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Bond supporters, opponents clash

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ERIC CORNELISON
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ELLIS COUNTY - The fate of the $53.875 million bond election has caused local citizens and the Friends of Ellis County Political Action Committee to clash.

The confrontation caused Marshal Evans, former election judge and current chairman of the Taxpayers Alliance for Good Government, to resign his position with the Ellis County Elections office.

'I wanted to step down because of my strong opposition to the bond issue in order to ensure that the integrity of the office would be maintained,' Evans said.

The confrontations occurred primarily because of all the 'Yes' signs which were being placed in local businesses and the surrounding areas.

These 'Yes' signs were encouraging Ellis County voters to vote for the bond where it was asking the question 'Is there a way Ellis County can save over $60 million?'

The signs state, 'A person owning a $100,000 home would pay less than $4 per month and people 65 or older pay nothing if they have filed and qualified for a tax freeze.'

This would mean an additional $48 a year for a person owning a $100,000 home.

Evans and some of the members of TAGG, acting on their own and not as representatives of TAGG, were entering the businesses and questioning the business owners on why they were supporting the tax increase which would result from the passage of the bond.

'They (the commissioners' court) are asking that we entrust them with yet further tax monies when they have shown financial ineptitude time and time again,' said Evans.

According to Evans, many of the businesses he spoke with and explained the bond would increase the local resident's property tax decided to take those signs down.

'One day 100 percent of the businesses I spoke with asked me to go ahead and take them down,' Evans said.

Once the signs began to disappear, a complaint was filed with the Waxahachie Police Department by the Friends of Ellis County PAC Treasurer Larry Burns alleging the signs had been stolen.

Evans said he was acting as the business owners' representative when he took down the signs and even contacted Jane Anderson, the elections administrator, to inform her he had the signs in the back of his vehicle and if anyone called about the missing signs to tell them he would return the signs to the owners.

Sgt. Todd Woodruff from the Waxahachie police department contacted Evans about the signs and Evans took the signs to Woodruff at the police station the next day.

Woodruff said after he had researched the law he found this kind of incident would fall under the jurisdiction of the district attorney.

Once he discovered this he turned the complaint over to Phillip Martin, the investigator for the district attorney's office.

Evans has since stopped approaching businesses about taking the signs down.

'The establishment is so powerful and I am afraid their agents will come after me with false allegations as they have done before,' Evans said.

Evans said customers who were turned off by the signs should ask the managers and owners of the business to take the signs down themselves.

Evans said he had contacted the Texas Ethics Commission and they informed him it was beyond their jurisdiction.

Tim Sorrells, deputy general counsel for the State Ethics Commission, confirmed the issue of placement of signs was not under their jurisdiction.

'Our primary role is the reporting of financial disclosures and campaign items,' said Sorrells.

'When it comes to this kind of issue, you would have to contact the county attorney or any local attorney.'

Local attorney Todd Phillippi said, 'A property owner could remove the sign but they would be under obligation to contact the owner of the sign and give them a reasonable time to pick it up.

'This obligation would be the same even if the property owner told an agent acting on his behalf to remove the sign.'

This confrontation and the complaints resulting from the sign issue all stems from the bond election on the May 12 ballot.

This $54 million bond election was put on the ballot by the Ellis County Commissioners Court in order to address the problem with the county facilities.

The commissioners said bond funds would be used for new Ellis County administrative and judicial facilities and a new jail.

They said the bond needs to pass in order to replace the existing county offices which are crumbling and are in a crisis situation according to the commissioners.

Evans was not the only citizen concerned about the bond package.

Jimmie Simmons said, 'The county still owes almost $10 million on an empty lot.'

'Our government is too big already.'

Another concerned citizen, Ken Haskovec said, 'The county's $53 million bond proposal to address current and future facilities needs is short-sighted, imprudent and reactionary.'

All of the county commissioners agreed the bond was necessary because of the growth of the county and the recommendations by the Staubach Group, the consulting firm hired to do the study on the county needs.

Multiple meetings have occurred across the county to explain the bond election and reasoning behind the package but few of those meetings have addressed the past problems which have caused the facilities to reach this so-called crisis situation.

Dennis Robinson, county commissioner of pct. 1, was the lone vote against locating the new county facilities in downtown Waxahachie but did agree with placing the bond on the May ballot.

'Whatever the voter's decision in May is I completely support the decision,' said Robinson.

According to Robinson he had no real disagreement with putting the new county facilities downtown but thought it best the new building should be located somewhere else.

Many of the commissioners where convinced to locate the new county building downtown because the Waxahachie City Council pledged $7.7 million toward a downtown parking garage and road improvements along with an additional $400,000 to purchase the land for the garage.

County Commissioner Bill Dodson, pct. 2, seems to explanation the bond issue best.

'I can tell you that the cost of the bond package over the next 20 years is approximately $81 million (interest and principal),' Dodson said.

'The cost of housing prisoners in other counties' jails and leasing additional office and court space (would have been) approximately $141 million over that same 20 year period.

'We are trying to plan correctly for the future while saving the taxpayers millions of dollars.'

One citizen said, 'If we are going to save $60 million over the course of 20 years why don't we use that money to build the facilities needed?'

Dodson said Ellis County was recently ranked as the 99th fastest growing county in the United States (out of approximately 3,000 counties) and this puts Ellis County in the top three percent of county growth in the United States.

'The growth continues to come our way and put a strain on the county facilities,' said Dodson.

In an unofficial poll conducted by The Ellis County Press many registered voters, approximately 49 percent of the 251 registered voters polled, were still unsure why the bond was needed.

One voter said, 'I am not sure what all this bond stuff is about but I do know it will raise our taxes.'

Another voter was less informed when he said, 'I have no clue what it is all about but I am not voting for something I don't understand.'

Out of those 251 voters polled more than 71 percent were undecided on whether they would vote for the bond or against the bond.

'If people understand that a vote for this $54 million bond is a vote for a $54 million property tax increase then they will vote no to this bond,' Evans said.

Simmons was more concerned with the past failure of county government.

The county spent about seven million dollars to build a justice center several years ago and the current jail facility is just a little more than ten years old.

The proposed justice center was torn down because of engineering defects and was known around the county as the 'pink elephant.'

The county did recover most of the money in a settlement but this past failure places doubt on the minds of some voters.

A voter polled said, 'I remember the fiasco the last time we passed a bond for a new county building.'

The opposition to the bond has yet to be reported by many news outlets and it was unknown if there are any organized opposition to the bond package but with the 'Yes' signs being placed all over the county, there definitely was support for the bond.

Haskovec said, 'The notion that the limited space in the downtown Waxahachie area will limit the size, scope and cost of county government is illusory if not foolish.

'If more space is needed, they will rent it, driving up costs to taxpayers.'

Robinson agreed there were no specific building plans for the new county facilities but said, 'The research done by the Staubach Group was comprehensive and they are familiar with the costs of building these types of facilities.

'This bond election protects us from going over the budgeted amount.'

Robinson did say the cost of architectural plans, engineering and other requirements were figured into the bond package.

Some voters polled were wondering where all the property tax money was going and why they would have to pay more.

According to the most recent County Appraisal District report the county's property was worth more than seven billion dollars.

These questions were just some of the responses gathered during the polling of registered voters and may not be answered by the time every voter goes to the polls on May 12.

One thing was fact, most voters seem to still be undecided on where to vote for the bond or vote against the bond.

Phones calls to Phillip Martin of the district attorney's office, businesses involved in the sign removal incidents and to Larry Burns of the Friends of Ellis County PAC had not been returned at the time of this printing.

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