McLennan County Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry, 55, of Woodway, an insurance agent, a former police officer and a Republican, seeks re-election to what would be his third four-year term. Early voting in the Republican primary election begins on Feb. 20 with Election Day on March 6.
Q With mounting responsibilities of a county commissioner in a fast-growing county, do you still work in the insurance business?
A I have a desk. They’ve moved me to the break room now. I’m technically still associated with them, but I haven’t written an insurance policy on a client in eight years.
Q How about your co-ownership of Shipley Do-Nuts. If I said, “Ben, can you come in and make doughnuts?” could you make them?
A I cannot make them, but I can fry them. [Laughter in the room.] Making them is a little more complicated.
Q What prompts you to run for a third term as county commissioner?
A We’ve got several things on the front burner now. I’m committed to seeing the unit road system to fruition or a version of it. That will take a year or two, at least, to get it formulated and built and implemented in the county. We’ve got this venue project at the [county] fairground [to improve and expand fairground facilities] and I’d like to see that through to its completion. And there’s $27 million of road work kicking off in Precinct 4 with a timeline for starting and completion probably to the end of the next term. There’ll be the Speegleville Road rebuilt from Highway 6 to Highway 84 and then Chapel Road from Old Lorena Road to the city of Waco at the intersection of Ritchie. And we still have the project at Ritchie Road, splitting it with the city of Hewitt. There’s 4,000 new rooftops in Precinct 4, I just found out the day before yesterday, that are designed to be built. So with the growth that’s going on right now, with the projects we’ve started, I feel compelled to stay and see that through till we finish.
Q There’s been a lot of discussion about the unit road system and some differing perspectives regarding it. You seem pretty sure it’s the best way to proceed in the future.
A I would probably agree with [Commissioner] Will [Jones] on a version that he sees appropriate for the county. We’re a growing county and we’re soon to be a metro county, not a rural county. I think at some point in time you need to be realistic and understand that these roads we’re building now probably need a higher level of sophistication than what we’re capable of doing in certain areas. Now there will always be rural roads that are fine with a patch and chip-seal and things like that, but there are going to be roads where we truly need an engineer over the course of that project from start to finish. We need to take politics out of roadwork.
Q How does politics get into county roadwork?
A Well, I would hate to disappoint anyone, but how I deal with that is I don’t pick which roads need to be fixed. My guys are out there every day. They know which roads need to be fixed. We have a system we work through, a software system, where the roads rotate [in terms of maintenance attention], so repairs are made. We get a tickler in three, four or five years that asks, “Does it need to be patched? Does it need to be rebuilt? Does it need to be chip-sealed?” I stay out of that because that’s a call I shouldn’t be making because I’m not out there driving these roads every day. We’re big enough now that I’m busy downtown. I sit on enough commissions and boards [including the State Jail Commission, Economic Opportunities Advancement Corporation board, Waco Sports Commission and Advisory Committee for Training at the sheriff’s office]. So unless we are just completely neglecting a road — well, if we are, I’m going to hear about it, trust me. Somebody’s going to call. In the past, there have been comments that I’ve heard made by other commissioners that, “Some area [in a particular commissioner’s precinct] didn’t do anything for me in the last election and so I’m not doing anything for them.” And that’s what’s got to go. That’s the part of politics that needs to come out of the bridge and road system.
Q One county commissioner candidate suggested to us that if the county goes to a unit road system, we may lose that individual accountability by an elected commissioner. Instead, it will be some sort of road superintendent who is more accountable to the commissioners court and adds a level of bureaucracy to local government. Is that a fair criticism?
A I’m not sure who that was, but if you’re going to try and tell me that, just by going to a unit road system, somebody who has a problem with a road in Precinct 4 isn’t going to call me and jump me about it, they’re mistaken. There is still going to be involvement and influence from a commissioner. The only thing is you’re going to have an engineer and you’ll have project managers who fall underneath that. If I get a call on a road, typically I call the foreman now, but you’ll call the engineer [in the future]. And I’m sure he’ll be able to call that person back for some type of information and he’ll share that information with me and then call the citizen back . We may fix that road in six weeks or we may have that road coming up [for maintenance] in the spring or see what we can do today to fix it. But if anybody thinks that just because we go to that [unit road system] we’re not going to get called anymore about the road projects, I can tell you, I’ve talked to the Bell County commissioners: You’re going to get called and you’re still going to be involved and you’re still going to have to answer.
Q When do you expect a firm decision to be made on all this?
A Well, till the next legislative session, we still don’t have the ability [by state law] to go to a unit road system, so in the meantime that’s why we have to look at something such as Commissioner Will Jones has proposed [in terms of restructuring precinct staffs] if we want to at least move in that direction.
Q Before the last legislative session, the Cooper Foundation did a terrific job of ensuring two of our three state lawmakers faced local governmental entities in open meeting on local needs. Are our lawmakers straight on needs regarding this road system?
A Yes. And quite honestly it would have passed last time except for what they called “Bloody Sunday” when they had the [legislative] massacre [engineered by the Texas Freedom Caucus] and killed the calendar bill and consent agenda. All local bills were killed. Very unfortunate.
Q Your challenger has made complaints about an hourly timekeeping system. She says the commissioners court has repeatedly balked at implementing this system, which is something we seem to have been debating and arguing about for the better part of a decade. But she says county employees are possibly turning in county time cards for hours they are not actually working.
A You know, I’ve heard that allegation from a commissioner who sits on the court and he has yet to prove anybody is getting credit for hours they’re not working. It’s also difficult for me to sympathize with that point of view when you see the auditor sitting right next to him who handles our payroll shaking his head that, “No, we do not have a problem.”
Q Where’s this coming from?
A Commissioner [Kelly] Snell. Since I have been on the court, he has been a proponent of putting a time-clock system in place. Had my opponent watched my comments and not just my vote, I have said that, for Precinct 4, we are OK without it right now. I don’t feel we have a need for it. We know when our guys are working, we keep close tabs, we are comfortable [with their work hours]. You can ask the auditor if we have any issues with our payroll and he will tell you we don’t . But I did say, “If anyone wants to volunteer to go to that system, try it, I won’t stand in their way.” They have the freedom to do that, but I’m not going to vote to make a department head do something that I’m not willing to do myself. This is what’s been crazy on the court and [Trib county reporter] Cassie [Smith] has been there: The auditor keeps saying, “We don’t have a problem. Why do we keep bringing this up? Why are we wanting to spend this money when we don’t have a problem?” About the only answer I think I can get is, “Well, what if we did have a problem?” Well, we don’t. There’s multiple things we could spend money on in anticipation of a problem, but being efficient in the use of taxpayer money — if there’s not a problem in a certain area, then you don’t throw money at it.
Q Your opponent also claims constituents in Precinct 4 should not have to call about roads if there’s a problem, that the county commissioner should already know when they’re bad.
A She may not be aware there’s 400 miles of road in Precinct 4, first of all. Secondly, conditions change on a regular basis. A very wet spring followed by a very hot summer can create problems where six months previous to that there were none. I wish that we had a magical system in place where when we get a pothole, we’re alerted by some road-and-bridge fairy but it just doesn’t happen that way.
Q The county judge gave a speech recently touching on unfunded mandates by the state. What is the biggest headache from the state in terms of unfunded mandates?
A School finance. That is the absolute worst.
We [county commissioners] have to be considerate of what the school districts have to do. We have to be conscious of where their tax rates are and what they’re doing [because of their impact on the typical overall property tax bill]. The worst thing that can happen is when school finance is not working out right.
Now, of the unfunded mandates that directly affect us, one of the biggest is indigent [legal] defense. Technically, we’re one of the very few states where the state doesn’t pay for it.
Q Didn’t the state of Texas once pay for it?
A They used to pay for it and then they got to where they weren’t paying 100 percent of it but there were grant funds they would give you yearly to put toward it. The last time we got any money from the state for that? I think we got $200,000, yet we have a $4.5 million budget for indigent defense.
Q When was the last time you got a grant like that?
A I think it was the year before last. But unfunded mandates, and this varies county by county, but for some counties unfunded mandates take up anywhere from 35 to 50 percent of the budget. And so consider the fact that counties are operating off on average 16 percent of the tax bill that you get [in the mail], yet the state is giving us unfunded mandates that take up, as I say, anywhere from 35 to 50 percent of our budget.
Q The Texas Legislature is run by the Republicans. Many counties are run by Republicans. I hate to put you on the spot, but has the situation gotten better? You’ve been in county government eight years. Is the state getting better about relief from unfunded mandates?
A No, we haven’t seen any relief.
Q But I keep hearing from some of our lawmakers — I won’t mention any names — but they keep promising whenever they’re here to work on unfunded mandates.
A Well, there was a bill introduced last legislative session that would have done away with unfunded mandates and you saw what sort of action it got.
Q Yeah. It didn’t go anywhere in the Legislature.
A It’s a food-chain situation. The feds do it to the states, the states do it to local government. We’re the bottom dweller. We have to take what we can get. But, no, the unfunded mandates have not gotten better. It’s unfortunate because our state has to pass a balanced budget and they’re going to do it at whatever cost and, typically, during a recession, you’re going to see the local entities take up more of the unwanted budgetary items the state can’t find a place for.
Mel Priest, 53, of Speegleville, an accountant with Darden Building Materials, a Republican and a lifelong resident, seeks to unseat McLennan …