Dave Rogers

For The Record

Orange County Commissioners’ Court incumbents defended their record on fiscal stewardship and economic development Tuesday night under fire from challengers in the March 6 Republican Primary.

County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton and Commissioners Jody Crump and Barry Burton cited hard-earned experience and steady progress as their advantage over Dean Crooks, Robert Viator and Theresa Beauchamp.

All the challengers say they are the leaders Orange County needs to move forward.

Crooks, seeking the $105,400 top job of County Judge,

said the county’s current management is “spending a dollar to save a dime.”

He pointed to cuts in benefits for county employees made by the court under Carlton’s leadership and a since-resolved dispute between the county and its sheriff’s deputies regarding certificate pay and their employment rules.

“You have to treat your people right, because they’re your most important asset,” Crooks said.

“We have to bring back that trust. And we can get it back faster by having someone new in there who has not violated that trust.”

Carlton disagreed, saying he was most qualified for the job because of his “experience, leadership and skill sets.”

He pointed to his service as a major in the Air Force Reserve.

“And part of that experience, too, is having been county judge,” he said. “When you get into the job you can see things are not as black and white as they may look on the outside.”

Crump, the Precinct 4 commissioner and the last incumbent to speak, came prepared with facts and figures to the Town Hall meeting sponsored by the Orange County Republican Party.

A former mayor of Pine Forest, Crump is running for his third term representing the northwest corner of the county against Vidor Mayor Robert Viator.

But he took issue first with complaints made by Crooks, who is opposing Carlton’s bid for re-election to a second term.

Crooks drew maybe the night’s largest round of applause from the 200 or so in the audience at the Vidor Elementary School cafeteria when criticized the commissioners’ 4-1 vote to raise all 19 elected officials’ salaries – including their own — while the county was under a state of emergency after Hurricane Harvey.

Crooks said that was “another thing that made me want to run.”

Crump pointed out his was the “no” vote recorded against the raise and that he, Carlton and Burton had all rejected their raises until 2019 – if they get re-elected.

Crooks had also pointed to a $5.6 million contract the county signed – and financed with bonds of indebtedness – with Way Services to make county buildings more energy efficient.

“Being more energy efficient is great, but why didn’t we hire a couple more people, train them and turn them loose on this?” Crooks asked.

Crump pointed out that the Way Services deal wasn’t so much an option.

“That company was actually put on board because it’s a state mandate that said you must save a certain percent of your energy footprint within the next X number of years,” Crump said.

The deal was presented more than a year ago as one that would save the county at least as much in energy bills as the county would spend over the length of the bond repayment.

A comparison of energy bills presented recently at a commissioners’ court meeting showed a savings.

Crooks said drainage was an important issue for the county that had to be improved to draw businesses and home builders to the county. Crooks suggested interlocal agreements and adding a couple more county workers.

Crooks said the judge is being less than transparent when he touts a one-fifth of a cent per $100 value tax cut while not mentioning the raise in county appraisals resulted in more than a $2 million boost in tax payments

“Mr. Crooks is saying we need to spend more on benefits, more on payroll, more on employees, hire more people, and that all sounds great,” Carlton said. “But it costs more money to do it.

“So if you’re saying you want to spend more money in these areas and then say ‘Well, the tax rate cut you gave wasn’t really that much …’”

Beauchamp, who served 11 years on Orange City Council, has won the endorsement of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, she announced, in her bid to unseat Burton in Precinct 2.

She pledges no new taxes, transparency and accessibility of commissioners’ court, making economic development a priority, along with drainage. She says she won’t be “a rubber stamp.” She plans to be proactive and plan for all emergencies.

“Look around Orange County and ask yourselves, ‘Are we better off than we were three years ago?’” she said.

Burton, besides representing a middle strip of the county which goes from Orangefield, west Orange and Mauriceville, is the president of the county’s Economic Development Corporation.

“Just today, we granted an abatement that will bring $4.4 million of development,” he said, “and we have a total of $21 billion worth of new projects considering Orange County.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done the last three years. I see a lot of progress.”

Viator said he’s running on his record of never increasing taxes as Vidor mayor.

“We don’t want to mess with your tax rate,” Crump said, citing a $140,000 annual savings realized by changing the county janitorial service and savings of $500,000 from another move and a gain of nearly $600,000 from an agency hired to collect overdue taxes and fees.

“We want to do it the proper way.”