State of the County
By Will Johnson
HOUSTON COUNTY – On March 1 of this year, President Joe Biden will deliver a State of the Union address to the nation. Closer to home and on a more localized level, Houston County Judge Jim Lovell sat down with The Messenger on Friday, Jan. 7 to discuss the State of the County as area residents prepare to move forward in 2022.
“My feelings are that our county is in good shape. We are financially sound. As far as our county government, we have a great team to work with and we work together. The elected officials have to participate in party politics to get elected, but once elected, partisan politics does not play a role like it does at the state and federal level. This county works together as well as any county I have heard,” Judge Lovell said.
He indicated while attending several conferences throughout his years in office, he had learned many counties in Texas had elected and appointed officials who simply did not get along which often times resulted in county gridlock.
“Our Commissioners Court is a great court. No one is attempting to push any type of agenda other than to serve the people of the county. I believe we have a strong sheriff’s office. We have dedicated people who are keeping our county safe. Everyone just seems to work well together. It is a smoothly run county that I am blessed to be a part of. I have lived here my whole life. I want Houston County to grow and be successful,” the judge said.
Lovell went on to say because of the growth, the county was able to lower its tax rate for Fiscal Year 2022. He added his belief was Houston County residents would prefer to have a lower tax rate than any “… bells and whistles. As a Commissioners Court, that is what we try to do and as the budget officer, that is what I try to do. We want to spend tax money as wisely as possible.”
Currently, the county is receiving funds from the federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) enacted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the judge. He cautioned, however, the county was being conservative in its spending approach in order to provide residents with the most services possible while adhering to the guidelines set forth in the ARP.
Changing gears, the judge said, “Everyone wanted 2020 to be over. Then, they wanted 2021 to be over. Now, here we are in 2022 and COVID is still with us. It is raising its ugly head, but I think our county has learned how to deal with COVID. It’s going to be with us. We’re not going to get rid of it. I think we have survived it. Our businesses were hurt, especially the restaurant businesses. For the most part, they survived and are still operating. I think our county has learned how to deal with COVID as well as any other county around the area.”
With the Omicron variant wreaking havoc across both state and the nation, the judge was asked specifically if he felt the business closures in 2020 might possibly return in 2022.
“I don’t think we will see that,” Lovell asserted. “The reason I don’t think that will happen is while Omicron is more contagious than any of the other mutations, it doesn’t make you as sick. I also think another difference is a lot of people are vaccinated. I am pro-vaccine but I am against any mandates. County judges have the authority to do certain things I will never do. I will not issue vaccination or mask mandates.”
One issue brought on during the pandemic was a labor shortage and the judge said Houston County was no different.
“We can’t get any applications. We are three patrol deputies short and I can’t remember what the sheriff (Randy Hargrove) said about the jailers because some are out due to COVID. That is something that is troubling to me because it is in our jail. We cannot afford to have all of our jailers come down with COVID. We also have one dispatcher out,” Lovell indicated.
Sticking with the law enforcement theme, the judge said, “In my estimation, it’s very good. We have very reputable people in place. The sheriff has made some changes that are positive. One of those changes is we now have 24-hour patrol. From my standpoint, I see the sheriff’s office as being very effective and doing a good job.”
Another topic of discussion concerned the county roadways. Many county roads were damaged during last year’s deep freeze and the judge was asked if the roadways would be able to withstand another severe winter.
“We haven’t had any extra funds for roads. They (commissioners) get a part of the budget and a little bit of other revenue to work on roads. So, there is no extra money, unless we have a disaster, which we would rather not have. All that does is allow FEMA to reimburse us to get the roads back in the shape they were in. Sadly, I can’t see where our roads will be greatly improved and that’s because of money. There is just so much money to go around and the only time there is extra money is when we have a disaster,” he said.
Lovell was also asked about the growth potential for Houston in the upcoming year.
“I attended a meeting the other day. I really can’t talk about it right now, but it would be an excellent opportunity, with probably 50 or so jobs, provided we can land it. We have Lincoln Lumber which is up and running. Plus, they are talking about expansion. You know what Vulcraft did with the launch of the grating facility. They are also talking about something else, but I don’t know the specifics of it,” he said.
As the discussion drew towards a conclusion, the judge expressed, “As far as the county going into 2022, I’m an optimist. I have a good feeling. I know our finances will be okay, barring some crazy type of event. We are fiscally sound and that’s always a nice feeling.”
Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.