BELTON — Sheriff Eddy Lange sees Bell County entering uncharted territory this year — and for the next four years.
Managing growth and crime will be challenging, he said, since Texas lawmakers last year placed a 3.5 percent cap on the amount of property tax revenue local governments can raise on existing properties.
“That’s going to be our big-gest challenge going forward. We are still in a very high-growth area. Depending on who you talk to, it’s up to 10 percent a year,” Lange said, adding the county may need to expand the jail soon.
“Those numbers don’t work in the long scheme of things. It’s going to be very difficult moving forward as to how we’re going to provide services to the public as they continue to move into this area.”
Lange says his experience — two terms as sheriff, two terms as a county commissioner and four terms as a justice of the peace — will be needed as Bell County and the Commissioners Court, which sets the budget, grapple with growth issues.
Lange, 65, is seeking his third term as sheriff. But he faces opposition in his bid for four more years as Bell County’s top cop.
Killeen Police Detective Fred Harris is challenging Lange in the March 3 Republican primary.
Harris’ platform is straightforward: Make Bell County safe again.
“We’re not safe in this county,” he said. “We’re not prepared for when tragedy strikes.”
Voters in the March 3 primary will tap one of these two men to be Bell County’s chief law enforcement officer and be responsible for operating the county jail, investigating crimes, making arrests, enforcing traffic regulations on county roads and communicating with other law enforcement agencies. The job comes with a $112,108 annual salary.
Barring a third-party candidate, the winner will be uncontested in November.
Harris, 52, believes Lange has not gone far enough to keep residents safe.
“We need programs that come from the Sheriff’s Department, like a countywide sex trafficking task force. We need all municipalities and villages trained and prepared to respond to mass casualty shootings,” Harris said. “The third thing I’m running on: We are infested with gangs in this county. That’s not a myth, that’s a fact. We have MS-13 here.”
MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, has a small presence in the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Central Texas Region, according to the state agency’s gang threat assessment report from 2018.
Lange pushed back on Harris’ perception of Bell County being unsafe.
“I feel very safe in Bell County. I think most of the citizens here in Bell County feel safe,” the sheriff said.
He pointed to his department being on the edge of the human trafficking issue as one example of keeping the county safe. Lange set up the Special Crimes Unit to tackle the issue.
“I started tasking my people about five years ago with looking at the human trafficking issue before it became an issue,” Lange said. “They learned how to do these things. They came back and, not only did we learn how to do them, we learned how to do them very well. Not only did we learn how to do them, we became so good at it, we are now teaching others how to do these sting operations.”
Harris, who has worked in law enforcement for more than two decades, criticized the Sheriff’s Department’s sex trafficking stings. He characterized them as prostitution stings. Although prostitution is a crime, Harris said he is more concerned about getting to the systemic problems of sex trafficking.
“I’m concerned about people being forced into the sex trade, people being forced into the labor trade — the slave trade, if you will,” he said. “People who are truly victims because of, by no other means, they’re forced into something they don’t want to do. It’s a big deal. We are not as a county doing our part. That needs to start from the Sheriff’s Department.”
Lange, though, said his deputies are going beyond arresting the perpetrators of sex trafficking.
“We’re looking at the victims of human trafficking who are coming across (when we’re) doing these stings and we’re trying to get those folks some help through Unbound and the Methodist home and all kinds of other organizations, and getting those people some help and getting them out of that human trafficking industry,” the sheriff said.
He said that in the past three or four stings, the Sheriff’s Department showed around 100 victims some options to get them some help.
“I think part of the problem is that he’s a politician, not a lawman,” Harris said. “That office is kind of political so you have to be able to chew gum and walk at the same time. You’ve got to protect the citizens.”
Lange leaned into that label.
“Yes, I am — I really don’t like that term, but in this world, especially county government, it’s all politics,” Lange said, explaining that someone in his position has to know what’s going on inside his own department and across the entire county government. “This thing works together. Yeah, I run the Sheriff’s Department, but I don’t run the county. We all have to work together to make this criminal justice system work, and if one of us gets out of kilter it can cause problems for everybody. That’s why you have to be a politician in this job to make it run.”
Early voting continues through Friday. Election Day is March 3.