A state-of the-county report was presented Wednesday by Bell County Judge David Blackburn, attracting about 50 people to the Activities Center at the Stewart C. Meyer Public Library.
The Governmental Affairs Committee of the Harker Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event.
Blackburn serves as county judge along with members of the Bell County Commissioners Court: Russell Schneider, Bobby Whitson, Bill Schumann and John Driver.
Using a Power Point presentation, Blackburn highlighted statistics about Bell County: the budget, county jail, indigent health care, consolidated polling centers, the census and redistricting.
The actual population of Bell County is 386,014. The growth rate, in an eight-year period from 2011-2019, has risen 21.5%, outranking the state of Texas that had 16.6% growth in that time and the United States at 5.7%.
The population of Bell County in 1960 was 94,097.
The budget for Bell County is: All funds, $152 million; operating funds, $131 million; and the general fund at $107 million.
Using several minutes of his time to talk about the two jails run by the County, he asked the crowd if any of them knew how many inmates were in the Bell County Jail on Tuesday morning. Most answers were too high.
Blackburn said on Wednesday, “As of this morning there were 950. The capacity of the jail is 1,184.”
Of the $70 million that is spent on courts and public safety, the amount related directly to the jail is $21 million and 251 employees.
“It’s beginning to be a problem as we rapidly approach capacity,” Blackburn said.
He laughingly said that the first two on our option list are to buy bus tickets and send them to Williamson County and to drop them off in front of the Mayor’s house.
The other options are to contract with other counties to place inmates at their jails, build more jail capacity and move inmates through the jail at a faster pace.
“You don’t want to know how long some have been there,” Blackburn said of the prisoners in the Bell County Jail.
Speaking of the jail, Blackburn encouraged the group to come and take a tour of the jail. “I have four daughters and made sure they saw the jail up close and personal because I wanted to scare the heck out of them.”
There are two jails, the Loop Jail built at a cost of over $41 million and the Central Jail in downtown Belton. The Loop Jail has a capacity of 658 beds.
Construction costs only at the Loop Jail were $62,000 per bed. Divide that into operating cost of another $31,000 per year and the jails are not a small investment, according to Blackburn.
Blackburn also spoke of Bell County Indigent Health Care. This facility provides only basic health services and according to Chapter 61 of the Health and Safety Code that means primary care, immunizations, in-patient and outpatient hospital services, lab work, X-rays, skilled nursing facilities and drug prescriptions.
Qualifying for indigent care is driven by residency and income. There are currently 410 people taking advantage of indigent health care, Blackburn said.
Other issues he addressed explained that consolidated polling centers are coming to the county and will allow residents to vote at the place of their choice.
“In the long run, it’s cheaper, more convenient and efficient with more locations,” Blackburn said. “It’s a process that has to be approved but when both the chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties meet in my office and tell me that we need to do this. They both agreed vigorously that it’s the way to go.”
There will be more information forthcoming about this new system.
The next big issue mentioned by Blackburn was the 2020 Census.
“It’s a big deal,” he said. “What our population is affects multiple entities across the county, both public and private in terms of funding. It is imperative that we get the best count.”
In closing, Blackburn talked about redistricting by saying that the purpose is that it’s constitutional and determines the apportioning of seats that are in the House of Representatives. It works itself all the way down to county precinct lines.