SALADO — Elections don’t generally draw a lot of attention, even in the village. Out of about 1,780 Salado voters, only 333 showed up to cast a ballot last year.
Despite Salado’s small population — 2,154 according to the U.S. Census Bureau — and reputation as an artsy-touristy town, politics have made the villagers restless.
Surprisingly the divisive issue isn’t a proposal to allow the sale of liquor for off-premise consumption. All four of the mayoral candidates support the proposal, seeing it as a way to recoup lost sales tax revenue.
Conversely, the candidates are divided about the upcoming bond election for the development of a proposed sewer system.
The Salado Board of Aldermen is in the final process of accepting the donation of the Stagecoach Wastewater Treatment Plant, which the board expects to take possession of within the next 30 to 45 days.
As that process moved along over the last six months, the board opted to let Salado’s voters decide whether or not the village will create its own sewer system.
Although plans for the system are on the drawing board — an April 21 open house will let Salado residents choose if they want the sewer to run under Main Street, behind Main Street or out to the west side of Interstate 35 — some of the broad strokes are known.
The project is predicted to cost between $6 million and $8 million and might take up to three years to complete.
Danney McCort, 69, a retired engineer who served as Salado’s mayor for the last two years, said he is wholeheartedly in favor of the sewer system and sees it as a necessity if the village wants to expand its tax base.
“I’ve talked to a lot of businesses and the first thing they ask me is ‘Do you have a sewer system?’” McCort said. “They tell me that they don’t want to get into the septic system business.”
McCort said the lack of a sewer system forces businesses looking to come into the village to buy two or three times the amount of land they need in order to store the waste, a requirement that makes locating some businesses in the village economically unfeasible.
“The new Cefco going in on West Village Road, they wanted to put a McDonald’s in there,” he said. “They couldn’t do it because they would have had to buy another half-acre for the septic system.”
While many of Salado’s residents support growth and are in favor of recreational opportunities closer to the village, they fail to understand the infrastructure requirements needed to bring those types of businesses to the area, McCort said. “People are saying that the kids want bowling alleys and all the things like that. But it won’t happen without a sewer system.”
Hans Fields, 75, a retired engineer and school teacher who has served on the board of aldermen for the last three years, is less supportive of the idea of a sewer system.
“The downtown area wants a sewer system,” Fields said. “My problem is that to pay for it, everyone’s taxes will go up.”
He added that although the village is known for its well-heeled retirees — Salado’s median household income is over $80,000 and about 20 percent of its residents are older than 65 — the burden of paying for the sewer system will fall on younger residents.
“There are a lot of senior citizens here and they have all the (property tax) freezes in place,” Fields said. “So the younger generation will be the ones paying for the sewer system.”
While Fields recognizes the will of the people is paramount — in campaign literature, public appearances and interviews he vowed to go through with the development of the sewer system if the bond passes — he has second thoughts about using the money for a project that will benefit a small portion of the city.
“A lot of our roads are terrible,” Fields said. “They’re so bad that if two cars are approaching, one has to give way. We budget to repair two-tenths of a mile of road per year. Do voters want to pay taxes to put in a sewer system or fix our roads?”
Rick Ashe, 51, a lieutenant with the Temple Police Department and former two-term mayor of Salado from 2004 to 2008, is in favor of the sewer system.
“We’re going to have to do this,” Ashe said. “There’s no other way.”
And while he understands many village residents are uneasy with the idea of going into debt to accomplish a project, he doesn’t see that the village has any other financing options available.
“We’ll have to go into debt to pay for it, but in the long run the community will be better off for it,” Ashe said.
He said he also believes a sewer system is a key component if Salado is to continue to grow and attract new businesses. The village needs to explore options for extending the sewer system to the west side of I-35, Ashe said.
The characterization that the sewer system will require raising taxes on the many to finance a project that benefits the few is a false one, Ashe said.
“I’ve heard that and it’s short-sighted,” Ashe said. “People have to remember that the sewer system will help the village as a whole.”
The sewer system will attract businesses, which will attract customers, Ashe said.
“The businesses will raise the sales tax (payments) which will keep property taxes down,” he said.
Skip Blancett, 67, a retired U.S. Navy chaplain and the current chief of programs for Fort Hood’s Education Service Division, issued a written statement about the proposed sewer system through his campaign manager, Dave Broecker.
“Regarding the sewer system: at the present time the city manager is studying the issue and will formulate recommendations. I believe that he should continue to be the person responsible for presenting options to the board,” Blancett said in his statement.
“My direction is to make certain that all interested parties are heard on this subject so that all sides completely understand the desirability and direction for a sewer system. Undoubtedly there will be a need for a vote on a bond to finance the construction of the project. The desire would be to have a major series of meetings with the public, building owners/property owners and shop owners before we conclude a final plan for sewers in Salado,” Blancett’s campaign said.