Mel Priest

Mel Priest

Staff photo —Rod Aydelotte

Mel Priest, 53, of Speegleville, an accountant with Darden Building Materials, a Republican and a lifelong resident, seeks to unseat McLennan County Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry in the Republican primary election. Early voting in the Republican primary election begins on Feb. 20 with Election Day on March 6.

Q    So what do you do as CFO for Darden Building Materials?

A    I do all the human resources for the company and their accounting. I oversee and train all staff on software. I was a consultant prior to going over to Darden. So I’m used to going into companies and fixing their accounting and setting up things so that they have, in accounting terms, a real pretty deal to look at so that at the end of the year everything’s categorized correctly.

Q    What prompts you to run for county commissioner?

A    I was a city secretary/treasurer for the city of Gholson for almost two years.

Q    That’s in Precinct 3.

A    Yes. I own some land out there and I know some guys out there . Just from working with them, I was made aware of what’s going on in our county. Otherwise, I’d probably be oblivious just like I’ve always been, just like pretty much most of the people I’ve talked to lately. They don’t know what’s going on. I mean, you have those who are informed and those who aren’t and I used to be one of those who was just too busy to be involved.

Q    So enlighten us. What’s going on in county government?

A    McLennan County needs to be current on all technology to include hourly timekeeping for all the hourly employees. I mean, it’s accountability for people. Holding them accountable is good [and we need a] process to make sure that happens. When you don’t have a process in place, it’s a fact things don’t get followed through on.

Q    They spent years trying to fix this and came up with a system. So what are they doing wrong?

A    They budgeted for the timekeeping system and apparently they have someone in mind to implement it, but they keep tabling it every time they meet. I know that there’s one — I’m not sure on that vote — but I think when all the commissioners are there in court, it’s a 4-1 vote to table it again for the next month.

Q    What are they tabling?

A    They’re tabling the implementation and actual vote on implementing an hourly timekeeping system. And I understand. I’ve worked with the city of Gholson and they table things over and over and over again. To me, that’s extremely frustrating.

Q    Does it have a detrimental impact on . . . who?

A    I think the taxpayers. How many people . . . like I said, it’s proven when you don’t have a process in place that holds people accountable, it’s costly. I can prove that with just about any company that you go into that doesn’t have processes to make sure everyone’s following through. The same thing with the county. How many people are turning in timecards for hours they did or didn’t work, mostly didn’t work? We won’t know that until there’s a process.

Q     I remember the old system, there were some problems . . . they couldn’t account for people’s time or they might have been paid for time they didn’t always work. You’re saying there are still problems. How do you know that?

A    Well, because it’s been on the agenda for the commissioners court and it keeps getting tabled. You don’t keep tabling something that you need.

Q    I think commissioners do that pretty often [deferring action on matters for further study].

A    They do, and I think that’s irresponsible on the commissioners court to keep tabling something that’s really important to have.

Q    Well, you said you’ve talked to some people in Precinct 3, which is not what you’re running for . . .

A    No, I was city secretary/treasurer in Precinct 3 for the city of Gholson, and I was just made aware of some of the issues going on in our county.

Like rollback to the effective [tax] rate. The city of Gholson, our council members, they’re the best. They put the taxpayers in Gholson first and foremost and at one of the last meetings we talked about what we could do as far as taxes for the city of Gholson taxpayers. And our council members said, “Hey, our people are taxed enough as it is. What can we do so that we don’t have to do that? We can’t tax them any more than they’re already taxed. The appraisal district’s going to hit them hard. We’re still going to do well as a city. So what can we do?” Well, our attorney explained how you could roll back to the effective rate, from four cents to zero. And he said we could roll it back. So they rolled it back. But I’m concerned about McLennan County. As I understand it — I could be wrong but, as I understood, what I heard — the effective rate, they didn’t roll it back for McLennan County. They only rolled it back two cents instead of four cents. Which gives them $2 million extra on top of the appraised value which the taxpayers are going to be hit with. I mean, they always go up.

Q     I t could be they get unfunded mandates from the state of Texas, such as for health care. It could be they’ve got this crazy situation with all the expense for the Twin Peaks trials coming up. They seem to get a lot of things handed down from the state they’re obligated to do but with little money from the state to fund it.

A    Correct me if I’m wrong. As far as I understand from the numbers I’ve seen, McLennan County had a $6.1 million surplus. So what are they doing with that money other than what they’re planning or wanting to do, which is give $3.5 million to the Drury [hotel family] to build a hotel on the river.

Q    So you’re not a big fan of the economic development concept?

A    Oh, I’m a big fan of economic development, as long as it benefits the taxpayers. It’s unheard of, in my opinion, to ever see a county or a city give money to a family-owned hotel chain to build a hotel on the river. It’s not like they’re going to boost the economy and create jobs. They’re only going to create a couple of jobs, but they’re certainly not going to boost the economy. And your return on investment on $3.5 million? I’ll be dead before that ever gets recovered. My nephews will probably not be around by the time that’s recovered. To me, that’s not a good choice.

Q    So you’re not against economic development, it’s the projects . . .

A    Provide them tax incentives to come here, but don’t give them taxpayer money and . . . Right now, we’re taxing people out of their homes with the appraisal district. I mean, seriously, in 2015, they went up on my property taxes, I believe, almost 100 percent on one of my houses. And they tell me they’re going based on sales in the area. Just for fun, I asked . . . they pretty much had my house taxed close to a 2,500-square-foot home just built right behind me. My house is 1,400 square feet. So they’re going to tell me there’s a $40,000 difference at the time? Well, they rolled it back, but it still didn’t make sense from an accounting perspective.

Q    As you travel around the county, what issues do people bring up?

A    One, they don’t know who their local precinct or county commissioner is. They’ve never heard of him. So, in part, I’ve been walking door to door, doing this the old-fashioned way. I don’t have the budget the other guy has, so I’ve been talking to people. And a lot of people are shocked I’m at their front door introducing myself to them and explaining to them why I want to run. A lot of them respond when I ask them the question, “Do you know who you would vote for?” A lot of the response I get is, “You. You came to my door, you introduced yourself to me.” That’s just the people I’ve been able to meet, working weekends, Saturdays and Sundays, from 10 o’clock to sometimes 8 or 9 o’clock at night.

Q    Are there one or two issues that seem to bubble up when you talk to these people?

A    Yes. Over toward the line of Lorena where Precinct 4 separates with Precinct 1, we have several folks over there where, apparently, all the mailboxes on one road are supposed to be on one side. They’ve called trying to get it taken care of, but no one’s ever taken care of it.

Q    Why do they have mailboxes on one side?

A    Because there are large tractors and farm equipment that turn around there. I grew up farming and, when you’ve got a Gooseneck and you’ve got to turn around, you need some room. One landowner decided he was going to put his [mailbox] right in the way of the turnaround and he put it on the other side. And nobody’s been able to get someone out there to enforce moving that mailbox because, of course, if you move somebody’s mailbox, that could be a federal offense.

Q    Is that the commissioner’s job?

A    It’s in the county. Also, I’ve heard a lot of people complain about the roads and the maintenance. Several Realtors I talk to, they drive everywhere. They said there’s quite a few roads in McLennan County [in need of maintenance]. You need to contact your Precinct 4 county commissioner. That’s his job to help you maintain your roads out in your area. And their response is, “We shouldn’t have to be calling him. He should be driving our area, and he should already have it taken care of.”

Q    You know the country life. What do you think about this proposal for a unit road system?

A    A what?

Q    A unit road system.

A    You’re going to have to fill me in. Like I said, I’m not a politician. I’m an accountant. That’s something I’m not aware of at this time. When you keep up with two corporations, that’s pretty much . . .

Q    You keep up with current events, though, I imagine.

A    I try to, at this moment, but because I usually put in anywhere from 10- to 12-hour days, I’m trying to finish a master’s in accounting and manage my place, because I am the lawn mower — I’m single, I take care of my place on my own. I don’t depend on anybody to take care of it but me.

Q    The unit road system is a system where instead of each precinct managing the roads . . .

A    Oh, OK. Now I know what you’re talking about. Yes. It would depend. I would have to see what the gaps are. Again, an hourly timekeeping system would help determine whether you could handle a single operation and saving those funds and eliminating positions to just put who you need. To basically improve deficiencies. But, again, until I’m able to see the financials and have an hourly timekeeping system that really pinpoints how many hours are spent per employee and what they did that day, to where I could look at the job versus the hours — if they didn’t have a full day here, they don’t have a full day at the other precincts. Right now, I don’t see how they can make an educated determination.

Q    The county auditor tells county commissioners he doesn’t believe they need this timekeeping system. He is OK with the process in place. It gets tabled because Commissioner Kelly Snell asks for it to come back on the agenda.

A    Yeah. He’s all on his own. He’s the only full-time county commissioner on the court. He’s hired someone to manage his company, so he devotes 100 percent of his time to the taxpayers. I think it’s admirable for him to do that. I know I could not manage the two corporations that I’m running now and be able to be an effective county commissioner. Which is why, in my platform, if I’m hired by the taxpayers, they’ll get me 100 percent of the time, and I’ll be resigning and finding someone to fill my seat at Darden Building Materials.

Interview condensed and edited for space and clarity.