By Bill Spinks

Ellis County is in a good position to handle the COVID-19 pandemic and the county’s future is very bright, according to County Judge Todd Little.

Little, the county’s top executive, was the featured speaker to kick off the Midlothian Chamber of Commerce’s 2020 Legislative Series of webinars involving local elected officials.

"It’s been one of those years to remember," Little said, highlighting some key dates in the county: the declaration of Ellis County as a sanctuary for the unborn on Jan. 28, the first identified case of COVID-19 in the county on March 17 and the agreement with Freshpet for a major manufacturing facility on July 14.

"We were in the process of moving forward on our political promises and our political agenda, to keep Ellis County one of the most conservative counties in the state of Texas," Little said of the sanctuary declaration, the first of its kind in the state. The county also committed to providing up to $30,000 per year to FirstLook, a crisis pregnancy center in Waxahachie.

Little said COVID first appeared on his radar on Jan. 31, when President Donald Trump ordered a halt to all flights into the U.S. from China. On March 17, Ellis County declared a disaster as the virus began to hit home and a stay-at-home order was issued.

On July 14, the county Commissioners’ Court received $3.4 million from the federal government through the CARES Act, Little said. That amount will defray unexpected expenses incurred by the pandemic, which to date amounts to about $1.34 million across all Ellis County jurisdictions.

"The whole job for us is to continue doing our day-to-day work while we also try to manage this epidemic here locally and try to mitigate the spread in Ellis County as much as possible," Little said.

Hospital capacity in the county has remained steady, with 215 total beds available and occupancy floating between 120 and 134 the week of Aug. 4-11, Little said. The county continues to schedule drive-through testing for county residents.

With the pandemic came a national economic dropoff, and the Commissioners’ Court approved a resolution for property tax relief in March. Little said he is committed to keeping residents’ tax rates as low as possible while providing funding to keep up with growth.

Little touted the county’s low unemployment numbers, with only 1,631 claims out of a population of almost 200,000, according to Texas Workforce Solutions. That number is the lowest percentage in the 14-county neighboring area, he said.

Freshpet, in Ennis, is the largest incoming business announced so far in 2020 in terms of jobs, with 400-plus employees. While Freshpet will make an investment of $300 million, Compass Data Center in Red Oak will provide a $1 billion investment and Earth Root Holdings LLC in Midlothian is proposing to invest $56 million. That’s on top of the Google data center in Midlothian, which was announced last year and is well along in construction.

Little said that without added burdens such as a light rail system or a community college district, Ellis County is in a good position to provide investment dollars as an incentive.

"As it relates to Ellis County Commissioners’ Court, we want to continue to be good partners with our communities, our cities and our school districts," Little said. "Our job is to walk with you in that prospect. As you decide you want a business owner or a relocation to come into your city and do a specific thing, we want to partner with you and provide the necessary incentives that we can that the law allows as a county government."

The Chamber’s Legislative Series continues on Thursday with U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, who is running for re-election to a second term representing Texas’ 6th Congressional District. Wright will face Democrat Stephen Daniel, Libertarian Melanie Black and independent Chad Snider in the Nov. 3 general election.

The series concludes next Wednesday, Aug. 26, with Texas House District 10 Rep. John Wray and the candidate favored to replace Wray, Republican nominee Jake Ellzey.

Ellzey, a former U.S. Navy officer and fighter pilot who lives in Midlothian, won the March primary election for the Republican nomination for the Texas House District 10 race to replace Wray. Ellzey will face Matt Savino, a Libertarian, in the November general election. Wray, who served on the Waxahachie City Council from 2008-2014 and was mayor of Waxahachie from 2013-2014, announced last year he would not seek re-election to his Texas House seat.

There will be no charge for viewers to participate in the event. Each webinar will be live and will be a 45-minute presentation with active viewer participation via chat for registered attendees only. Each webinar will also be available afterward for on-demand viewing on the Chamber website.