The Smith County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Monday to call a bond election for November 7, 2017, to give the citizens of Smith County the opportunity to approve or disapprove the issuance of bonds for road and bridge construction and major improvements.
If approved, the bond will be issued over a three-year period, in an amount not to exceed $39.5 million. The money received from the bonds will be used to pay for major county road and bridge projects over three years, which, according to commissioners, is Phase I of a six-year Road and Bridge Capital Improvement Project.
If approved, the bonds would have a 10-year pay-back period, and are anticipated to be issued as needed in increments of $12 million during the first year, $12 million during the second year and $15.5 million during the third year. The bonds are anticipated to increase the I&S portion of the tax rate by 0.7 cents per $100 valuation. For a home valued at $200,000, this means an increase in property taxes of $14 annually. The average home in Smith County is valued at $165,841, resulting in an increase in property taxes of $11.61 annually.
The process of developing a Road and Bridge Capital Improvement Plan began in 2015, when Smith County hired Atkins Engineering to analyze the condition of each road in the county. That study resulted in the identification of up to $98 million in road projects in Smith County. Over the past three years, Smith County has dedicated $10 million from its reserve fund, in addition to what is annually budgeted to pay cash for a number of these projects.
Building on the Atkins Engineering study, the Commissioners Court held a series of citizen input meetings this summer to receive additional information and comments from citizens in each geographic region of the county regarding road and bridge conditions and needs. County officials also solicited and received more than 200 Citizen Feedback Forms from county residents.
At the beginning of August, County Engineer Frank Davis presented his first working draft of a six-year plan that covered both maintenance and construction items needed throughout the county.
Commissioners have since made clear that they intend to pay for all maintenance-related items in the six-year plan using the county’s operational budget and additional money from its reserve fund. The proposed Fiscal Year 2018 budget for the county shows an additional $2 million dedicated from reserves for road and bridge projects. County Judge Nathaniel Moran has committed to dedicate at least an additional $1.5 million more from reserves before the FY18 budget is adopted to ensure that all maintenance-related items in year one of the road and bridge working draft plan are paid for in cash.
The county will continue to hold meetings and provide information to the public about the working road and bridge strategic plan from now through Election Day.
“The role of the Commissioners Court is simply to call the bond election and then provide factual information to our citizens,” Judge Moran said. “The court plays an informational role, not a persuasive one. It is ultimately up to the citizens to determine whether the bond proposal should be adopted or not.”
Commissioner Jeff Warr, who the Commissioners Court appointed as its liaison to help put together the plan with Davis and Judge Moran, said, “The road and bridge strategic planning process was citizen-driven and citizen-oriented from the beginning. That’s the way it should be. And, now that the process has resulted in the calling of a bond election, it’s up to the voters to become as informed as possible and decide whether this is the direction they want to go or not.”
Citizens can view the initial, full six-year working draft road and bridge plan, which includes both maintenance and construction items, on the county’s website, at www.smith-county.com. On the right-hand side of the webpage, midway up under “County Residents,” is a link to the “Road & Bridge Strategic Planning Process.” Click on the “Click Here for More Information” button, and the draft plan can be found by clicking on the “Resources” tab at the top of the big yellow box. The county also has plans to include a Phase I and Phase II breakdown of those road and bridge construction projects it anticipates paying for with funds raised from the issuance of bonds, if they are approved.
“Transparency has been our commitment throughout this process, and it will continue to be that way,” Judge Moran said.
“We trust the voters to be informed about the plan, and we are committed to providing the necessary information to make that happen on Election Day. Voters can make their voice heard in an informed manner,” Commissioner Cary Nix said. “That’s what we want in this situation — to present a road and bridge plan citizens have been asking for and allow them to make the ultimate decision on that plan. Whatever happens, we will respect their voice.”
Commissioner Nix said he would like to pledge to citizens that they will try to pay off any voter-approved bonds earlier than required, if possible. The rest of the court agreed.
Commissioner JoAnn Hampton said she was fine with the road plan being done in two phases, as long as the roadwork in Phase II is not forgotten after work in Phase 1 is completed. “Accountability is everything,” she added.
Commissioner Terry Phillips said the Commissioners Court promised the public to work on addressing the county’s road problems. After engaging Atkins Engineering and having the County Engineer, Frank Davis, come up with a “workable and reasonable plan,” the Commissioners Court is putting it out there for the voters to decide.
He said their job is to not tell residents whether to vote for or against the plan, but hopefully the Commissioners Court has done its job and can move forward with getting the county’s roads improved.