By Elsa Maxey
Three-time recipient of the highest financial transparency award from the Controller of Public Accounts, Fort Bend County did not make the list of seven for grant funds to assist in the reconstruction of the old courthouse on Jackson Street.
On Friday, Feb. 10, County Judge Bob Hebert kicked off the 2012 state of the county message at the Safari Texas Ranch presented by the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce and the Central Fort Bend Chamber Alliance before an audience of over 500 participants. He highlighted many pluses accounting for the county’s progress, but also challenges.
“The county remains in excellent financial health,” he said, crediting employees, elected officials, cities, and others.
Old Courthouse Reconstruction
But the fact that the county was recently denied grant funds in the amount of $4.85 million by the Texas Historical Commission was expressed as concerns and disappointment. Judge Hebert reported that Fort Bend County was not ranked among the seven grant recipients of funds for historic courthouse reconstruction. Fort Bend would have received a 5th ranking were it not for being docked some 20 points for not having the courthouse in operation. The old courthouse whose main structure was built in 1909 was vacated when offices and courtrooms were moved to the new 265,000 sq ft Justice Center this summer. Judge Hebert said the Justice Center has been serving as the temporary courthouse until the 103-year old courthouse is modernized and put back into service for another 100 years.
Referring to the state program scoring sheet as flawed, Judge Hebert said the numbers did not add up mathematically. “We got a zero instead of 20,” he said, and would have finished just ahead of Bexar County, which received a 5th ranking. But irrespective of that, Judge Hebert said he was told that even if Fort Bend had received the 20 points, it would have not received the grant funds. He said he was told Bexar County (courthouse) is a lot older than any one in Texas. But Judge Hebert maintains Fort Bend County would have been 5th and Bexar County 6th and both would have been grant recipients among the seven using the state agency’s logic. “We don’t know what happened, we’re looking into it. We’re going to investigate this to find out where the derailment was,” he said, “because I was lied to by staff members who told me that 20 points didn’t mean anything, but it was very easy to see that it did.”
In a letter to the historic commission, Judge Hebert said he indicates Fort Bend County does not want to take the other counties’ money, but “we want to fix it so it doesn’t happen in Texas,” he said about what he called an unfair and inequitable process. “It doesn’t’ speak well of the governor’s office, Governor Rick Perry, since he takes credit for appointing every board and every commissioner in the State of Texas,” he said.
Once restoration is complete, plans call for the historic courthouse to house the constitutional county judge—Judge Hebert, the commissioner’s court, and the county attorney’s office.
Highlights about the county’s $252,079,482 budget were presented noting that there have been no increases in pay for the third consecutive year for county employees or county elected officials and no workforce reductions. A one-time compensation was given to employees hired before Oct. 1, 2010, the tax rate held steady at a .49976 level, and 48 new positions throughout the county were created to keep up with the population growth expected to keep rising.
Judge Hebert reviewed local mobility projects with updates. He said 29 of them are managed by the county out of 54 scheduled projects, 12 of the county managed projects are complete and seven are in construction and pre-construction phases with $65 million dollars remaining in outstanding bond obligations to fund six other projects that include:
• Burney Road between Voss and Old Richmond
• Mason Road from FM 359 to Skinner Lane
• Harlem Road at US 90A
• Falcon Landing Boulevard from Westheimer Parkway to Buffalo Bayou
• Golfview from FM 762 to Williams Way
• Williams Way from Pilgrim to Wheaton (Justice Center Area)
Toll Road Updates
Of the toll road system, Judge Hebert said there are two toll road authorities in Fort Bend County – the Fort Bend County Transit Authority and the Fort Bend County Grand Parkway Authority which have the same directors and separate responsibilities. The Grand Parkway overpasses on Segment D under construction are among the projects underway and a total of $170 million in revenue bonds will be sold to support additional toll road project construction. Two miles in length, the Highway 6 to Sienna Parkway toll road extension’s engineering is complete and there will be an underpass at State Highway 6. The West Parkway Toll extension involves a state highway and negotiations are underway for the project’s urban and rural phases distinguished by sections that either have “city cow” or “county cow.”
National Flood Insurance
Judge Hebert expressed national flood insurance program concerns in relation to Fort Bend residents whose properties abut a levee. Under consideration at the congressional level, he said the levees of Fort Bend County built in accordance with stringent rules may be subject to being categorized with others throughout the country built in accordance with older, lesser standards. Flood insurance premiums to be determined by the federal government on top of the rates already paid by property owners paying taxes to levy districts such as those in Fort Bend County could be the end result. Judge Hebert suggested that high, mandatory flood insurance premiums could be viewed as income for the federal government’s general fund. Flood insurance is to be run as an insurance program and not as a federal revenue source, said Judge Hebert.
An additional 964,637 square feet has been constructed since 2005 that includes 15 new structures including the Justice Center and the recent University Branch Library. Judge Hebert said the additions represent a 54 percent increase over the county’s 2005 space availability at a cost of about 175 million expected with no more than a two cent increase in the debt service rate. “At this time, there has been no impact on our debt service rate,” said Judge Hebert indicating that it remains flat.
Fort Bend County’s Future
About the economy, the U.S. seems to be slowly recovering, and “we’re doing fine, we have great people, and a great future,” said Judge Hebert about Fort Bend County. “Regardless of the Mayan calendar, 2012 will be a good year for Fort Bend, and 2013 looks even brighter.”