Is a Texas county judge blatantly overriding the decision of local voters?
Aransas County Judge Burt Mills is currently planning to force citizens in the small coastal county to pay for a controversial multimillion-dollar project they just turned down at the polls.
In the recent November election, locals voted 53-46 percent to reject Proposition A, a $27 million debt to build a new county courthouse.
The project was mired in public controversy since the summer, when county commissioners increased the local taxpayer portion of the cost from $6 million to $17.2 million and announced they would try to force citizens to pay the expensive bill without even putting the project to a public vote (they would do so by issuing nonvoter-approved certificate of obligation bonds).
Following that announcement, local citizen Andrew Kane started a petition drive to compel the county to put the project on the November election ballot. After 1,100 people signed the petition, county officials had to comply and ask citizens’ permission for the money. During this time, local citizens formed a Facebook group called “Aransas County – let us vote” that quickly grew to 1,200 followers.
However, despite that movement and a majority of citizens voting to reject the massive new debt, Judge Mills is planning to do the project anyway—thus forcing citizens to pay for it—according to a Facebook post last week from County Commissioner Wendy Kilpatrick Laubach.
“Yesterday I met with County Judge Mills and the county’s financial advisor, Bob Henderson… They have concluded that state law permits them to issue tax notes (requiring no election) in the amount of about $13MM to fund the construction of a smaller, two-story, 46K square-foot courthouse,” wrote Laubach. “Judge Mills intends to bring the matter before the Commissioners Court for a vote at the first regular meeting in December, which is December 14.”
Commissioner Laubach also described how Judge Mills “agreed” to do public townhalls about the project that voters just turned down, but he did not yet specify dates and times.
Nearly 200 citizens commented on the post, many with concerns about cost and anger about the judge disregarding the election.
“The Judge plans to put this before the court on Dec. 14 before our newly elected [commissioner] Pat Rousseau comes onboard. Just another way for him to push his agenda,” one citizen wrote. “Are the commissioners willing to go against the will of the voters for this tax note?”
“Another point – a $13M tax note has a much bigger impact on the tax rate than the $17.6M bond would have had given the duration of repayment,” another commented. “No way would taxpayers support the $13M if it went to a vote and the County showed the real math behind it.”
“The problem is needs vs wants,” one individual wrote. “Taxpayers don’t want debt. Yet we do need a practical and affordable courthouse. The loss of funds is not the fault of the voters, but poor planning and lack of leadership.”
“Will the vote be respected? Or will we be dismissed?” wrote Andrew Kane, who led the original petition drive. “This is a bigger moment of truth to show if we have a representative government where our elected leaders follow our wishes.”
The phenomenon is not isolated to Aransas County, as Texas Scorecard reported earlier this week that the city of Amarillo is considering doing the same after voters rejected a $275 million debt issuance to fund a massive spending project.
The commissioners are scheduled to meet on December 14 to discuss and potentially decide on the issue.