Vernon Davis, 59, a real-estate investor, globe-trotting insurance adjuster and rancher living in Waco, is a Republican candidate for McLennan County Precinct 2 commissioner. Early voting for the Republican primary election begins on Feb. 20 with Election Day on March 6.
Q Why are you running for Precinct 2 county commissioner?
A I reached a point in life where I had to make a decision to go into either civic or missionary work and I felt that, based on where the county is now, I could bring my lifetime skills to the table and help the county move more from a rural county to an urban county. There are a lot of opportunities that are going to be coming to this county in the next 20 to 30 years. How we build and structure that opportunity is critical today, so we can meet it in the future, just like our leaders did back in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s with Lake Waco. If we didn’t have Lake Waco, we wouldn’t have some of the industries we have. I think my background in infrastructure, loss assessment, agriculture and being a businessman — I’ve always worked for myself since I started throwing newspapers when I was 11. I cheated because you weren’t supposed to throw both the morning paper and evening paper. They didn’t know I was throwing both morning and evening.
Q What do you mean you weren’t supposed to throw both morning and evening papers?
A We had a morning paper and an evening paper in Waco and you were only supposed to work for one. You were not supposed to work both as a young high school kid or junior high kid. But it was more money. Why not? I’ve always worked for myself. I’m very pro-business and I think it’s time McLennan County take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves from being located between Austin and Dallas/Fort Worth. As those communities grow, McLennan County is in the perfect position to become a bedroom [community] to industries that support the high-tech industries in those communities. We’re not going to have Dell located here, but maybe the people who support Dell. If Amazon lands in Dallas or Fort Worth, we can pick up some of those [support] companies where the cost of living is cheaper, the quality of life is better. We have very little traffic except when there is something major going on at Magnolia [Market at the Silos].
Q Tell us a little about your experiences as a constituent in Precinct 2.
A Well, so far as I know, I’m the only one with an agricultural background. I’m the only one of the candidates with a lifetime of business experience.
Q But as a constituent living in Precinct 2, are you happy with the roads, for instance?
A Within Precinct 2, I think we’ve been stagnant for a while. There have been opportunities missed. We do have some issues with the roads as I drive them. We have some issues with standing water that can be cleaned up. The forgotten part is the city within the precinct.
Q You mean smaller cities within Precinct 2?
A I’m talking about downtown Waco, the heart of the district. If you take from basically I-35 to 26 over to Park Lake back to the Brazos River, that’s a major portion of the district. And then you have Bellmead. The heart of Bellmead is in Will Jones’ district, but it circles around. But all this isn’t just about roads and bridges.
Q But you’re pretty happy with the services?
A I can’t say I’m unhappy, but there’s a lot of room for improvement. One of the big ones is the quality of water in Precinct 2. There are some significant issues because of what the EPA has done in lowering arsenic level allowances in the water. There’s been nothing to deal with this long-term issue. I’ve got friends who sit on the water board and deal with the water within Precinct 2 within the last 25 or 30 years. As they get a handle on it, the EPA drops the acceptable level, so the only way we can deal with it is by diluting that water.
Q You’re saying the EPA is relaxing standards?
A No, they’re making the standards a little stronger.
And the only way we can resolve that is by diluting the well water. One way is by doing an interlocal agreement with the city of Waco. The city of Waco has a legacy right to the Brazos that they have not used for a long time. We can pull water from the Brazos and build some lagoons and set up a desalinization [unit] and mix with that well water to provide long-time well water that is dependable for the communities.
Q You mentioned you reached a point in life where you were looking at options.
A I’ve always been a real-estate investor in downtown. My first investment was in 1982. I owned a restaurant downtown and when North Carolina National Bank came to town — now Bank of America — they wanted space. They owned it when they bought Citizens and they made me a great offer [regarding the lease agreement] and I sold them literally the ham in the refrigerator and the art on the walls. But I bought other property and held on to it and about seven years ago my neighbor decided they were going to build a football stadium across the street from about eight and a half acres that I had, so my business partner and I looked at the return on investment, turned down all offers we were given and decided to spend some seven figures and build a tailgate parking facility that operates as Brazos Parking. So that’s taken care of things.
Q You referred to missed opportunities in Precinct 2.
A I don’t think there has been a concentrated effort to go out and be pro-business and try to attract those types of jobs or those types of industries that could be well-situated in Precinct 2 and could help employ not only citizens within the precinct but the greater county. The Waco Industrial Foundation owns a large section of land between I-35 and the railroad tracks running basically from ABC Roofing Supply out to the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative around Greenwood Cemetery. We don’t want to put heavy industrial operations out there, but [we could benefit from] a clean type of industry in line with the BRIC. Maybe pharmaceuticals. There does not seem to be a concentrated effort to attract businesses other than small Mom-and-Pops, which have a great place in the market. But we need something that’s employing people and is going to pay a decent wage.
Q You’re running for McLennan County Precinct 2 commissioner. Isn’t the job really more a matter of making the trains run on time rather than going out and attracting business?
A I f you’re in Falls County, absolutely. But if you’re trying to be a Travis County, a Tarrant County, a Harris County, no, you got to step up and realize we’re no longer truly a rural community some 95 percent based on agriculture. Yes, agri-tourism and agri-business are important. We need to be thinking about going after the U.S. Team Roping Championship and attract them to Waco from Oklahoma City. As it is, [the combined net taxable value of 19 cities, 20 school districts, McLennan County, McLennan Community College] is right at $61 billion, and for the city of Waco it’s about $12.5 billion, but we can’t depend on one city to bring everything to the table. We’re a county and we need to work in an effort to bring people together. Yes, we’re going to have disputes, but we need to build consensus and that means making the entire community economically strong and stable. We need to go after viable investments. Viable investments need to be something that’s sustainable beyond how many people we can put in prison. We don’t need vacant prisons or jails sitting around. We need to be putting our efforts into building a solid, sound, taxable tax base.
Q Some on the county commissioners court favor something like a unit road system as a more economical, centralized system of maintaining and funding roads. Others seem to prefer each commissioner maintaining his or her own precinct road crew.
A I would want to meet with the foremen, the individuals involved in the precinct road system right now, before I made any firm decision. I think there is buying power [in moving toward some sort of unit road system]. There are advantages to buying in bulk, buying as a unit, instead of buying as four different precincts. I don’t want to really come out and say I will support things as they are or as a unit-based system till I look at it and meet with the individuals managing that in the precincts right now, plus meeting with the other precinct commissioners. One of the most valuable assets any company or governmental organization has is its employees and I want to make sure I meet with them and do what’s best for them as a steward of the taxpayers.
Q Elected commissioners have an awkward job in that they oversee the budgets of other duly elected officials such as the sheriff.
A Since Scott Felton joined as county judge, I’m pleased with the direction it’s moving. I think a lot of this is because of his business background from his days at Wells Fargo. We had some rebuilding to do [in terms of building up reserves], but I think we’re on a sound path. You go back to the sheriff and other elected officials’ departments, there is control. Sure, you can’t say, “I’m going to run this department,” but the commissioners court does set the tone for the justice system in our county, which includes the courts and the law enforcement. I firmly feel that when the attitude of the court is unified in communicating to those departments and elected officials, they’re going to be able to bring things in line. And I think the sheriff’s department is doing a fantastic job. I mean, I liked Jack Harwell, but I think we’ve made moves in the right direction because the ultimate law enforcement agency in the county is the sheriff’s department.
Q Are Precinct 2 roads as bad as some people say? I understand the soil is bad.
A I’ve been told to keep this to a ninth-grade level. The blackland prairie, which basically runs from Carrollton all the way down to Cameron — 40 acres and a mule, very fertile land. Only problem is it’s full of the mineral montmorillonite. It is to water as steel is to a magnet. When it gets wet, it can swell up to 14 times its original size, exerting a pressure of 10 tons per cubic foot. The only way you can really control it, and they’ve tried to do this on state highways, is coming back and mixing powdered lime with the clay to help stabilize the road. It’s going to cost us more to maintain that road. It’s going to be more important to consider using something like No. 2 TxDOT limestone base rather than Bosque gravel. But that part of the county has the most concentration of montmorillonite and that’s why those roads take a little more to service. That’s why our houses crack around here.
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