't want to see that the elected officials are always fighting.
“The unity we have helps bring these business in.”
As a criminal court judge, Johnston handles Class A, B and C Misdemeanor cases, with charges ranging from DWI to assault and theft by check; appeals from Justice of the Peace courts; and probates.
“In 2013, I had 1,409 cases before me, tried 11 jury cases and closed 475 cases,” Johnston said. “I placed 47 on probation, revoked 21 probations and saw $154,085 in fines assessed.”
Since elected to the judgeship, Johnston has been elected as an officer on the board of the North and East Texas Judges and Commissioners Association, made up of 73 counties and is currently serving as the organization's treasurer.
Johnston also is on the Board of Directors of the East Texas Council of Governments; is a member of the Rotary Club of Palestine; and is president of the board of the Anderson County Veterans Service office.
“Being elected to boards I serve on has better equipped me to be able to continue to provide this type of service to Palestine and Anderson County,” he added. “I will continue to work as hard during my second term as I have in the first to make Palestine and Anderson County a better place to live.
“I serve at the pleasure of the voters of Anderson County. If I have done what I said, I ask that you re-elect me so I can continue what I have started.”
Johnston faces opponent and current Justice of the Peace James Westley in the March 4 Republican Primary election. Early voting for primary election begins on Tuesday.