Wilco candidates, state official, taxpayer advocates talk local debt (TX)

The Austin American-Statesman reports “debt” as the new four-letter word driving many primary campaigns and cites two Williamson County races, Lee Ann Seitsinger challenging Precinct 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman and Gregory Windham facing Precinct 3 Commissioner Valerie Covey, as prime examples.

As “one of the most indebted counties in the state,” the Texas Bond Review Board ranks Williamson County’s $823.5 million principal outstanding bond debt third in the state behind Harris ($1.77 billion) and Bexar ($849.4 million).  The county has the state’s fifth-highest per capita bond debt.

How taxpayers see this debt level   – as a mortgage, an obligation that can be refinanced and made less cumbersome with changing economic conditions, or an overcharged credit card imprudently created via out of control spending – will likely impact the future composition of the Williamson County Commissioners Court.

Per the Statesman, Covey defends the county’s debt saying “the road projects that a majority of the bonds have paid for benefit her constituents and that it’s why she supports the bond use” as well as that “it would have been irresponsible not to spend the money on infrastructure in the face of such growth.”

Birkman reminds how “the voters have spoken on that” making the point that much of the debt was voter-approved prior to either official’s election to office.  She further described the bond debt as funding projects “we needed for the county because of this awesome growth” and that borrowed money is not used to pay for the county’s daily operations.

Challengers Seitseinger and Windham provide different perspective.  Seitsinger compares the runaway debt to our out-of-control national debt.  She told the Statesman, “It’s clear we’ve got an enormous problem — we can’t sustain such high debt,” Seitsinger said.  “Every man, woman and child owes Williamson County almost $2,000.”

Besides graphically highlighting fiscal concerns in his campaign materials, Windham gave the Statesman this perspective on history of the bond debt.

Windham said taxpayer money was used to promote the road bond initiatives before they were passed by voters. Although the current commissioners were not in power at the time, he said, they are backed financially by the same people who backed the previous Commissioners Court.

Williamson County’s civil discourse complements the message State Comptroller Susan Combs is currently delivering as she travels the state to warn local governments of new downward pressure that will occur as the federal healthcare mandate not only drives up Medicaid spending, but consequently creates new funding restrictions with other programs.

Combs warns that local governments must prepare for a shift in their funding sources and responsibilities.  The Temple Daily Telegram reports how at a March 9 Bell County town hall meeting, Combs asked “If the juggernaut from Washington is coming, how do we in Texas take any control over what we are doing?” and went on to counsel that local government spending, including the issuance of new debt, must be addressed.  Before considering any new debt, she encouraged knowing “the amount of debt that you are already on the hook for?”

Peggy Venable, Texas Director of Americans for Prosperity, echoes this sentiment advising that though local governments often position new debt as “a few pennies here, a few dollars there“:

Those pennies add up to dollars, and we’ve built ourselves a monster of a debt, one dollar at a time. Texas’ local debt totals are headed in the wrong direction. Texas ranked third among the most populous states in per-capital local government in 2008 before taking our current dubious second place standing.

In the final analysis, it is our children who will be left holding the bag. Our children are inheriting debt for projects for which they will never see the benefit. Simply put, this is inexcusable.

With regard to the Williamson County elections, Venable told the Statesman that “the fact that the campaign is bringing the debt to light is a great thing.”

“As I talk about local debt, I do acknowledge that just like buying a house, there are times it’s appropriate to go into debt,” she said.

However, Venable said, she fears taxpayers and voters are not well enough informed about their local debt, which is part of the reason they’ve so readily approved such big bond issues.

“It’s so easy to spend somebody else’s money, and that’s what I see so often happening,” Venable said.

She said it’s important for elected officials to be transparent and fully inform voters.

While local debt has yet to be a significant topic in Bell County, the issue’s prominence in Williamson County races is indeed an encouraging sign.  Williamson County voters are likely seeing their local government’s actions in a larger context that undoubtedly will influence the upcoming election – a trend that will hopefully spread across our great state as candidates, public officials and taxpayer advocates continue stressing the urgency of this message.

Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture. She is the Online Producer at www.EstateofDenial.com, a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity – Texas and a Director of Women on the Wall. Lou Ann may be contacted at info@EstateofDenial.com.

  • Wilcowatcher

    The voters may have approved the road bonds, but never forget that the Commissioners spent over a million dollars with a VERY connected PR firm (check their campaign contributions…) to sell the taxpayers on the idea. If this debt was SO very good for us, was a million dollar PR campaign really necessary?