Upshur County Pct. 2 Comm. Cole Hefner told the Upshur County Libertarian Party Tuesday night he is “exploring the pros and cons” of reducing the number of Justice of the Peace/Constable precincts in the county if Texas voters pass a constitutional amendment allowing it.
Hefner supports state House Joint Resolution 103, which would allow voters statewide to decide whether counties of under 50,000 population can set the number of precincts within certain limits.
Counties in Upshur’s range (at least 18,000, but under 50,000) could set the number between two and eight, according to State Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview), who introduced HJR 103.
Under state law, Upshur must have four JP/Constable precincts, and Hefner had told The Mirror last week that reducing the number to two was “what I see in my mind” if voters got to approve the amendment this November.
But on Tuesday night, the Republican commissioner told the Libertarians in an informal discussion at the Buckeye Country Cafe that he might consider having three precincts.
He said reducing the number to two could save taxpayers $175,000 to $220,000 yearly, depending on what the remaining personnel are paid, since revenue collected by those offices “should” remain the same. Anyone elected to a JP or Constable post must be allowed to finish their term, however, he said.
Hefner said he had talked to all four Justices of the Peace, and three of the four Constables, in the county, and “they were cordial, but they were generally opposed. . .to the amendment.”
Nonetheless, he planned to ask the Commissioners Court at its meeting Friday (March 15) to approve a resolution supporting passage of HJR 103.
Lowering the number of precincts would allow “just greater efficiency,” Hefner told the Libertarians. As for the potential amendment, he said, “Local counties can better determine what fits their needs than the state.”
Said Upshur Libertarian Chairman Vance Lowry, “I think the taxpayers of Upshur County would totally embrace this.” Libertarian Allen Weatherford said having two JP/Constable precincts was a “great idea.”
Hefner on Thursday corrected some information he had given the Libertarians about a 1999 amendment to the Texas Constitution. He said Friday that the amendment forced certain counties which had exactly four such precincts at that time (including Upshur) to retain at least that number, while counties with fewer or more precincts could still lower their number.
“Counties with four precincts at that time were singled out,” he said.
HJR 103 would authorize voting on an amendment that “will allow us the same freedom that other counties have always had,” Hefner said. As of now, Upshur can only add JP/Constable precincts, he said.
He had told the Libertarians that Hopkins, Titus, Hale, Howard and Fannin Counties have all reduced their number of precincts to three, while Erath and Cooke Counties dropped to two each. All those counties are comparable to Upshur populationwise, while some are comparable to Upshur in geographic size, the commissioner said.
Simpson said Hefner was among officials he talked to about the proposal. Hefner said he didn’t think Simpson introduced the bill at his urging alone.
The idea of cutting back to two precincts has drawn fire from Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace Rhonda Welch, who expressed concern that the increased workload for JPs could cause job burnout, and who cited Upshur’s large geographic size.
On Tuesday night, Hefner also discussed some other county issues with the Libertarians. Lowry said the Republican commissioner was invited to meet with Lowry’s party since there was a “lot of commonality” between Tea Party-type Republicans and Libertarians.
“We are at least together on the fiscal aspects of our government,” Lowry said. (Hefner noted he doesn’t favor legalizing marijuana, which the Libertarian Party proposes.)
Hefner was asked about the possiblity of reducing the number of county commissioners from four to two. He indicated opposition to that, saying that would allow only two people to “team up and override everything.”
“Do you want (only) two people raising your taxes, or do you want it to be three?” Hefner asked. He also said that with only two commissioners, the state Open Meetings Act would prohibit them from legally meeting to discuss any county business except at called meetings.
(Currently, two commissioners can talk about county business privately, as long as no quorum of the Commissioners Court is present.)
Lowry asked about accusations in a recent Letter to the Editor that commissioners had been holding secret meetings. Hefner said he and another commissioner had been invited to a meeting by two constables to discuss the constables’ “duties and workloads,” and that the meeting was legal and “no secret.”
He said two days later, he and the other commissioner met with two constables and a justice of the peace at those officials’ invitation because the officials “wanted to educate us on what they do.” Hefner said that was “a great meeting,” but the proposed amendment was not discussed.
As for another issue raised in the letter from Sherry Jewkes-Larson, a clerk in the Pct. 4 Justice of the Peace office, Hefner and Lowry rebutted her criticism of Commissioners Court for abolishing the county Veterans’ Service Office.
Lowry, a veteran and American Legion member, said the office got only one call weekly for six months while Jim Bowling was serving in it free of charge. Hefner said the Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans (all of which have posts in Gilmer) do “as much as a county Veterans Service Officer.”
Those organizations don’t cost taxpayers a dime, said Lowry, who said the county had formerly paid $30,000 yearly for a “useless” Veterans’ Office.
Hefner, asked about whether he has political aspirations other than commissioner, said, “Not at this time.” He said he will seek reelection in 2014, and he thanked Libertarian Billy Joe Roberts for pointing out that most of the Commissioners Court (including Hefner) approved cutting commissioners’ salaries in the 2013-2014 budget.
After Hefner left the meeting, Lowry praised the Republican official for having “the guts to show up at one of our (Libertarian) meetings.”
With Hefner present, Lowry said that although none of the all-Republican Commissioners Court are Libertarians, “I believe we’ve got probably the finest group of commissioners now.” Lowry is a former Republican.