In the second session of Midlothian’s 2019 Legislative Series Luncheons at the Midlothian Conference Center, Ellis County Judge Todd Little spoke on the past, present and potential future of the county.
Also discussed was the extensive role played by county government in providing services essential to managing the continued growth of Ellis County — and providing adequately for its residents.
“The reason that they created county government was so that we can take care of public safety and take care of the justice system to protect you as citizens,” Little said.
'WHERE WE’VE COME FROM'
Little grew up on a farm in Ellis County, no doubt like many others. His family moved here in 1969. He remembers going to the hardware store on Saturday mornings and bailing hay. But that Ellis County seems to be no more.
“The future of our county is a lot different from the past,” he said. “Where we’ve come from, where we are now and where we’re going are vastly different stories.”
In 1960, the population of Ellis County was a modest 43,395. In 2019, the North Central Council of Governments estimates the county’s population at 189,820. Little said conservative estimates for 2020 and 2040 were 196,000 and 280,000, respectively.
“Now you say, ‘Todd, that’s almost double growth.’ I say, yes it is. So we’ve got some problems, and we’ve got some opportunities, right? We’ve got to work hard to stay on top of the game.”
'WHERE WE ARE NOW'
Still, the county shows many signs of good health, according to Little. Ellis County has a higher median family income ($67,371) than any of its neighboring counties -- and a lower tax rate, too.
“Yesterday in Commissioner’s Court, we set the ceiling for the tax rate that we can pass this year at 36.03 cents. So you can tell, with growth, with development, comes some benefit for you as county citizens.”
With growth and development come opportunity. Commissioner’s recently approved hospitals in the county to participate in the “Local Provider Participation Fund,” a bill (HB 4548) championed by State Representative John Wray and Texas Senator Brian Birdwell to help hospitals reconcile uncompensated care.
“If Ennis (Regional Medical Center) gets $3 million next year — and by the way, it starts on a monthly basis — that’s going to be real money to Ennis,” said Little. “That’s going to help the doors stay open.”
Ellis County has also attracted the attention of some prominent American companies. Tech giant Google plans to build facilities in Midlothian and Red Oak worth $600 million. Aerospace design, engineering and manufacturing group Triumph Aerostructures, formerly Vought Aircraft, operates a 1.1-million-square-foot facility in Red Oak with more than 2,000 employees.
Little hopes the county can create even more higher-income tech jobs in the future.
“Because of who we are and where we’re located,” he explained, “we don’t have to do heavy industry anymore, we can go after the cream of the crop.”
'WHERE WE ARE GOING'
With growth and development also comes more responsibility. After Little was sworn in on Jan. 1 this year, he said he learned quickly how the county’s size would create additional budgetary obligations.
“We have a lot of unfunded mandates,” Little said. “An unfunded mandate is something that the legislature tells us … that we have to do, but they don’t send any money down from the state for us to do it.”
Examples of these types of mandates include juvenile justice and alternative education, inmate medical treatment and indigent healthcare and defense. These expenses can add up for the county. In the case of indigent defense, for example, Little explained that 72 to 75 percent of applications for free defense are approved — at a cost of about $1.7 million to the county last year.
Budgeting is another of the county government’s most important roles, along with identifying potential areas for growth. This is especially true as it relates to the changing tides in Ellis County.
On July 30, commissioners approved $5 million in bonds for capital improvements. Among those improvements was the need for County Court at Law No. 3. The funds budgeted for the construction of this court are set at $1.5 million.
“Next year, we know right now we are going to have 3,500 new misdemeanor cases,” Little explained.
And a new court will require a new judge.
“We wanted to make sure that voters had a hand in that’,” Little began. “That position will start January of 2021, so that race will be in the next election. … We think it’s important that citizens have their choice when it comes to a judge.”
Also included in the bond package is $3.5 million earmarked for the complete rebuild of the Justice of the Peace Precinct 2 facility. Little said this would consist of a courtroom, tax office, election polling location and constable offices.
Finally, $250,000 will be spent to rebuild and remodel the county’s existing juvenile detention facilities. A new state mandate, beginning Jan. 1, 2021, will require the county to handle the education of students subject to mandatory expulsion -- a task Ellis County was once exempt from due to its smaller population size.
As a matter of policy, Little explained that the county government’s mission is to unite communities, cities, school districts and more under a common vision. That policy also includes creating higher-income jobs, attracting tech companies and eliminating poverty, all while maintaining transparency and openness. They need your help.
“The bottom line is, we’re trying to keep you connected to county government so you can tell us what we’re doing right or what we need to improve on. … We need you as citizens to keep us transparent — keep us accountable to you. We want your input; we want your good ideas; we want your critical thinking.”
The final luncheon in the series will take place Aug. 28 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Midlothian Conference Center featuring U.S. Congressman Ron Wright.