At a recent debate, candidates for Hays County commissioner discussed some of the county’s alarming financial problems—record debt and rising property taxes.

Hays County currently carries almost half a billion dollars of debt, a burden that is repaid with property taxes. In Texas, only a handful of counties with cities like Houston and Dallas are more indebted.

Per capita, Hays County has the second highest in the entire state (in counties with more than 35,000 people.) For the individual county resident, their debt burden has gone up 318 percent since 2007.

Colin McFerrin, a candidate for commissioner precinct 3, said that this kind of spending is unsustainable.

“Our county is in an unbelievable amount of debt,” said McFerrin. “The problem is we’re spending money that we don’t have and then we blame it on growth… we need to put taxpayers and our pocketbooks first.”

McFerrin’s opponent, incumbent commissioner Lon Shell, claims that the problem is not as bad as it seems. “$133 million of the debt on our books is the state of Texas,” he said, referring to a road improvement contract with the state that will be paid back gradually, though non-guaranteed and dependent on certain state criteria.

“I could easily sit up here and say I don’t like debt because I don’t. I hate it,” said Shell. “But it would be dishonest for me to make up all of these lies and refer to these websites to try and scare you into thinking there’s something wrong with Hays County.”

McFerrin rebutted. “My opponent is trying to discredit by saying ‘some of these websites.’ Well, some of the websites I’ve referenced are from the Texas Comptroller.”

Some of the county’s debt projects raise questions in efficiency. For example, residents passed a $106 million bond to expand the county jail and add a law enforcement operations center. $62 million was to add 192 beds to the jail, while the other $44 million was for the operations center.

In contrast, Comal County is doing a similar project yet getting much more value. For $76 million total, or roughly 30 percent less, Comal is getting an entirely new jail with over 500 beds and room to expand to 900, as well as new law enforcement offices.

Furthermore, the Hays County jail administrator expressed his concern that the jail might need to be expanded again in as soon as five years.

The amount of new debt is not for a lack of tax revenue in the operating budget.

According to the Hay’s County Tax Assessor’s Office, after accounting for changes in property values, county officials have imposed a net tax increase on the existing tax base in each of the last five years: 1.8 percent in FY 2013, 3.6 percent in FY 2014, 5.7 percent in FY 2015, 3 percent in FY 2016, and 2.5 percent in FY 2017.

To prevent the actual tax burden from increasing on residents, the commissioners court could lower the property tax rate more to help offset rising property values, but they have not done so—neither have the other taxing entities within the county.

There are claims that lowering the rate would cause the county to cut services from its budget, but this is not true. Lowering to the “effective” rate simply means the county would take in the same amount of money from the same taxpayers as the previous year; it would not cause an actual loss in funds. Additionally, the county is still collecting new tax revenue from new properties.

Shell stated that he as commissioner can only control the county’s tax rate, and wished the schools, cities, and other entities would lower their rates.

McFerrin replied, calling for accountability on what the commissioner can control.

“To say there’s nothing we can do about it, that it’s out of our hands, to me is disingenuous,” he began. “When we spend money and say it is for safety and for the betterment of our communities, it is an overgeneralization that preys upon the taxpayers not being informed or not knowing the difference. The reality is that we don’t have the money to go forward; what we need is new leadership.”

If elected commissioner, McFerrin is pledging to forego his $80,000 salary and put it toward paying off the county’s debt, as well as signing a pledge not to increase residents’ tax bills period.

Early voting continues this week, with Election Day on March 6.

Jacob Asmussen

Jacob Asmussen is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard. He attended the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and in 2017 earned a double major in public relations and piano performance.