Portions of this column first appeared in the Corsicana Daily Sun on Aug. 3, 2006. I have said often the commissioners spend too much time, literally and figuratively, on roads and not enough time managing the county business. I base that statement on personal observations over a long period of time and on what I have learned about their statutory duties as defined in Texas laws.

In view of a number of new and recurring complex management issues that surfaced during the recent budget hearings, I believe it appropriate to review the authority, duties, and responsibilities of our county commissioners.

We all know county commissioners are responsible for roads and bridges in their respective precincts, but there is much more that demands their attention. The Texas Association of Counties publishes the “Guide To Texas Laws For County Officials.” It is a reference guide to statutory codes from which 13 elected and appointed officials e.g. judge, clerk, auditor, etc., derive their authority. Of the 164 pages in the 2006 edition covering 13 offices, 60 pages are dedicated solely to the commissioners court. These do not include duties exclusively reserved to the county judge.

The commissioners court is the governing body of the county. Although every county office derives its legislated authority from the state, its functional ability is totally dependent on decisions made by the commissioners court. It is critical to the economic development and future progress of the county that those decisions be informed decisions.

The court sets the budget for all county departments and adopts a tax rate. Power of the purse is everything from authorizing the number of people hired in each office to setting the salary for every approved position. Through the budget process, commissioners authorize undertaking all projects that might have any impact on county resources. They have exclusive authority to authorize contracts in the name of the county. Contracts are used by every department to purchase supplies, equipment, and vehicles as well as professional services for software support, debt collection, mapping, digitizing old records, etc.

Commissioners are responsible for the formation of precincts and setting the boundaries. They appoint election judges. They call, conduct, and certify all elections, including bond elections.

They acquire property for rights-of-way or other uses determined to be in the public's interest. They approve subdivision plats, specify road construction, and approve easements and wastewater treatment for rural areas. They have final say over permitting variances.

Commissioners can enter into inter-local agreements with incorporated areas for road and bridge maintenance, emergency services, animal control, library services, etc. They approve subsidizing volunteer fire departments. They approve ballot initiatives for special districts.

Personnel is more than hiring, firing, and setting salaries and benefits. A comprehensive pay plan including steps and merit pay has been kicked around on and off for ten years with nothing happening. Expenses for continuing education to keep all employees proficient in new practices, technologies, etc. are part of the budget. Commissioners set fees.

They appoint non-elected department heads such as Planning and Development, Elections, and the Emergency Management Coordinator. They can appoint a county road supervisor or hire an engineer. They appoint member(s) to the historical commission and other standing committees and to the Central Appraisal District board of directors.

Commissioners have broad regulatory authority from land use to speed limits on county roads to parking on county property to keeping wild animals. They deal with many issues of public health and welfare.

Returning to the purse, the commissioners are responsible for all financial operations — setting the tax rate, authorizing expenditures, and issuing bonds. Economic development, creating TIF zones and approving tax abatements all impact county finances and fall under the commissioners' domain. We have an auditor, a tax assessor/collector, and a treasurer; but the commissioners are our financial managers and more; they are the deciders.

The above is a minuscule cross section of the vast authority, duties and responsibilities of our commissioners. This and the 60 pages in the reference guide have convinced me that we do not need road commissioners supervising road crews; we need business managers not just to represent but to protect our interests and spend our tax dollars wisely.

Last week I discussed a number of complex management issues that surfaced during the 2008 budget hearings and will challenge the county budget, present and future. The time to begin addressing those issues and how they might be funded is now, and not when the 2009 budget hearings begin next July or August. The time to begin planning for 2009 is now. I might add, with all due respect, that cannot be done on a dirt road in a truck.


Joseph J. Hazewski is a Daily Sun columnist. His column appears Thursdays. He can be reached via e-mail at joehazewski@yahoo.com.

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