With four candidates running, the race for Precinct 4 county commissioner has generated a buzz among voters. Monday night all the candidates attended the primary election forum hosted by the Bridgeport Lions Club and outlined their goals and ideas on hot-button issues.
Republicans facing off in the March 4 primary include Gaylord Kennedy, David Stewart and current Precinct 4 Commissioner Terry Ross, who pleaded guilty last fall to abuse of official capacity and has been suspended since August 2012.
The Republican winner will face Democrat Kristina Kemp in November’s general election.
Each candidate was given three minutes to introduce themselves and present their platforms before the program shifted to a question-and-answer session.
Ross was the first to speak and told voters that he “runs a tight ship.”
“I have a smaller crew and can get more done,” he said, noting that his payroll regularly runs $200,000 to $250,000 less than the other three precincts.
He also told the crowd that he doesn’t waste taxpayer money, and he looks forward to working with a new county judge.
Kennedy, a supervisor in Precinct 4, said his thorough knowledge of county roads in combination with his experience serving on the Bridgeport school board makes him a good candidate.
Stewart, who is also employed in Precinct 4, said he can make more improvements with less money.
“We can cut $200,000 to $300,000 right of the top of this thing and do with less than what we’re doing right now,” he said.
Kemp noted that she has 12 years experience in business management and production control and has handled contracts totaling $40 million. She also told voters that commissioners recently appointed her to the advisory board of directors for the County Energy Transportation Reinvestment Zone, and she is a volunteer for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Wise and Jack counties.
Kemp also founded the first student volunteer organization at Weatherford College Wise County.
After introducing themselves, candidates addressed questions from the crowd. Two of the five questions submitted for the Precinct 4 candidates were not asked because they were deemed by the moderators as a personal attack.
Candidates were instead asked how much money is in the Precinct 4 budget, how they planned to spend it and what projects would be best served with that money.
Kemp said last year that Precinct 4 came in $800,000 under budget, and she wasn’t sure if that was a good thing.
“That’s a lot of money, and it makes me wonder if something didn’t get done,” she said. “I have looked at the budget previously, and the numbers have been very good. We get a decent amount of work done.”
She did say she’d like to see money earmarked for youth and to provide services to help meet the needs of children in Wise County.
Stewart said the 2013 budget wasn’t available when he attempted to get a copy. He said the precinct is currently running under-budget in part because interim Commissioner Glenn Hughes, who was appointed when Ross was suspended, has tried to be conservative in his spending and not make financial commitments that would be difficult for the next commissioner to maintain.
“He didn’t want to spend a lot of money, just being interim,” Stewart said, “and he’s cut back on a lot of things that he normally would do because he didn’t want to make certain commitments so he hasn’t spent a lot of money.
“If you don’t spend it, you lose it,” he said. “You give it back and give it to the other precincts and that doesn’t compute.”
Stewart indicated he would like commissioners to reconsider a 2011 decision that requires a portion of the leftover road money in each precinct be put in a road-and-bridge reserve fund. Money in the reserve fund can be used by any precinct for roadwork, as long as the withdrawal is first approved by the other commissioners.
Kennedy and Ross both said the Precinct 4 budget is right at $2 million.
Kennedy said since most are paved, he wants to evaluate the safety of the roads. He said people drive faster on the paved roads and sometimes safety has been overlooked.
He said guard rails already have been installed in some areas, and it’s something that will continue to be studied. He also noted that he and Hughes had discussed using more asphalt on the roads instead of chip and seal.
Ross took issue with the other candidates, saying the roads were “done.” He indicated that Precinct 4 had recently “wasted” $60,000 because crews simply re-topped instead of tearing out and redoing, as Ross had scheduled.
“TxDOT says a road has a seven-year life,” he said. “We’ve got roads that we can get a 15-year life out of and some that only last seven. If you put them on a 10-year cycle, you’d have to do 21 miles per year.”
He said after purchasing materials, it doesn’t leave much money for fuel and equipment.
Candidates also were asked to address the earthquake issues affecting Wise County residents – and if they thought the oil and gas industry was to blame.
“It’s not the actual fracking. It’s the water injection sites,” Kemp said. “… I’m not afraid to say it.”
Kemp said she hoped water used in fracking could be recycled, which would reduce the water injection sites and in turn, eliminate the problem.
Ross said he doesn’t know if the oil and gas industry is to blame, but he anticipates a battle. He emphasized the power of energy companies.
Kennedy said the state is investigating the issue, and he hopes the Railroad Commission’s study will uncover an answer.
“The jury is out on it, and they have someone at the state level trying to figure it out,” he said. “Maybe (oil and gas) is the problem, maybe not. The faults are way below where the injection wells go to. Do I think it’s causing it? I don’t know.”
Stewart said no one knows for sure.
“Only God can tell us exactly what happened,” he said. “I really don’t believe that it was the injection wells or fracking or anything like that … Once the geologists make a decision then we’ll have to address it at that point.”
The final question of the night was about fire department funding and if commissioners thought it should be increased.
All agreed departments could use more the money if available.
“They shouldn’t be out begging for money to save someone’s life,” Stewart said. “They need to be able to buy whatever equipment they need to save someone’s life.”
The Decatur Wal-Mart, 800 S. U.S. 81/287, is hosting early voting 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Feb. 22. Early voting continues through Feb. 28 at three locations in Wise County, including Decatur City Hall, 201 E. Walnut; Rhome City Hall, 105 First St.; and the Bridgeport Law Enforcement Center, 1000 Thompson St.