GATESVILLE — Coryell County officials are at a costly crossroads this week as they hammer together the 2014 budget.
Down one road is the expensive expansion of government services required to keep pace with a bulging jail population, crowded court docket, economic development and the growing need for mental health care.
Down the other road are the patched potholes of a decaying infrastructure, a steadily deteriorating 430 miles of hard-surface roads that, without costly maintenance, will crumble to dirt.
The commissioners’ debate in recent months has split the court over priorities: Build a new jail or fix the old roads.
Commissioners voted to start work on a new law enforcement center by 2017 on a site to be selected in July 2016. Meanwhile, the county is spending about $500,000 a year to house the overflow of inmates in other counties’ jails.
Last year’s budget earmarked a 2.5-cent tax increase to generate capital improvement funds for the jail project.
County Judge John Firth and Precinct 1 Commissioner Jack Wall pressed for an earlier start on the jail, but Commissioners Don Jones, Precinct 2, and Daren Moore, Precinct 3, opted for the later start.
Commissioner Justin Latham, Precinct 4, voted against setting a construction date for the jail, saying his constituents were more interested in “fixing potholes than bringing inmates back from outside the county.”
Firth, who said the stack of 2014 spending requests from county officials will add about $750,000 to last year’s budget, declared that the county cannot continue to maintain 430 miles of paved roads without trimming other expenses, raising taxes or cutting reserve funds.
Roads vs. jail
If the county has to choose between its road system and a new jail, Firth said, the jail should take priority.
Wall, whose Precinct 1 includes the rapidly growing outskirts of Copperas Cove, argued for abandoning some less-traveled county roads to focus on the more heavily traveled roads, most of which are in his precinct.
Last week, Wall proposed a 2014 road budget of $570,269, with about 47 percent going to his precinct, about 21 percent to Precinct 4, and about 16 percent each in Precinct 2 and Precinct 3.
“Taxpayers in my precinct are just as important as the taxpayers in your precinct,” Jones told Wall. “There may not be as many people going down that road, but that road has to be a priority because it is maxed out.”
Moore balked at the idea of letting some paved roads revert to dirt roads.
“I don’t think we can neglect the rest of our roads,” Moore said. “If we do not save our roads, we are just moving backwards.”
Latham said letting roads deteriorate would hinder economic development.
Prior to 2001, under the Precinct Plan, each Coryell County commissioner was in charge of maintaining the roads in his precinct with his own materials, equipment and crew.
In November 2001, county voters adopted the Unit Plan, consolidating road and bridge construction countywide under a road and bridge superintendent.
But the commissioners still run in individual precincts, so their interests are centered on the needs of the voters in their precincts.
“I need to look out for my constituents,” Jones said. “It is always going to be that way. That is not going away.”
The commissioners plan to adopt a draft budget by the end of the month. They meet in regular session at 9 a.m. Monday at the county annex in Gatesville.