The year just ending was certainly a year of change.
That’s not unusual in this fast-growing Central Texas community, but in 2018, much of that change was initiated at the ballot box.
Over the past 12 months, Killeen-area voters approved a $426 million school bond issue, chose a new state representative and elected the first Democrat to the county commissioners court in 20 years.
Voters also had a chance to vote in the first regional water board election in more than two decades, electing former Killeen City Councilman Richard “Dick Young,” a newcomer to the board, and turning out incumbent board member Mike Miller.
Some of the changes brought about by area voters will have a considerable impact in the new year.
With the election losses of two incumbent commissioners and the retirement of longtime County Judge Jon Burrows, the commissioners court will have lost a combined 60 years of county government experience when it convenes again next month.
That is sure to impact the way the court does business — at least in the short term.
District 54 voters’ election of Killeen veterinarian Dr. Brad Buckley means that for the second time in two years, much of Killeen will be represented in Austin by a freshman legislator.
Finally, the voter-approved school bond issue will change the face of the district through new construction and upgrades to existing facilities — including a new high school in south Killeen, a new middle school and a $175 million renovation to Killeen High School. In saying “yes” to the bond, district voters agreed to add about $175 a year to their annual property tax bill, on average.
That represents a significant bump in residents’ but it also reflects a belief that the district must meet the needs of its growing student population.
What can Central Texas residents look forward to in the coming year?
For one thing, they can look for the Killeen Independent School District to roll out plans for several of the construction projects funded by the bond issue. To date, a few projects have morphed from the original plans, but the district has kept the public apprised of major changes. Residents must continue to stay engaged and demand continued transparency.
Killeen residents can expect continued efforts to add revenue to the tight city budget, such as the controversial, recently passed street maintenance fee — which will be assessed to residential and commercial water bills beginning in July — and an impact fee, which is still in the committee discussion stage.
The city’s voters can expect a spirited municipal election campaign this spring, as Killeen’s four district council seats are up for election. Much of the campaign rhetoric is likely to focus on the city’s financial future.
On the state level, Killeen-area residents can anticipate a major push in the Legislature by Buckley and District 55 state Rep. Hugh Shine of Temple to change the way the state handles the disabled veterans property tax exemption.
Currently, Killeen loses about $3.5 million a year in property tax revenue because of exempted properties for disabled veterans — this despite the state reimbursing the city a little over $1 million. Harker Heights stands to lose $1.5 million from its property tax revenue in the coming year, and because of the way the state law is written, the city receives no state compensation.
Buckley has said his top priority will be working for legislation that fully compensates communities disproportionately impacted by the mandate, such as Killeen and Harker Heights. It’s an initiative Buckley’s predecessor worked toward as well, but the bill Rep. Scott Cosper co-sponsored with Shine fell short of Senate passage in 2017.
The degree to which Buckley and Shine succeed will determine the budget trajectories of several Fort Hood-area communities over the next two years, as the impact of the exemption is expected to grow by about 30 percent annually.
If nothing is done about better compensating our local communities, city leaders may be forced to reduce programs and services in the face of dwindling revenue.
Ironically, these cuts could negatively impact the same deserving veterans who are benefitting from the tax exemption.
Certainly, our veterans deserve our full support, and they should receive the best medical care available. This is especially true of those veterans who suffer from service-related injuries and illnesses.
For these veterans, the proximity of Fort Hood’s state-of-the-art Darnall Army Medical Center and the nearby Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Temple should serve as guarantees that top-quality medical care is assured.
But as we enter a new year, our community is becoming increasingly aware of an area where our service members are having to fight to receive medical care.
Sadly, some of our community’s residents are among the 3.7 million active-duty service members and veterans who were exposed to the toxic smoke from open burn pits in areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan during the War on Terror. Now, many of them are submitting claims to the Department of Veterans Affairs for what they believe are related illnesses. However, without proof, they are unable to receive medical treatment from the VA.
The Herald has focused on this issue with a special series, which revealed a widespread problem and drew readers’ comments from across the nation.
At the end of the year, a measure was proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives to help our impacted veterans. It is imperative that our local congressional representatives, Reps. John Carter and Roger Williams, make it a priority to get this important measure passed.
If VA treatment is opened to affected veterans, that system likely will be overwhelmed.
That’s where our community can play a big role in the coming year — and in future years.
With more services, more specialists and more research needed, it would be in the Army’s best interest to make Fort Hood a hub for this area of medical concern.
Just as the post has distinguished itself in the diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injuries, Fort Hood could be a leader in assisting service members and veterans impacted by burn pit exposure.
Moreover, as the recently established Army Futures Command begins operations in Austin, Fort Hood — in conjunction with area medical facilities and universities — could become the high-tech, biomedical hub for the armed services.
This would benefit our veterans, expand educational and employment opportunities, and make the Fort Hood community a magnet for medical researchers and specialists.
Just as the area’s residents helped to bring about some significant changes in 2018, residents can help to facilitate greater developments in the coming year by staying engaged and making their voices heard to their elected representatives at all levels of government.
Working together, we can make 2019 a truly special year.