Governance up close

I'm not in office yet, not even officially elected until Tuesday, though I'd have to muck it up by the numbers to fail at this point, as I'm running unopposed.

But although I won't be sworn in as a county commissioner until next January, I've begun easing into my role by spinning up on a few projects that were begun under the current commissioner for my precinct, a neighbor and friend, and will still be in full swing when I take office.  One of these is the paving of a nearby road dedicated to the county but not yet accepted into its construction and maintenance program.

This business of a road's appearing in the plats as a "county road," but not yet accepted by the county, is a potent source of public confusion.  In Texas (and maybe elsewhere) they're called "paper roads."  They may be nothing but sand and an easement.  The dedication by the developer appears in the surveyed and recorded plats, but the effect is a standing offer to the county, which in later years it may or may not accept.  If it does accept, under state law it has no obligation to pay the cost of building the road, though once it accepts it, it does take on the obligation to maintain it unless the road is formally abandoned.  In practice, this county follows the usual path of offering to cover a portion of costs if the homeowners unite in requesting a road to be built.  The usual split here is 2/3 homeowner, 1/3 county.  The process of petitioning the county and taking a homeowner vote and collecting the cost over a period of several years seems quite flexible and humane.

It comes as a shock to many of the homeowners, however, who believe that a plat showing a "county road" means that someone promised them something, and they're not very inclined to be precise about who that was.  The idea that they may have a legitimate quarrel with their seller, or their title company, but not the county, is foreign, nitpicking, abhorrent. They are less fascinated than I by the state law that carefully restricts the county's ability to throw largesse around, a product of many years of experience in the crony deals that would result in taxpayer money being spent to build nice streets for the county judge's brother-in-law.

In the current case, a very short piece of residential street became an urgent problem in this fall's extraordinary rains--over 20 inches in October--and is as much a drainage issue as a paving one.  The county does take on the responsibility of improving drainage, more or less, subject to available resources.  Yesterday's meeting featured mostly homeowners who were fairly content with the message that the county probably could do something to improve the specific drainage problem on their small street in the near future at no cost to themselves.  They also seemed happy to learn that the county could build pave their street next summer at the cost of about $2,200 per lot payable over three years, after which the county would maintain the street more or less in perpetuity.

A few struggled hard with the idea that they should have to pay for any of this.  The county engineer bent the rules a bit some weeks back and dumped some gravel on a specially low and damaged spot, but didn't have enough off-budget material lying around to cover the whole street.  The reaction, as one might have guessed, is that people on the rest of the street felt they'd been given an unalterable right to the same largesse.  They reacted furiously to the notion that they ought to pass the hat and buy a few truckloads of gravel to tide themselves over to next summer.  One fellow argued that the drainage problem stemmed from further up the nearest cross-street and somehow was the county's fault, meaning the county owed him a free solution.  I noticed that the current commissioner and engineer simply heard him out patiently, a good lesson for me.  He wasn't carrying the crowd; no one wanted to hear a rebuttal.  There was talk of how engineers in the Panama Canal Zone solved drainage problems caused by 7 feet of rain, without much consideration given to how unusual conditions have to be before we are well-advised to spend tax dollars hardening against them.  The money comes from us, guys!

Those of us living in the unincorporated area of a small and not very rich county mostly do not assume the county will provide us with any services to speak of.  A few have an abiding faith in their right to demand expensive services from government.  They've elected me after a campaign in which I told anyone who would listen that my first instinct is to limit government's powers, not to ensure government services, but of course I know most weren't listening at all; few even voted.  Clearly a commissioner's job is to do what we can to spend the county's limited resources solving the most urgent problems in the fairest way we can manage.  Part of the job is to help people understand how the government works, given that whatever problem they're bringing to my attention could well be the first time they've tried to get the county government involved in a problem.  Most have never thought much about how it should work, let alone grappled with difficult questions about how to balance freedom, security, and convenience.  My first instinct always is "Why should I have to take your input into account in what I want to accomplish on my own property?"--but often what I hear from neighbors is more like "Why should I have to pay for anything that benefits me?"

It's likely to be an interesting four years.


J Melcher said...

Texas land speculators and developers have tricks aside from platting imaginary paper roads.

I'd encourage you to sit with your county appraiser and compare courthouse records showing developer-imposed Deed Restrictions that insist all their platted lots are, and must be, used for residential homesites only -- versus the same developers' applications for "open space" or "agricultural use" appraisals on tracts, comprised of several adjacent lots, supposedly used to produce hay, or pasture livestock, or grow grain.

Sometimes you'll see an application that was valid a few years ago, say if five 2 acre adjoining contiguous homesites were all in use together as a ten acre parcel of pasture. But if the 3rd-from-the-left, middle, platted site sells out from between the two and two of the others, what's left are divided parcels that don't meet customary size for that use. The sale of the middle lot SHOULD trigger what Texas property tax law calls a "rollback" penalty. The purchaser of the middle lots is usually so penalized. (That means he pays five years of tax on his homesite as if it were appraised during those prior years as a homesite rather than as pasture.) But often the adjoining tracts and parcel are treated as if they were grandfathered into the ag or open space appraisal treatment. They carry over until the speculator sells them, later, to another homesite buyer, who pays the rollback. The effect is that speculators escape property taxes justly due, while those actually intending to become resident taxpayers, voters, and citizens are welcomed to your jurisdiction with a whopping tax surprise.

Tying this to your own story -- if the developer is paying tax on his land as homesites, and/or pays the rollback taxes when he changes the use on several at a time when the first few homes in his develop begin to sell, there should be a windfall to the county in property tax collections that would support paving over the paper road. If the developer, however, avoids his tax obligations, and the rollback taxes hit a little at a time as homesites sell, then there is no way for the county to recognize that "THOSE" new funds are associated with "THESE" new voters.

Grim said...

I need to make a similar investigation into the status of weird roads in this state. I have one that runs across my property here, connecting the state-maintained road with a cemetery on the other side of my land. The state (or county, I'm not quite sure) will come out and clear it, grate it, and put gravel on it -- at least, they'll do so if the nice old lady up the way calls and asks them to do so, as she seems to be the recognized point of contact for that.

I'll need to understand the whole thing better sooner or later. Whom do you think I ought to talk to about it, if our system is similar to yours?

Robert Macaulay said...

Being on a government board (I'm a city Planning Commissioner in CA) is an interesting mix of knowing the details, the broad picture and the process. Listening and knowing whether or not to respond is an important part of that. I hope you have a business from the floor provision and, if not, that you put one in place.

Texan99 said...

Robert, the current commissioners are unbelievably resistant to "business from the floor." They either believe (incorrectly) that the Texas Open Meetings Act ties their hands, or they find that excuse convenient. Because I have a good grasp of what the Open Meetings Act allows us to say as commissioners in open meetings, I hope to break the atmosphere open a bit. We can't "deliberate" on any future policy that's not on the agenda, but we can always answer questions of fact or questions about current policy. That means that citizens may get in the habit of appearing in court to pose questions, because if I can answer them, I will. Right now the commissioners will sit mute in response to nearly any statement from the public. It's one of the problems that drove me to run for office. I think they also may be careless about what they include in closed sessions, and am looking forward to pushing back on that if I'm right. Like most people, they tend to assume that anything they choose to talk about with their lawyer in the room magically becomes privileged.

Grim, there are a number of people you could ask. Your county commissioners are a good bet, as is your county tax assessor. You probably have a department of roads and bridges; there will be someone in that office that knows all the highways and byways. Your local little old lady probably knows whom to call for info. It's good to be the neighborhood's unofficial rep! Maybe she'll train you as her successor.

J Melcher, this county is fierce on agricultural exemptions. Not only are the qualification standards hard to meet, but they're quite serious about collecting the rollback. We looked into qualifying our own property via some grazing animals or market garden or chickens or something, but were discouraged by the need to show years of net income from the operation. The only people I know with ag exemptions are running straight-up, no-kidding ranches. And we're in Robin-Hood status here, too, so our school taxes are awful without our having anything to show for it in the local schools.

Thos. said...

If you can, talk to a county planner, or road and bridge director, or county engineer from ANOTHER county - preferably some distance away.

Your local staff should be able to answer your questions, but if your county intends to claim that your road has become public by prescription, they might see you as a potential adversary, and they could be tempted to stonewall or bluff with their answers.

- A county planner (not in your state).

Thos. said...

You're probably right that they've gotten lax about their closed sessions. Almost all boards go through cycles where they alternate between being pretty vigilant about it and not.

As for their other practices regarding their meetings, it may be that they need to make some changes, but I can also think of good reasons for most of what you describe (not that the good reasons are their reasons, but I can think of them just the same). Either way, I'm sure you'll figure out something that works, and that you're comfortable with, sooner or later.

I don't think I've said this before (I read this blog frequently, but I don't comment very often), but good job on running for office. Local government service in the smaller jurisdictions can be a tough and thankless job. Good elected officials can make a huge difference for a lot of people.

Texan99 said...


I think these guys would be most comfortable going into closed session for the entirety of every meeting, with occasional exceptions for photo ops with people who are donated something or receiving an award. Our county attorney gives them, let's say, less than stellar advice on this procedure. Oh, man, she's going to HATE letting me sit in on closed sessions.

I currently sit on another public board for a small local improvement district. We have counsel with lots of experience representing this kind of district. He's meticulous about advising us what limited topics need to occur in closed session and then getting us back into open session as soon as possible. I have to resign from that board when I take county office in January, which I'll regret. It's been interesting.

douglas said...

I only have tangential experience with "paper streets" and Rights of Way and the governmental agencies that are responsible for them (so value this advice accordingly), but my take on who to talk to is to start from the bottom and work up. It's often good to see what the underlings are being told to tell people (and there's the chance they'll give you some honest insight behind the scenes), before you work your way up to the people making policy and specific decisions, who may have many reasons to be less than forthcoming with you.

Tom said...

Hm. Once you take office, can we call you T Rex? ;-)

Looking forward to reading your adventures in governance.

Texan99 said...

The current commissioner and the Roads & Bridges guy were both at the meeting and reasonably forthcoming about the procedure. It sounds like they have a good idea how to address the drainage (on the county's nickel) as well as how to get through the required procedure for the paving (2/3-1/2 split cost). I was relieved that the county wasn't resisting at all. The only possible trouble spot looked like the possibility that some homeowners were going to try to argue that they shouldn't have to pay the usual 2/3 of the cost, because the county had failed to cure a drainage problem with the result that stormwater runoff made the paving project more necessary, or more urgent. Now it seems that, if the homeowners really were trying to argue that, they've more or less given it up. I think they're going to cooperate with the county's procedure and all will end well.

Robert Macaulay said...

Tex, we recently amended our agenda in the middle of the meeting. Reason: 45 minutes of business from the floor, but Commissioner comments still an hour away (at meeting's end), so working folks were leaving. We added an early Commission comments section so they could know what we heard and were thinking, even if we weren't taking action. Whether or not they agreed with us, they knew someone actually listened.
Even if you're the only one who takes business from the floor seriously, you'll set an expectation that the others may have to start to live up to. Gotta begin somewhere.

Texan99 said...

The Open Meetings Act would invalidate our actions, I think, if we tried to amend the agenda to add a policy during the meeting. If it's really urgent, we can always call a special meeting a couple of days later and get it done. They also try to write the agenda broadly enough that any conceivable measure that's relevant to an item is fair game. In fact, the agenda is so vague that it's not particularly easy to guess what they're up to, which sort of defeats the purpose of the Open Meetings Act, but does make life easier for them.

Tom, I think Your Excellency Madame T Rex would be acceptable. For now, all I am demanding is Your Excellency Madame T Rex-Elect. Or maybe Elect-Presumptive, since the election is not until tomorrow.

Robert Macaulay said...

Tex, we didn't add a policy or take an official action. We did ask staff to schedule a follow-up on the topic at the next meeting, and than could lead to a later action, and we did this when the interested members of the public were still in the room.

Texan99 said...

That's completely appropriate--it shows that the board is listening to the public and putting something on the next agenda so it can be formally addressed. It's what my Commissioner's Court should do more often instead of staring at us like fish on ice.