By Elsa Maxey
He began with how Fort Bend County’s levies are built above the standard requirements, so “the National Flood Insurance Program fight has been won,” said Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert. Jointly organized by the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce and the Central Fort Bend Chamber Alliance, the annual state of the county address by Judge Hebert was before a full house at Safari Texas Ranch this past Friday over the noon hour.
The county’s response to federal regulations for operating the levees has involved issues requiring those residing in flood plains or areas protected by levees to buy mandatory flood insurance at “arbitrary rates,” as previously described, or essentially be subjected to “a new form of taxation,” irrespective of how flood control works in Fort Bend County.
On water services for the county, a savvy topic of Judge Hebert considering his role as a consultant to the water service industry for over 40 years, he announced the creation of the West Fort Bend Water Authority that will use the North Fort Bend Water Authority as a model. The 2005 legislatively-created regional North Fort Bend Water Authority helps with groundwater reduction mandate compliance. With the county’s proactive approach, the county’s west area experiencing rapid population growth is expected to be served by the new water authority, which may be authorized for creation during this state legislative session.
“Everyone is concerned about transportation,” and “we can’t afford to just do nothing,” Judge Hebert said when he addressed transportation funding. “The state needs $270 billion in the next 25 years” and current revenue is $100 billion. That’s $170 billion short meaning that $7 billion per year in additional revenue is needed.
Back home and funded with county road bonds, a total of $68 million worth of mobility projects will be underway this year including the second and third segments of Mason Road, Brand Lane, the first segment of Golfview Drive, and the second segment of West Belfort. For congestion mitigation, intersection funding at the Cinco Ranch area is planned with partial mobility bond funding. Judge Hebert said a major thoroughfare plan update is due and a study of Fort Bend County’s road systems will be taking place this year.
“Look for signs to be changing from Hwy 59 to Interstate 69 in the near future,” said Judge Hebert. The 1,600 mile national highway, Interstate 69 connects Michigan to Texas and in Fort Bend, there’s a 28-mile stretch. It will go from “I-610 West to the end of the access controlled section of U.S. 59 in Rosenberg, near SH 529.” This is nicknamed the NAFTA Superhighway intended to help trade with Canada and Mexico in accordance with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
With a county budget of $250,277,339 for 2013, Judge Hebert said that for the first time in four years the 2,272 full time employees will receive a 2.35 percent first step increase. “The tax rate continues to hold steady at $0.499,” which he said had been 53.5 percent and even upwards of 60 percent in other operating years. The highest state authorized homestead exemption of 20 percent remains in place as do over 65, disability, veterans and surviving spouse exemptions.
On the global scene, Judge Hebert recently returned from China and signed a sister community agreement with Chancheng District Foshan City. The Fort Bend Boys Choir cultural exchange and educational exchanges with Lamar CISD and UH were announced and a delegation that will come in March. Since hosting delegations in China is fully paid by the government there, the same is expected and will be the case when the delegations visit here, said Judge Hebert. The community agreement signed also initiated an economic exchange and opportunities with interested companies.
“2013 looks very good,” said Judge Hebert with the national economy slowly recovering, the pace of local economic growth increasing, the county tax rate remaining stable, multiple projects being underway to meet continuing growth, and the efforts underway to further enhance job growth and economic development.
In the meantime, look for the courthouse restoration to be fully completed towards year’s end and occupied about a month earlier.