County Judge Mike Ford said Somervell County is facing a lot of change in 2013.
Part of the change became official Jan. 1 when three new officials were sworn into office, replacing others with decades of experience. See swearing in photos inside.
"As the new officials are coming in, there is a lot we as a county are facing," Ford said.
Somervell County is beginning the year with two new commissioners, Larry Hulsey, Pct. 1, and Kenneth "Woody" Wood, Pct. 3, who replace the two longest serving officials on the court, Lloyd Wirt and Zach Cummings who held the seats for three terms each. Meanwhile, County Attorney Andy Lucas is replacing Ron Hankins, who held the office for two decades.
"Things are going to be different," Ford added. "I am a big proponent of change, but they will have experience and working knowledge to gain. As they are coming in, we are looking at taking new steps to balance the budget."
Issues that could have a significant impact on county finances include a potential decrease property values at Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant, leasing of additional properties overseen by the county, formation of a hospital district and economic development.
Ford said the power plant is very important to each of the taxing entities within the county.
Each year, government and company officials and their appraisers sit down to for an "initial look" at the facility, and the group works to reach an appraisal agreement.
"It's a lot like the review board process for a residential property, but when you are dealing with billions of dollars, the conversation can be rather intense," Ford said.
In the coming year, Ford expects property values will decrease at the plant. He said about 80 percent of the county's revenue comes from Comanche Peak, and with the services provided by the county coming with a price tag of $13-14 million, a lot is on the line.
"We have to determine how we will respond to the situation," he said. "For one, we have to try to cut our losses."
Enhancing assets, cutting losses
In 2012, commissioners approved a number of measures aimed at trimming the fat from the county budget. They also approved measures they hoped would increase revenue by attracting major sponsors to one of its biggest tourist attractions - the expo center.
"We have to really focus on the entities that bring business to the community and work to strengthen their operation," Ford said. "We can prove, through sales tax collections, events hosted by the expo center and (Squaw Valley) golf course bring in visitors and dollars. They may at times cost the county more than they make, but the more we spend to enhance the facilities and bring activities, the more they will become greater assets to the community. As far as economic development is concerned, we have to invest wisely."
In 2012, measures aimed at increasing profitability and marketability at the expo center were done with little to no cost to the county.
Also last year, commissioners approved the subleasing of Glen Rose Nursing and Rehabilitation, and Ford said the effort to lease other facilities is ongoing.
"The situation at the nursing home is a win-win," Ford said. "It eliminates a loss on the record for the hospital."
The county is expected to receive a proposal for the lease of Texas Amphitheater in the next couple of months.
"We won't make money on the lease, but we will cut the losses associated with the facility if an agreement is approved," he said. "We would like to put someone in place with experience in the entertainment industry. Everyone knows the amphitheater has never been what we hoped it would be. As a result, it has become one of those burdens. If we don't lease it, we could look closely at shutting it down. I would like to see us retain the facility as a service and an asset."
But Ford said lifting the burden of the outdoor theater is not the biggest issue facing the county.
"The big deal - one of the major things we will be dealing with - is the hospital and the district the citizen-led committee has been out getting signatures on a petition for," Ford said. "I have gone on the record many times saying I believe the district is the best way to ensure the continued presence of a hospital in Somervell County."
Ford said keeping the hospital open cannot be done on patient revenue alone.
"It will have to be supplemented by tax dollars," he said, adding the current state of healthcare and government funding means money allocated to hospitals and healthcare will be harder to come by in the future.
"It is not going to get better," he said.
Once county officials verify the 100 required signatures belong to registered county voters, commissioners "must" call an election.
"That will most likely be during the regular May election cycle," Ford said. "At that point, we will want folks to ask themselves where they want their votes to go."
Ford said he cannot speak for other officials, but he maintains his stance on the issue.
While a hospital district would mean the formation of a new taxing entity, it would offer a more "fiscally responsible" means for generating revenue for the medical center, according to Ford.
"If we were going to raise $100,000, a hospital district could raise the same amount for eight percent less," he said. "State law requires that when the county sets a budget we add eight percent for indigent healthcare."
In addition, Ford said county expenses will decrease as the three cents spent on bonded indebtedness is transferred to the district. But the bugger issue is relates to the financial impacts associated with the medical center.
"From a financial and governance standpoint, we need the hospital and its $13 million plus payroll," he said. "If that went away, it could be catastrophic to the county. We need to consider everything, including how not having a local hospital could affect economic growth and development."
Ford remains firm on the idea that the hospital is key to progress.
"Two things that new residents want to know about school system and the hospital," he said. "We lose the hospital and we will go back to square one."
With the Southwest/Chisholm Trail Parkway finally promising to be complete in the coming months, there is also a good chance the toll road will deliver and influx in residential development.
"Businesses follow housetops," Ford said, adding the county and city have joined together to promote the city and welcome development.
Late last year, the entities approved Billy Huckaby to spearhead economic development efforts.
He also said an announcement about the anticipated growth at Bo Gibbs Industrial Park could be made at anytime.
"City and county officials are excited to be working together and because of that partnership, two potential tenants are being courted," Ford said, adding companies considering expanding into the local area include a major expansion at an existing local business and brand new manufacturing operation considering relocation from the Metroplex.
Ford said officials are doing there best to be proactive by approving new tax abatement policies and searching for other economic development tools to encourage additional businesses to move into the county