Mart officials say inaction by the McLennan County commissioner who represents their city is forcing them to rely on other county leaders as they finalize plans to overhaul the city’s water system and many of its streets.
“I don’t believe there has ever been a more important project in the long and storied history of Mart, Texas,” Mart Mayor Pro Tem Henry Witt III said. “We have housing developers, businesses and investors who will come to Mart, if the water system and streets are fixed.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture signed off on a $17.5 million Rural Development grant in August 2015 that will allow Mart to revamp its water supply and distribution infrastructure. The project will also require rebuilding of streets that cover water lines.
Witt said he first spoke with Precinct 2 Commissioner Lester Gibson in hopes of reaching an interlocal agreement for the county to provide labor and equipment for the road work, a common arrangement between the county and smaller cities.
But Gibson has not spoken to Witt, who is leading Mart’s project, in months, he said. Gibson has not attended a commissioners court meeting since September and did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Mart is hoping to seek bids by May to keep the project on track to start this summer.
The city has planned the project with the understanding the county would assist with the roadwork, and the added cost of an outside contractor would limit the scope of the work it could do, Witt said.
Gibson’s administrative assistant, Patricia “Pat” Chisolm-Miller, said Mart’s request is too large for one precinct to handle, brushing aside Witt’s allegations of poor representation. Chisolm-Miller, who is running for her boss’ seat as he retires at the end of the year, said discussions with the city have been ongoing.
Chisolm-Miller said she and Witt, along with the county engineer and the city’s engineering firm, MRB/Gray Engineers LLC, have worked over the past few months to discuss an interlocal agreement. Chisolm-Miller said the project would cost more than $260,000, including $172,000 in labor and equipment and $96,000 in materials. She said that $260,000 expense would wipe out about a third of Precinct 2’s annual road and bridge budget.
“We wouldn’t be able to do hardly any other project for any of the other areas,” she said. “We’re just staff trying to kick around ideas with the engineer. To officially discuss it, they have to come before the court.”
Mart is looking for help on about 20 miles of road. Witt said he knows the county would need to space the project out over a few years, and it has been the city’s intent from the start to cover the cost of materials while seeking county help on labor and equipment.
“I think the root of the problem is we don’t have an active county commissioner,” Witt said. “We’re working through abnormal channels to get things done and it’s causing delays in negotiations and impeding progress.”
The county often helps smaller government entities with road work, County Judge Scott Felton said. Typically, a county precinct’s road and bridge department would provide equipment and a crew to work with materials provided by the smaller entity. Smaller cities often cannot afford to buy the type of road equipment the county has, Felton said.
The county assistance is not free, but residents already pay county taxes that fund the precinct road and bridge departments, said Felton, the only member of the commissioners court who does not oversee a road and bridge department.
Commissioners use a standard form created by the county attorney that can be tailored to each interlocal agreement, County Administrator Dustin Chapman said. The Texas Government code allows commissioners to enter the agreements, if they get approval from the full commissioners court and the other entity’s elected board, he said.
Witt said he understands Mart’s project is fairly large, but it has been years since the city has gotten this type of help from the county.
“Other cities are getting interlocal agreements like that with the county, so it’s not as if it’s unheard of,” Witt said. “Keep in mind, Mart citizens pay county taxes too, and we haven’t had an interlocal agreement with the county since 2010. Our taxpayers pay the county around $250,000 a year. Therefore, Mart taxpayers have paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million in county taxes since our last interlocal agreement. So, to say this project would cost the county $200,000 is absurd.”
Felton said Mart city leaders have reached out to him and his office, and he has been told the city will present to the whole court because officials could not get a response from Gibson.
Mart leaders are expected to go before the full court March 20.
“It’s a little bit of a political relationship between a commissioner and city leaders,” Felton said. “A commissioner can choose to do it or not. If they choose not to cooperate with the city, that’s making some type of political statement, I’d think. It’s a practical relationship too. All the folks in that city live in the county.”
In this case, there has also been an unusually high number of complaints from across Precinct 2 about a lack of representation, Felton said. It is common to get occasional complaints that may or may not be founded, but this case is different, he said.
Witt has led the charge on Mart’s water and street project, and the city is doing its best to make sure it gets the most out of the grant money, Mart Mayor Len Williams said.
“Each one of our council members have little areas, some work with the parks, some work with codes and streets. It takes the whole council and their expertise … to run the city basically,” Williams said. “We don’t have a city manager. Each one of the city elected officials take on a role that they investigate to present to the entire council.”
An outside contractor providing all equipment and personnel for the project would be more expensive than an interlocal agreement with the county, he said.
“I know there’s been some comments made that I don’t know that some people hear the whole total context in what’s being said. I don’t want to get into that. It comes back to petty politics,” Williams said. “We’re trying to work for the good and the betterment of the Mart community. … The citizens of Mart also pay county taxes. We want to make sure they get their bang for their buck. … We don’t want to bite any hands that feed us. We don’t want to hurt feelings.”
County Engineer Zane Dunnam, who started with the county in July, said he has been aware of discussions with Mart about the road situation dating back to August. Typically, the county engineer’s office only cuts the check for interlocal agreements, Dunnam said. However, his office has worked and met with Mart leaders and their engineers to work out an agreement for its project.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones, Precinct 1 Commissioner Kelly Snell, and Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry each said the road and bridge foremen for their precincts can often handle the work without going to the county engineer.
The commissioners said assisting smaller entities with road work is an important part of what they do, and the agreements are typically settled before they are presented to the full commissioners court.
Jones said he has not seen an entity go to the court directly for an agreement during his time in office.
“Their citizens pay county taxes, so they pay for the equipment and things like that,” he said. “I think it’s important that we all work together to make the roads as good as they can be.”
Snell said he tries to do three roads per city a year, though that number changes based on need.
“I try to do a few roads for each one of my cities every year,” Snell said.