Dave Rogers

For The Record

If there are two things County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton wants Orange County citizens to remember about 2017, they are, 1: he didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey; and, 2: he wasn’t behind the hospital district election.

The judge makes that pretty clear in the first couple of lines of his 2018 State of the County report he released a couple of days before 2017 ran its course.

And with opponents both Republican and Democrat lined up to run against him in 2018 elections, he’s accentuating the positives, too.

“This past year also saw Orange County finally return to FINANCIAL STABILITY after three years of hard work by the Commissioners’ Court and the county employees,” said the third sentence of the report, the Judge including the capital letters.

To read the full, nine-page report, go to the County Judge’s page on the Orange County website (www.co.orange.tx.us/County_Judge.html .) Click on “2018 State of the County” about a third of the way down the page.

Note, too that the judge changed his numbering system this year, so while this is labeled the 2018 SOTC, it covers the doings of 2017. That explains why there’s no 2017 SOTC on the site; just 2016 and 2015.

Carlton has been county judge for three years, beginning Jan. 1, 2015.

Harvey, which began as a category five hurricane before making landfall Aug. 25 near Corpus Christi, was downgraded to a Tropical Storm before it reached Southeast Texas.

But what it lacked in winds, it more than made up for in rainfall.

“It was the worst disaster to strike Orange County in recorded history,” Carlton said. “The storm’s behavior was unbelievable to even the most experienced weather experts and dropped more rain than any other storm to strike the United States.

“It will take years to recover,” the judge said, “but we will recover.”

The hospital district election occurred Dec. 19 and ended in 83.5 percent of the voters saying no to a measure that proponents said was necessary to lure investors to keep the county from being the largest in the state without a full-service hospital and opponents said would create unwanted taxes.

The issue first surfaced after Baptist Hospital of Southeast Texas closed its Orange emergency room in January, 2017. The first meeting on the subject open to the press was hosted by the city of Orange.

Shawn Oubre, city manager of Orange, reported that he had been part of a group of civic leaders that had spent three years trying without success to lure private and public partners.

He said the group was repeatedly told that creating a hospital district was the best way to secure the investment needed. Carlton researched the issue and began to report his findings about what other counties faced with the same problem had done.

But the judge made it clear he wasn’t taking a stand for or against a hospital district.

“That was an act of the people,” Carlton said in State of the County report. “A group of residents submitted a valid petition calling for a vote.

“The submitting group exercised their rights under Texas Health and Safety Code Section 286 to call for such a vote,” and “the county complied with the petition as required by law.”

“The hospital district vote failed by a very wide margin,” Carlton said. “Some residents have vowed to try again in one year while others have vowed to submit a new petition with a zero cent tax rate.”

The county and the commissioners’ court “must remain neutral on this issue,” Carlton stressed. “The petition is not the plan of the county” and “a hospital district, should one ever exist, would be completely separate from Orange County government.”

After going out of the way to try to explain an issue his detractors on social media continue to harp on, Carlton’s report got around to what should be positive news.

“The county finally achieved financial stability by building the fund balance to $12 million while REDUCING THE TAX RATE,” the report said.

The tax rate dropped from 54.4 cents per $100 value to 54.2 cents per $100 value, a reduction of $2 for a $100,000 home.

As for the $12 million fund balance, Carlton said, “the county built up this amount by planning for the future, controlling expenditures and developing fiscally conservative budgets.”

The two-page summary at the top of Carlton’s report includes a list of county accomplishments in 2017.

Among them are:

  • “Raised employee pay an average of 8.4 percent;
  • “Increased Sheriff’s Office Union certificate pay by 50 percent for fiscal year 2017-18;
  • “Ended a four-year negotiation standoff between the county and the Union by signing a two-year extension;
  • “Ended the Montano jail inmate wrongful death case from 2011 and paid the $3.2 million judgment to prevent further county legal expenses in a losing effort.
  • “Saved tens of millions of dollars over the next 30 years by restructuring retiree health benefits to be similar to surrounding jurisdictions for employees hired on or after Oct. 1, 2017.” (Carlton notes employees hired before Oct. 1 and existing retirees were grandfathered);
  • “Increased funding to the Orange County Economic Development Corporation by $400,000.” Carlton noted that 23 projects with a total value of $20.7 billion and 4,000 jobs are being pursued.

Carlton’s final two bullet points include two areas his detractors repeatedly hit him on.

The first is raising elected official pay 13.47 percent. He notes that he and the other two commissioners’ court members running for re-election in 2018, Barry Burton and Jody Crump, are passing on accepting the raises unless they’re re-elected.

Carlton’s final “accomplishment” … and one he notes is “PENDING”, is a decision by commissioners’ court “soon” on the Vidor loop.

“It will only pass if the project can be done in a way that is an overall benefit to the county and does not create an additional tax burden on the people,” he said.