Name: Mark Riley
Occupation: Parker County Judge
Spouse/family: Married to Janet and we have five children and four grandchildren.
Education: I have earned hundreds of hours of judicial training credits. A graduate of Navarro College and completed additional course work in management and government.
Professional background: I am a member of the East Parker County Chamber of Commerce and am on the legislative affairs committee. I serve as secretary of the Regional Transportation Council, Secretary of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition, member of Weatherford Rotary and North Side Baptist Church. Recipient of the East Parker County Chamber Community Service Award. Recipient of the Careity Foundation Community Hero Award. Finalist for Greater Fort Worth Builder Association Community Service Award.
Community involvement: Over the years I have served on numerous community boards and committees. I have served as emcee of the Ms. Senior Parker County Pageant for 13 years and was emcee for the Weatherford Blue Belles Spring Show for 15 years and stadium announcer for Roo football for 15 years.
What are your top three goals should you be elected to serve? Please be specific.
A. Parker County has one of the lowest general fund operational tax rates in the state. Eighty-two percent of the 254 Texas counties have a higher rate than Parker County. The goal is to maintain the sound business practices that have allowed us to keep the tax rate constant. We have tripled our emergency reserves, improved our bond rating from A- to AA and received the Texas Comptrollers Award for Transparency. Since I have been county judge, we completed an addition to the jail, restored the historic courthouse and implemented the first-ever voter-approved transportation bond. Each of these projects was completed on time and within budget.
B. Moving forward with plans for the Eastern Loop, which will connect with the existing Ric Williamson Memorial Highway, is a top priority. Initial design and environmental studies have been underway since 2012 when the Commissioners Court authorized the expenditures. I called a joint meeting with the city councils of Hudson Oaks and Weatherford where we discussed the implementation of the first phase of the Eastern Loop. About 200 citizens attended. I am the only candidate who is not recommending a bond issue to continue the progress.
C. The third and certainly not the least important goal is to make sure we do not back up on law enforcement support. A couple of budget sessions ago, my opponents and a commissioner wanted to reduce law enforcement funding. In a county that is one of the fastest growing in the state, we must not reduce our commitment to public safety. The judicial system, which includes all of the courts and support services, law enforcement and the jail, are responsibilities of county government as required by statute and the constitution. Those laws have millions of dollars of unfunded mandates pushed down on county government to fund.
The transportation bond projects approved by the voters in 2008 are nearly complete. What is your opinion on what has been accomplished and what, if any, are the next steps the county should take?
Unprecedented accomplishment in Parker County. When the voters approved the $80 million in bond funds, I promised transparency, oversight of the projects and a quick start. Sixty days after receiving funds, we started our first project. We are approaching the five-year mark and will soon be finished with every project and under budget.
The Federal Highway Administration attempted to overextend their authority on the Western Loop with EPA requirements. I went to bat for the taxpayers and after months of discussions, the citizens of Parker County won the battle. The Feds conceded they had no authority over our local road, and I was able to get the normal environmental review time for the interstate interchange reduced from about three years to nine months. This victory saved the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and kept Washington out of our business.
The county has not stopped planning and implementing our transportation plan. A public hearing on the Eastern Loop interchange, which will begin at Centerpoint Road, will be held this summer. The county has funds to pay our share. The success we have enjoyed is because of the partnerships developed. I meet regularly with city representatives, TxDOT, regional partners and NCTCOG transportation staff. There has never been such a unified partnership in Parker County. I am secretary of the Regional Transportation Council and have secured $35 million in state and federal transportation dollars for our county and will be chairman in 2015. I have recommended to the commissioners, and they have agreed, that we should approach precinct road building operations in the same manner as I used with the bond. We should prioritize repairs for local roads, improve standards, and cut operational costs by consolidating equipment. That process has begun.
Earthquakes, and their possible link to injection wells used for fracking waste, have been an issue for Parker County residents recently. Do you think the Texas Railroad Commission should increase the monitoring and reporting done on these wells?
The Texas Railroad Commission is in the process of hiring a seismologist to gather scientific data on the earthquake occurrence in Northern Parker County. SMU is also conducting a study. Everyone acknowledges a problem exists. It is important to gather scientific data to provide the best possible answer to the cause of the tremors. It is important the RRC keep the public updated on their process and push for a timely response with their conclusions.
Please comment on the $1.3 million road and bridge fund deficit brought to light in this year’s budget talks and the court’s decision to give up individual fund balances.
The question is misleading, in that the fund balance of all county funds is reported on regularly. The R&B fund balance is overseen by the commissioners. The difference in the precinct fund balance and the one for the general fund is simple.
The R&B fund balance is split into five accounts. Each commissioner had his own reserves (not allowed in the general fund) and the R&B reserve fund. Unlike the general fund departments, the precincts draw down on their own reserves and make allocations from the main reserve fund as well.
The commissioners have sole responsibility for their budgets. The commissioners have made the correct decision to eliminate individual precinct reserves and operate the same way as the general fund. There have been previous commissioners who have opposed that move. Fortunately the current court sees the value in changing the process.
Do you have any strategies to limit tax increases as the county grows? If so what are they?
We have already limited tax rate increases and continue with the same tax rate. Individual tax bills may or may not increase based on appraisal changes (which are not controlled by Commissioners Court). Tax bills may increase because of the tax rate of other entities.
The general fund operating tax rate for the county is about 12 percent of the average tax rate for all taxing entities. Statewide, 82 percent of the 254 counties have a higher operating tax rate than Parker County.
Through sound business practices and a proven conservative approach to budgeting, we limit the tax while maintaining the expected level of service. Every budget has been scrubbed for unnecessary operating expenses. We cannot control unfunded mandates from the state which account for a large portion of our budget.
One of the biggest cost savings I was able to get approved was a change in our employee health insurance plan. We bought health insurance through an agency that cost us about $250,000 in commissions and administration fees.
Over the vehement objections of a former commissioner, I convinced the court to join a group with regional entities. Now, we pay no commissions and spend about $50,000 in administration fees. All monies paid by the county and employees now go directly to providing the benefits.
The transportation projects are one of the biggest economic engines we could have and with the positive growth we will continue to experience, we will have appropriate funds available to provide the expected services. If there is an economic downturn, we will do as we did several years ago. Cut expenses.
What are the duties and responsibilities of the county judge?
The county judge has multiple responsibilities beyond commissioners court. About half of my time is spent on judicial duties. These duties are an important part of the judicial process for our citizens and I am the only candidate qualified. I preside over Probate Court, which hears will prove ups, guardianships and mental competency hearings. I also am on a rotation schedule with the justices of the peace to set bond at the jail. A judge goes to the jail seven days a week, including holidays. This schedule was implemented after I became judge. The taxpayers have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars because every judge is committed to making the process the best it can be.
Presiding over probate matters requires an individual who has the temperament and stability of character to treat all parties fairly and impartially. Guardianship hearings may affect a senior citizen, or a minor child. Regardless of the age of the proposed ward, a life is impacted by the judge. That decision is not to be taken lightly or with a cavalier attitude.
As county judge I represent the county before state agencies and serve on regional boards. I also have been an invited speaker at an international oil and gas conference and transportation conferences. The county judge must have the ability to build partnerships and provide a vision for solving problems. I have the proven leadership and verifiable record of accomplishments to continue our success.