David Ball – For The Record

Though no action was taken regarding the Orange County Sheriff’s Office patrol car fleet for the remainder of 2015-2016 fiscal year, it was the longest discussed agenda item and at times, the most heated.

The Orange County Commissioners Court met on the afternoon of October 27 at the regular meeting. John Banken, Precinct 3 commissioner, said the court promised they would look at the issue after the budget was adopted on October 1 because there was no money left to purchase them.

Banken said these patrol vehicles are not for the sheriff, but for the citizens of Orange County. The vote was 3 to 2 with Banken and David Dubose, Precinct 1 commissioner, voting no.

“There’s got to be some way to get some cars for this department,” he said.

County Judge Brint Carlton said the contingency capital outlay fund was created at this time and money was taken from every department. He said there was $355,000 in the contingency capital outlay fund with $60,000 spent for a fire alarm system for the Orange County Jail, $118,000 for a new voting machine, and $172,000 for a new chip spreader with $5,000 left over.

There is $500,000 in the contingency fund with $190,000 in a line item transfer for juvenile probation leaving around $310,000.

“The Orange County Sheriff’s Office was treated like every other department,” Carlton said.

Sheriff Keith Merritt asked Carlton what ability or what means does his department have to purchase the new vehicles. Carlton said the funds they have collected such as drug forfeiture funds.

Merritt said it is against U.S. Department of Justice guidelines to use drug forfeiture funds to purchase the vehicles.

“That is typically something the county buys for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office,” Merritt said.

Douglas Manning, assistant county attorney, said those funds are to supplement and not supplant the budget. Merritt added not other department has those means.

Carlton said the District Attorney’s office have collected funds. Merritt said the D.A.’s office hasn’t been asked to use those funds as the OCSO has been asked.

“Your interpretation is different from mine,” Carlton said.

Merritt said he doesn’t want to, but he may have to send a letter to the DOJ stating the OCSO can’t maintain their current level of service. The department has gained only 10 cars the past four years. Some of the vehicles go back to the mid 2000s with more than 150,000 miles.

“We’ve run out of repair money ($2,650 in budget cuts). I’m asking y’all what direction to take. I have an obligation to my employees and the citizens,” Merritt said. “You have to look at what your priority is- law enforcement or patching a road. This is keeping me from doing my job and this will fall back on me.”

He told of one incident where OCSO officers were transporting a prisoner and their vehicle broke down in Brenham.

Carlton said if there is still no money in the contingency capital outlay fund in the future, they won’t be able to buy the patrol vehicles. He pointed out there was money for the vehicles in the preliminary budget. Merritt said that funding was taken out at the last minute in the budget that was passed.

Carlton said the county is not in a position to fund the vehicles out of contingency capital outlay funds.

Merritt said maybe the zero-based budget should had been passed last year instead of this year. Carlton said the commissioners court budgeted the best they could do.

“It means everyone gets what is available,” Carlton said.

Merritt said the money was in the budget, but it was used in other places.

Auditor Mary Johnson suggested with the little bit of money left in the fund, maybe the county could obtain one or two vehicles on a lease as an alternative way to finance. She added there are companies who specifically meet capital needs.

“We can have capital leases,” she said.

Banken said commissioners need to look at five cars to lease.

“I apologize. It was in the budget. We owe the citizens of Orange County better. The sheriff’s office needs the proper equipment to do their jobs,” he said.

Merritt said the OCSO has looked at leases before and it can get “very expensive,” particularly for the wear and tear of a patrol vehicle.

Barry Burton, Precinct 2 commissioner, asked if the county could do one-year short-term leases for the next four to five years. Clint Hodgkinson, chief deputy, said the OCSO would become stuck in a lease and locked into a price.

Merritt originally requested 15 vehicles at $35,875 each for a total of $538,000. Eight would be used for patrol and seven would be used for support.

Banken said the budget was “butchered” when it was adopted because there wasn’t enough time to look it over.

Merritt said $139,000 was taken out of the OCSO budget and it would had been a courtesy to let him know what was taken out. The department also had more than $1 million in restricted funds for software they were required to have and $63,000 had to be taken out of the drug forfeiture fund to purchase new tasers that were needed.

Carlton said the budget was unanimously approved. Banken said commissioners only had 10 minutes to look it over before the vote. Carlton asked Banken if he voted for something he didn’t know.

Dubose said at the beginning of the year the county had $4 million in reserve and he doesn’t know where it went.

“Citizens won’t jump on you if you spend too much, but they will if the roads are too bad,” he said.

Carlton said if the county the ability it would take care of the matter then and there.

On another agenda item, commissioners issued a resolution regarding a new public-private tollway extending 10 miles from the intersection of State Highway 105 and U.S. Highway 96/69 in Beaumont eastward to FM 105 and Interstate 10 in Vidor, including the installation of a new elevated crossing over the Neches River for the “105 Tollway.”

Scott Young with Strategic Planning and Project Development, said they would start the public-private toll road with Texas Turnpike Corporation to build the needed toll road.

The two entities would tie in with the Texas Department of Transportation to build the 10-mile facility across the river. TxDOT, however, must first reach an agreement with the groups before proceeding. That is why they need the support of local entities such as Orange County, Jefferson County,  the city of Vidor, and the city of Beaumont.

Young stressed this is a preliminary corridor and they don’t want to invest until they have the support. Construction costs are anticipated to be $150 million and funds would be raised from the private entities. Environmental studies and preplanning also need to be completed.

Carlton asked if this would cost anything for the taxpayers of Orange County. Young said no tax money will be used for the building project.

Carlton then asked if the toll bridge could be used during emergency issues such as evacuations. Young answered yes.

He added another benefit to the project is all the additional economic development it will bring to the area just by construction workers lodging and eating here.

Carlton asked if residents would be forced to use the toll road. Young said they would not.

Burton said his hand out from the company gave an April 2017 date for TxDOT approval and he wanted to know how soon construction would begin. Young said approval comes in various phases and it’s a collaborative process.

Dubose asked Young he knew how much the toll would be. He said he didn’t know yet, but it would have to meet market conditions and cover costs.

Dubose then asked if it would be a toll booth or a tag system. Young said it would use electronic tags. Burton asked if the tags would work in Houston. Young said they are working on interoperability.

Next, Dubose asked if there would be a cost to the county even if the project “flopped.” Young said there would not be.

He then asked Young if there would be some kind of bond election for the project. Young said bonds are the typical way to pay for such projects.

Burton asked if the toll system would be suspended during emergency evacuations. Young answered yes.