Galen Scott

gscott@weatherforddemocrat.com

Though no action was taken, financial scenarios for bond issues ranging from $25 million to $75 million were outlined during a special presentation in Parker County Commissioners Court Wednesday.

The money is generally intended to pay for more transportation infrastructure and a new courts facility, but specifics are not expected to surface unless or until a bond election is called.

Commissioners had few questions or comments for presenter Nick Bulaich, an assistant vice president with First Southwest Company, the county’s financial services provider. Though no action was taken Wednesday, an order must be adopted before Sept. 5 in order to place a bond issue on the November ballot. The item is expected to surface again in a later meeting during the Court’s regular session.

A mobility study completed last year helped prioritize the county’s most pressing transportation projects and identified several new thoroughfares intended to alleviate traffic.

The study listed Peaster, Jacksboro and Azle Highways, FM 1187 in Aledo, FM 51, Tin Top, FM 5, and U.S. Highway 180 among priority corridors. Loops around Weatherford and Springtown, and a bypass for Aledo were termed “priority projects,” which the study’s presenter suggested are beyond the county’s ability to fund without special financing.

As county officials search for the means to build, maintain and expand roads, local courts are pressing for additional facilities.

When the possibility of a new courts facility was discussed publicly eight months ago, County Judge Mark Riley said more space for local judges was something the judges asked for themselves, and that it did not necessarily need to be included in a bond election. “[The judges] just want to make sure their needs are included in these discussions,” Riley said at the time.

An expansion of the Courthouse Annex, which is scheduled to open very soon, is expected to provide relief for the growing number of jurors and other litigants in the Parker County court system. But some contend there still won’t be enough space and note the problem will only get worse if Parker County’s population continues to burgeon.

Master Planner Charlie Kerns was hired in November to figure out the best overall arrangement of county space, and specifically charged with researching possible locations for a consolidated courts facility. Though during recent meetings Kerns has briefed the Court, his conclusions have not been presented publicly and a location is yet to be announced.

County commissioners seem to be weighing the political considerations associated with a bond election against the need for improvements and the risk associated with adding to its current outstanding debt of nearly $27 million.

According to Bulaich, Parker County enjoys an A+ credit rating, and its debt-per-total-valuation ratio is presently at a manageable 0.4 percent. But figures Bulaich distributed indicate that debt ratio would nearly double if the low-end, $25 million bond proposal is approved. If the county opts for the high end — $75 million — the ratio is anticipated to exceed 1.5 percent, giving Parker County the highest debt-per-valuation ratio in a comparison of 15 peer counties.

But continued population growth and a corresponding jump on the tax rolls could help insulate Parker County against additional debt. The county’s total taxable valuation has tripled over the last 10 years, growing by 10 percent from 2004 to 2005, 16 percent from 2005 to 2006 and 14 percent from 2006 to 2007.

Based on information from the Parker County Appraisal District, Bulaich predicted a 15 percent jump in Parker County’s total taxable valuation next year. He said the estimation is “erroring on the side of conservatism.”

“If you are too conservative in estimating your county growth and you issue debt — if you grow more than what you expected — then suddenly you have this excess capacity there for your debt service tax rate,” he added.

Following a brief series of questions from Precinct 4 Commissioner Jim Webster, Bulaich noted the county’s future debt scenarios were calculated using an interest rate of 5.1 percent, despite current interests rates being closer to 4.5 percent.

“I don’t know if you’ve been following the interest rate market, but the 10-year treasury rate, which is usually a bench mark in our industry, has risen about 30 basis points over the last couple of months,” he said. “That’s a pretty substantial move, so for something to happen between now and 2008 — it is not out of the question.”

Whether Parker County voters will be asked to approve both items remains unclear, and if both items get the green light, each could be presented to voters as separate ballot measures.

If the Commissioners Court fails to adopt an order calling a bond election by Sept. 5, the next appropriate opportunity is expected to materialize during the May 2008 election cycle.