Nueces County Judge Loyd Neal had one simple message for about 800 attendees at last week's State of the County address - the county is in financially sound shape, but tough times are still ahead.
Neal displayed a wide variety of information during a slideshow presentation at the April 13 event, most of which showed just how much money the Nueces County Commissioners Court has helped to save taxpayers through spending cuts and refinancing of existing debt.
One group of figures showed that the county has completely eliminated the use of outside consultants for projects or other work. In the 2006-07 Fiscal Year, the county paid $311,000 to outside consultants, but this fiscal year has not paid any money for those services, Neal said.
Neal also spoke about progress made at the Richard M. Borchard Regional Fairgrounds in Robstown in raising revenue. The facility had struggled in past years to meet revenue benchmarks set by the county, but is on track to do so this year, county officials have said.
The county has invested $7.2 million in improvements to the fairgrounds, including additional parking spots and hook-ups for recreational vehicles, installing air conditioning in one of the fairgrounds' exhibit halls and the construction of a video marquee to help promote events.
That money was not the result of new debt, however, but rather reallocated from funds set aside for a new arena that was turned down by commissioners in 2009. The fairgrounds, as of February, had generated $584,778 in revenue, an increase of $141,136 for the same five-month period last fiscal year.
"That's a tremendous increase," Neal said, adding that lowering overall operational costs at the fairgrounds is still a priority.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Pusley, who attended last week's event, said he was pleased to hear Neal highlight the achievement of the court and management firm Global Spectrum in lowering the county's spending levels at the fairgrounds. However, there is still room for improvement, particularly since the county was on the hook at the fairgrounds in the 2009-10 Fiscal Year for $865,000, he said.
"Obviously, I feel a lot better than where we were a few years ago," Pusley said. "Global Spectrum stepped up to the plate and we did as well. That big old house payment is still there, though."
Neal also pointed out other measures the county has taken to cut expenditures, including the installation of solar panels at the county courthouse and jail facilities to offset electricity costs. In all, the moves have resulted in $3.6 million in savings since 2008, Neal said.
"The future is bright in Nueces County and we want it to stay that way," he said.
The final part of Neal's 45-minute speech covered challenges the county will be facing over the next two years, including a mounting problem with a cleanup project at Hazel Bazemore Park in Calallen that will likely require state intervention. Unfunded state mandates are also a pressing issue, he added.
The county has seen a steady increase in the cost of indigent defense, or public defenders, for citizens arrested for a crime in which they cannot afford an attorney. Compared to the 2006-07 Fiscal Year, the county is paying $910,000 more in indigent defense costs, with $3.9 million being allocated to that service so far this fiscal year.
In addition, Neal touched on the challenges that redistricting could bring to Nueces County, since much of the growth documented in the 2010 U.S. Census took place in County Commissioner Joe McComb's precinct, which includes areas in suburban Corpus Christi, Port Aransas and Flour Bluff. Neal said it is likely that voting demographics in the area could be completely shifted after this year's redistricting process is completed.
A final redistricting proposal for Nueces County is expected to be released and considered for approval in June, Neal said.
Neal also highlighted a looming problem with the Nueces County Hospital District, which is in danger of running out of money by 2014. Since 2005, the Hospital District has been spending more than it has brought in through tax revenue, a problem made worse following a decrease in the Hospital District's tax rate in 2006.
During the past few years, the district has been drawing down its fund balance to make up for the shortfall in revenue, Neal said. The county judge said he is opposed to any tax increase that could generate more revenue for the hospital district, adding he would rather have the district examine what facilities or services are not being used efficiently in order to make any necessary changes or cuts.
Neal said only through regional cooperation would Nueces County have a greater chance of making it through these upcoming challenges.
"If we are going to move forward, and we all want to do that, we are going to have to move forward as a region," Neal said. "We're going to have to stand together."
About 800 peope attended the April 13 State of the County Address, which took place at the Solomon P. Ortiz International Center in Corpus Christi.