Republican candidates in contested local races have their say

By BRUCE ALSOBROOK, News-Telegram Managing Editor

Feb. 19, 2008 - Candidates seeking the GOP's nomination for local offices got their chance to speak to the party faithful at a forum Monday night at the Civic Center.

A number of candidates spoke, but the highlight of the evening were the four candidates in two contested races: Incumbent Precinct 1 Commissioner Beth Wisenbaker and her challenger, Will Woods, and Precinct 3 candidates Ron Reed and Philip Anderson.

The Precinct 1 Commissioner nominee is expected to face the lone filer in the Democratic primary, John W. Ragan, in the November general election.

The winner between Reed and Anderson should face off against Democratic Party incumbent Don Patterson, who is seeking a fifth term as Precinct 3 Commissioner.

Wisenbaker, who in 1996 became the first Republican elected to a Hopkins County office since Reconstruction, led off the evening's speakers. She said she sought to become a county commissioner because she believes the office offers a great opportunity to serve the local constituents.

"I see this job as making the government system work for those in need," she said.

Wisenbaker spoke of her many accomplishments in office and the boards and commissions she has served on, including Northeast Texas Opportunities, a regional panel that oversees grant funding, and the Region D Water Board that is in charge of planning for the future water needs of Northeast Texas.

She also brought to mind other projects she has worked on.

"Can anyone remember when we banded together to keep a Dallas-area juvenile boot camp from locating in the Arbala area?" she asked. "How about when we worked with Representative Mark Homer and supported him in passage of a bill that limits the number of Justice of the Peace offices in Hopkins County, saving the taxpayers $125,000 a year?"

Under her tenure, Wisenbaker, noted, the county jail has been expanded, the county has implemented a personnel policy and set up a competitive county employee salary structure, and restored the county courthouse. The county has also built a fire station and emergency service center, partnered with the local school district to construct a new parking lot, and is working with the state highway department to extend State Highway 11 and widen State Highways 154 and 11 to the south and west, respectively.

The county is also working on the revamping the Fidelity Express building for county office use and helping with downtown revitalization, she said, and "a facelift for this beautiful facility, the Civic Center."

"We still have more projects in the fast lane," she added, such as creating a central dispatch center and a full-time county fire department.

She also pointed out that the accomplishments are collaborative efforts.

"That is what government is about," she said. "No one -- no one -- accomplishes anything by themselves. WE must take our differences and make them our strengths, not our weaknesses, and that's what we do here in Hopkins County. We work together for the betterment of the people."

She also said that, with her precinct crew, she has improved the roads, bridges and equipment in her precinct, and expanded the county barn by about 4 1/2 acres while leaving intact a house on the property, which is rented out to help pay for the purchase.

"Our county has four commissioners who share equipment when necessary," she added. "We have even looked into jointly purchasing large pieces of equipment and scheduling their usage."

She added that this should not be seen as implementing the "unit system," which she calls "another costly layer of government bureaucracy."

Wisenbaker also told the crowd she helped get $3.7 million in grants for the courthouse restoration, $1.5 million in grants for roads and bridges in Precinct 1, $750,000 for the fire station and "hundreds of thousands dollars more for water and sewer improvements in rural areas, an environmental department, and other areas."

"Hopkins County is growing," she said. "I believe in being pro-active, not reactive, to the challenges of the future. I ask for your support and trust in making the decisions that will impact the future of our community."

Her challenger, Will Woods, spent some 30 years in corporate America, surviving five mergers along with way, and has more than 20 years experience managing Will Woods Farm, specializing in equine promotion and management.

"I have to say, Beth, you've done a lot," he said. "But I think there's a lot of things that can done a little different, and maybe improved."

He said he understands road construction, having worked in the field right out of high school, but also knows the job "is about business -- it's more about a lot of money appropriated by the county. I feel like I can truly manage that money and get our best dollars spent."

"Each of our precincts have $992,000 to spend on roads, maintenance and equipment, and have about $6 million in equipment spread out over the four precincts," Woods said. "There's got to be more sharing of equipment. I believe that."

He also said the county can put more than the current figure of about $250,000 a year for road materials on local roads.

"If you take out some of the $6 million we've got in equipment and condense that a little bit, we'd probably have more money to spend on road materials," he said. "For 250 miles of road that each precinct has, $250,000 is really not enough to cover those roads, so we have a lot of patching going on. We don't really have the roads we need.

"It's nothing more than trying to find a way to cut corners and make things happen."

Woods also said the Hopkins County Civic Center has to get on a cash-neutral basis.

"When you look at the books, we're still not getting it out of the red, and still not making money, or even getting close," he said. "There are things we can do like charging ground fees when we have horse shows ... We had $500 in revenue from stalls last year, which is pretty unacceptable when you've got that many stalls.

"We've got to get it when people drive in here they pay for the maintenance of the facility."

Having more multi-day events will also bring more people in for overnight stays.

"That in turn helps hotel-motel tax, and last year that contributed about $19,000 to this facility," he said. "If we get more people in the beds and more people here, we'll have more money to spend here and less money come out of the general fund."

He was also adamant that the county needs a full-time paid fire department. The county currently has a paid department, but closes the facility at 10 p.m. each night, turning fire protection over to volunteers.

"I've visited with the fire chief, and he expressed frustration that they can't keep anybody there past 10 o'clock at night," Woods said. "We've got eight beds out there, yet we don't have anybody there [at night].

"I think it would be a real shame if somebody's house burned down tonight, that we have a facility like that out there and nobody to drive a truck to put it out. That's got to change."

He also urged support for higher pay for sheriff's officers, saying the department is losing personnel to other agencies due to salary and benefits. He said he has been told requests for salary hikes have been met with a suggestion from commissioners that the sheriff's officers take the salary request to a vote of the people.

"That's one way to do it, but sometimes you've got to stand up and take care of the people and protect them," Woods said. "I think that's got to be of utmost importance."

He concluded by saying improved roads and fire and police protection were important to future growth.

"Everything's growing a lot faster up and down the interstate a lot faster than we are here in Hopkins County," Woods said. "We've got more exits probably than nay county between here and Texarkana, yet we don't seem to have the growth coming here that we should have. We should have more growth, and I don't know why that is, but if I can do something about it on commissioners court, I will."

Ron Reed, a professional firefighter for more than 33 years, was quick to make a 24-hour paid fire department a top priority.

"The creation of a paid county fire department was one of the biggest steps Hopkins County has ever taken," he said. "I am not anti-volunteer, but we have got to have trained, equipped personnel answering these calls 24 hours a day. There's no reason for that state-of-the art fire station to close the doors at 10 o'clock at night."

He told of a woman who had to climb out of a window to escape a fire in her home just a few miles from the county fire department, not understanding that, because it was 1:30 in the morning, the county firemen would not be coming.

"There's no reason for it," he said.

He put part of the blame on the voting patterns of the commissioners court

"When you've got a voting bloc of 3 against 1, there's not many ties," Reed said.

He said he has known Hopkins County Fire Chief Carl Nix for 25 years and puts Nix's record and abilities up against the best of them, and Reed believes Nix can create a full-time fire department for not much more than is already budgeted.

"When he comes before that court and says 'I can implement this 24 hours a day for $20,000-some odd dollars," and they say, 'We don't have the money,' and less than a month later [commissioners] come up with $20,000-some odd dollars to buy a cab and chassis for a volunteer fire department, something's wrong."

Reed said Hopkins County should have two more fire stations and a 24-hour response by now.

"We're just at a stalemate. It's like we're on high center," he said. "There's no reason this fire department couldn't go on a 24-hour basis in the next week. The money is there, and we've got to have it."

Reed also said the county needs to do more for law enforcement.

"There are times, ladies and gentlemen, when there are two sheriff's deputies on duty for this whole county," he said. "I want every one in this county to be able to pick up that phone and dial 911 and know that, as quick as possible, they'll be there. Right now we don't enjoy that.

"If we want to attract industry and other things into this county, law enforcement and the fire department have to be improved."

Reed's opponent, Phillip Anderson, owner of TriStar Alternator and Starter for about 15 years, talked of his commitment to the principles of the Republican Party.

"I stand with the Republican Party because it stands for conservative values," he said, adding, "The belief of the Democratic Party is higher taxes which causes less freedom and growth of the government. The Republican Party believes in lower taxes which gives you more freedom. The Republican Party also believes government should only be big enough to do its job, and its job only."

He blamed illegal immigration for lower paying jobs, higher unemployment and lower property values in the county,

Anderson said high property taxes put elderly people in fear of losing their homes.

"Throughout the year I saved what I thought was a good amount to put away for a rainy day and to pay my taxes," he said. "Come to find out I didn't even have enough to pay all my taxes.

"We need more than one Republican commissioner on the court so we're able to accomplish the goals of the Republican Party. If you elect me, property taxes, and generally, taxes, will be a priority."

He also said roads would be a priority for him as commissioner.

"Good roads throughout the county makes good economic sense that would attract new housing and new businesses throughout the county. And I believe there are different ways that we can spend our dollars ... I have heard stories of people not being able to sell their property for the price they wanted because of poor roads."

He said he would be a good candidate because of his experience as a business owner, as well as his experience in the military and as a volunteer firefighter.

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