Passions were raised by county commissioners and employees Monday as commissioners unanimously agreed to place a county assistance sales tax district proposal on the May election ballot, after it had previously been rejected last November.
County Judge Ron Eckert presented a number of facts behind the proposed sales tax, and the implications should it be passed, during the regular scheduled commissioners’ court meeting as he pleaded with those in attendance to discard the baggage of apathy and involve themselves in the issues facing their community.
“Seems like déjà vu,” Eckert said as he began his presentation on the sales tax.
The sales tax proposal, which was initially rejected by voters by a nearly 2-1 margin last November, would create a county assistance district, implementing a 1.25 percent sales tax on goods in unincorporated Ector County, excluding Odessa and Goldsmith, and would only be voted on by residents in that district. The tax can only be used to fund programs and projects such as roads and highways, law enforcement, libraries, museums, parks, and any services determined to benefit public welfare.
Eckert argued that the increase in population in unincorporated areas, like West Odessa, which he said has a population of more than 50,000, means the responsibility of infrastructure for these growing areas has fallen entirely on the county, which currently is funded by property taxes and fees.
“Ector County is given all of the responsibility, but no resources from the sales tax,” Eckert told the courtroom.
To give an example of what kind of impact the proposed tax could have, Eckert talked about the effect it has had in Midland, where he said the tax has increased revenue for the county by millions of dollars, and has led to them overhauling their infrastructure, building a new courthouse, library and events center, and paving all of their county roads.
Compared to Midland County’s reserve fund of more than $70 million, County Auditor David Austin said Ector County currently has a reserve fund of around $9 million. Eckert brought up the problems with Ector County’s current budget, which has less than $5 million devoted to highways, and county buildings falling apart.
“You have a Midland that is modern, and you have an Odessa that’s getting old,” Eckert said. “You could almost call it ‘Oldessa.’ That’s what this sales tax attempts to counteract.”
Austin told the court that with an implemented sales tax, the county could generate almost $16 million in sales tax per year.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Eddy Shelton said that this tax is necessary, as it helps cover some of the biggest needs facing this county, such as law enforcement, roads, and health.
“It brings revenue into our community by people who use the facilities, but don’t necessarily own property,” Shelton said. “It’s a win-win for the county.”
Simmons, who agreed with placing the sales tax on the ballot, told Eckert he felt like there was a lot of grandstanding in his speech, and that he failed to mention Midland had just issued $200 million in debt to take care of their roads. He also said there was a misconception about the property tax.
“I think we’re fooling ourselves and the voters if we think we’re going to turn around and reduce people’s property tax,” Simmons told the court. “I think that’s a misconception that we don’t need out there.”
Simmons added that the county needs to reiterate to those who will be voting on the proposed tax that these funds will be used for commodities they have asked for, such as improved roads and additional law enforcement on patrol.
“I think if you go out and tell somebody in Gardendale, “hey, if you’ll pay more sales tax, I can give Greg Simmons inside the city limits a tax break on his property taxes,” I think that’s not going to be a selling point to them,” Simmons said.
Eckert told Simmons that he never said they would lower the property tax, but that they could, and that, had the sales tax been in effect since the option became available in 2007, the property tax may not be at the rate it is now.
“If you’re going to ask people to vote for it, you’ve got to put it into something that they can see as a purpose to vote for it,” Simmons replied.
Eckert said he had gone out to areas such as Gardendale and took the time to find out the priorities of the people in those communities, and added that he’s never told anyone how to vote and wouldn’t do so. He said it’s up to the citizen to educate themselves, and he’s just providing the information.
Austin added that, while the proposed sales tax may not lower the property tax, it could see it stabilized, and potentially lower the property tax in coming years.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Dale Childers said he thought everyone in the room knew the tax was necessary, but that they were relying on 22,000 registered voters to accept it. He told Eckert he would have loved to go to the county with him to spread information, but was unable to because of the open meetings act, and emphasized using organized methodology to get information about the sales tax out.
“What prevented you from having your own meeting,” Eckert asked Childers.
“To be quite honest, what prevented anybody else other than me from going out and meeting with their own constituents?” Childers responded, adding that he had no constituents out in the county.
Eckert told him that if he had any better ideas, he would like to see them, and said he was the only one to hold any informational meetings out in public the last time the tax proposal was on the ballot in November.
Simmons asked Eckert why he was acting so defensive, telling him he was making this into “some kind of a political deal.”
“It’s not political at all, I’m not even seeking re-election,” Eckert said. “This is not just going to be a ‘me’ thing. It never was.”
Eckert said he wasn’t playing politics, but that he cared about Ector County and wanted to improve it.
“I found something that I think could be worth $300-330 million, if not more money than that, to Ector County over the next 20 years, and all of a sudden I’m grandstanding?” Eckert asked. “No, I’m not. I’m not interested in this office anymore after I’m out of this.”
Several suggestions were made as to how the county could spread information on the tax. Austin told commissioners the county could send out fact sheets and mailers providing just facts on the proposal, and Health Department Director Gino Solla suggested sending out information to voters through social media like Facebook and Twitter.
The commissioners then unanimously agreed to place the proposed sales tax initiative onto the May ballot, which voters in Ector County will be able to decide on when the election is held May 5.
IN OTHER BUSINESS, COMMISSIONERS:
• appointed Dr. John Rogers and Mark Merritt as members of the Ector County Airport Advisory Board.
• received a presentation from Wesley Burnett regarding requested economic development incentives, including property tax abatements, sought by Oberon Solar LLC in connection with a potential solar power project in Ector County.
• reviewed a yearly report from Vector Fleet Management and approved the acceptance of a check of $51,079 on the Cost Savings Sharing Plan.
• approved the placement of signs in the Ector County Courthouse.
• tabled an item regarding proposed notary fees to be charged for notarizing documents associated with game room applicants, to be brought up at a later meeting proposing notary fees county-wide.
• approved the 2017 Annual List of Gifts and Memorials to the Ector County Library.
• permitted the maintenance director to use betterment allowance or make change orders between commissioners’ court meetings relating to the construction of the jail expansion.
• approved the propo
sed purchase of a new reach-in heated cabinet for the jail kitchen.
• approved the use of betterment allowance funds to pay for change proposal No. 1, also referred to as CP No. 1, for the new jail addition.
• approved the sale by auction of assets and other items on the attached lists.
• approved a proposed resolution approving the bringing of a lawsuit on behalf of Ector County against various drug manufacturers, developers, suppliers and any other potential defendant in connection with a class of pharmaceutical class of drugs commonly referred to as opioids, and approved a proposed retention agreement with Simon Greenstone Panatier Bartlett, P.C. and Robert E. White, Attorney at Law.
• approved a request to install “advisory speed” limit signs and “rough road” signs on Westcliff Road from 57th Street to Yukon Road.
• approved the following bid specification: Ector County Law Enforcement Waterline Extension.
• approved the following bid specifications: Liquid asphalt emulsion, asphalt patching material, graded base material, seal coat aggregate, water and commercial laundry equipment for various facilities.
• approved a proposal for the abatement of vehicles.
• approved a revised general utility easement for the jail expansion site.
• approved a resolution and application for Fiscal Year 2019 and 2020 victim assistance grant Nos. 3288402 and 3546601.
• authorized Oncor Electric Delivery, LLC to provide electric facilities to provide electric service for the asphalt emulsion tank located at the Highways and Streets Department for a few of $3,948.64.
• approved a proposed change order to replace PVC storm drains to code-approved piping for the Law Enforcement Center jail addition.
• approved the proposed renewal of the Social Marketplace Advertising Agreement for an additional six-month social media campaign in relation to the Ector County Immunization Grant.
• approved a proposed interlocal application for immunization program funds for fiscal year 2018-2019, and to enter into a contract with the Texas Department of State Health Services for the purpose of providing immunization services to Ector County.
• approved proposed step changes for two jailers promoted to corporal.
• approved a proposal to set starting pay for TVFC/ImmTrac Program Outreach Specialist at $14.30/hour.
• approved a proposed MHRC Jones Landscape to serve a 2.61 acre tract of land in Section 31, Block 41, and a proposed MHRC for 2.93 acres on 3537 and 3545 N. Mercedes Westgate Acres.
• approved the transfer of a copier, from postage and reproduction, to post-sentence monitoring, and with the proposed line item transfers to post-sentence monitoring, copier lease contract in the amount of $1,332, to post-sentence monitoring, office supplies in the amount of $100 from postage and reproduction, copier lease contract in the amount of $1,165, from post-sentence monitoring, departmental furniture and equipment in the amount of $167, and from postage and reproduction, copier supplies in the amount of $100.
• approved proposed budget amendments to general fund, OOG Grant- sheriff’s office body armor program, and to sheriff’s office law enforcement supplies, in the amount of $24,540, and a proposed budget amendment to coliseum fund, subscriptions from unreserved fund balance in the amount of $6,000, and a proposed budget amendment to capital improvement fund, road construction from unreserved fund balance in the amount of $98,600.
• received the accounts payable fund requirements report for Feb. 12, 2018 to review county financial statements and reports.