The Bell County Commissioners Court will have a new look after the first of the year.
With the retirement of the longtime county judge and the election defeat of two veteran commissioners, the county’s governing body is bound to face some additional challenges.
However, the new members also will bring a new perspective and additional skill sets to the court, which have the potential to create new opportunities.
Precinct 2 Commissioner-elect Bobby Whitson brings several years of business and banking experience to the court.
The new Precinct 4 commissioner, John Driver, has a strong affiliation with the military, having retired from the Army as a battalion command sergeant major and then working as a military contractor.
In addition, as the first black commissioner in the history of the court, Driver brings a much-needed minority perspective to county government.
County Judge-elect David Blackburn has extensive administrative experience, having served as the city manager for both Killeen and Temple. Additionally, his most recent role, as director of the Temple Economic Development Corp., puts him in a position to provide valuable input in the area of business growth and development.
Still, with the transition to the new court, the county will be losing 60 years of experience in county government.
Earlier this year, Whitson defeated longtime Precinct 2 Commissioner Tim Brown, who had served 24 years on the court. On Tuesday, Driver outpolled John Fisher, a four-term incumbent, for the Precinct 4 seat. And retiring Jon Burrows takes with him 20 years of experience as county judge.
That leaves just Precinct 3 Commissioner Bill Schumann, who is in the middle of his second four-year term, and Precinct 1 Commissioner Russell Schneider, who is two years into his first term.
Though the court’s newly elected officials may be facing a steep learning curve in some areas, they are starting work in a highly favorable position. Burrows said Friday that the county’s major infrastructure projects have been completed and the county has no outstanding debt.
Indeed, over the past two decades, the county has seen incredible growth, both in population and economic activity.
Fisher pointed out last week that the county had kept its tax rate the same for the past seven years — thanks in large part to that continued growth. The county has also refinanced its loans several times, saving an average of $1 million in each instance, Fisher noted.
Certainly, running a county with a population of nearly 400,000 residents and an annual $90 million budget doesn’t just happen. It requires strong leadership, good stewardship and a commitment to work together for the good of the county’s residents.
While Bell County’s rapid growth has been a boon to its coffers, it has also presented challenges as far as road infrastructure, water resources and law enforcement responsibilities.
With the departure of Brown and Fisher from the court, the county is losing two of its biggest advocates for securing and maintaining water rights — a major concern as population growth continues along the I-35 corridor. Now it’s up to others on the court to pick up that mantle.
In addition, the county needs elected officials who are willing to speak up to legislators and the governor whenever state guidelines and unfunded mandates negatively impact the county’s residents or resources. Burrows last week cited three such areas: Indigent health care, indigent defense and the disproportionate impact of the disabled veterans tax exemption.
In some cases, taking action on behalf of the county isn’t just a matter of what you know, but who you know — and building relationships with the key players simply takes time.
That’s especially true in the case of Brown, who is serving on several state boards and commissions, including the Brazos Region G Planning Group, a subgroup of the Texas Water Development Board. After his departure from the court, his influence on regional water issues will be difficult to replace.
In the final analysis, the newcomers to the court are to be commended for their willingness to serve the county and its residents. They are also to be congratulated on their election victories.
Come next January, the hard work of running the county begins.
No doubt, the new judge and county commissioners will bring distinctive skills, new perspectives and a new energy to the court.
Blackburn last week called the transition an opportunity for a fresh start. That’s certainly a positive approach.
However, given the lack of experience on the court, members are likely to face occasional challenges that call for historical context or institutional knowledge.
In those instances, they shouldn’t hesitate to call a former commissioner or retired county judge.
For their parts, Brown, Fisher and Burrows all said they would be glad to help whenever they were needed.
That’s certainly gratifying to hear.
It’s understood that a change in leadership is a necessary part of democracy, and it often brings with it new ideas, perspectives and innovations that otherwise might not be shared.
Still, the loss of several decades of knowledge and experience is lamentable — especially to those who must make decisions in its aftermath.
That’s why it’s good to hear that longtime officials are willing to share their knowledge after leaving the public stage.
No doubt, our new county officials will strive to work hard, research the issues and make the best possible decisions on residents’ behalf.
Even so, they should take comfort in knowing that when they need it, help is just a phone call away.