Wednesday, February 21, 2024

View from the top: Mayors talk progress for their towns in 2023

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The buck may not stop with Hood County’s mayors, but the elected officials are certainly involved in how bucks are spent or saved.

Mayors preside over city council meetings, listen to the complaints and concerns of residents and field requests to appear at functions.

The Hood County News asked the mayors of Granbury, Cresson and Tolar to share their thoughts about how 2023 has been going and what they foresee for the remainder of 2023. 

GRANBURY: ‘Building momentum’

Granbury Mayor Jim Jarratt said that the city of Granbury has made progress toward reaching its’ 2022-2023 fiscal year’s budgetary goals. He said the city is also “building momentum” toward accomplishing its five-year Strategic Plan.

“These successes are primarily due to the resourcefulness, tenacity, hard work and creativity of the city of Granbury staff,” he stated.

Accomplishments this year have included a salary survey and an updated salary structure to hopefully increase the retention rate. Before, the city had been losing employees “at an unsustainable rate,” Jarratt said.

In an email to the Hood County News, the mayor wrote that the dividends reaped by investing in quality staff have resulted in the following achievements so far in 2023:

  • An airport that is operating at 250%-300% above expectations, with fuel sales and new hanger construction trending sharply higher.
  • Increased tourism.
  • Innovative, flexible outsourcing of electrical staff that has yielded “enormous savings” while improving infrastructure reliability and capabilities.
  • Communications enhancements that have increased transparency, citizen understanding, and participation.
  • Increased partnership between the development community and city staff, with continued growth and building despite a moratorium.
  • Continued high performance by experienced, professional city staff “resulting in a safe and clean city.”

Jarratt said that the first half of 2023 was “very successful” and he noted the work of the staff in preparing the budget for the upcoming fiscal year with an eye toward keeping the property tax rate as low as possible.

The mayor indicated that there have been some uncontrollable delays on some things, such as development of an in-person, “one-stop-shop” for those needing permits, licenses, development agreements and other services.

Also still in progress is the acquisition and implementation of various software programs.

“One facilitates greater citizen engagement and control over the preparation of permits and other applications,” Jarratt stated. “Another provides city staff with powerful planning and reporting tools, improving productivity and increasing customer satisfaction.”

He said that the projects will likely be completed before the end of the fiscal year.

Lastly, Jarratt addressed everyone’s favorite, or maybe least favorite, topic: U.S. Highway 377.

“The U.S. Highway 377 initiative remains a priority,” the mayor said. “Improving the working relationship with Hood County leadership to cooperatively develop the plan to enhance ‘feeder roads’ will be essential as construction begins on the widening of 377.” 

CRESSON: ‘Mature, strong’

A lot has happened since hometown girl Teena Putteet Conway became mayor of Cresson three years ago, taking the reins from Bob Cornett who had served in that role for many years.

One of Conway’s chief goals has been to relieve the town of eyesore properties where trash and junk have accumulated. Progress has been made in that regard.

“We are the crossroad into Fort Worth and Granbury and Weatherford and Cleburne, so we need to look halfway decent,” she said.

The town has been moving forward in other ways as well.

“Overall, we’re running pretty smoothly here in cresson,” Conway said of the town that has a projected population of just over 3,000 residents based on the 2020 U.S. Census.

The long-awaited and much-needed Cresson Relief Route was underway when Conway took the mayor’s seat and it’s still underway as she starts the second year of her second term.

There have been delays with the Texas Department of Transportation project. According to TxDOT Public Information Officer Bethany Kurtz, the three-mile bypass that will divert traffic from the railroad switching yard at the intersection of U.S. Highway 377 and State Highway 171 is now scheduled for completion in summer 2024.

“We can live with that,” Conway said of the push into the next calendar year.

She stated that this year developers have been moving forward with projects after a period of economic uncertainty. Movement on one of those projects, developer Jim Martin’s Cresson Pointe, means that the Bob Cornett Park will also move forward, she said.

Several years ago, the city of Cresson received two exciting gifts: a $500,000 grant from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department for a multi-use park, and the donation of 23.5 acres from developer Ike Thomas on which to put that park. The land is behind the Scottish Inn hotel and south of the Cresson Relief Route.

For a while it looked as if the city might have to turn down the grant money because of ancillary needs that would not be covered by the grant and which the city could not afford — things such as restrooms, a parking lot, mowing and a road leading to the property.

But then, in 2021, Martin offered to pay those costs, realizing that the nearby park would make Cresson Pointe’s homes that much more appealing.

The city was also helped by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department extending the deadline for bringing the park to fruition.

Referring to Martin and his subdivision, Conway said, “They’re going to graciously grade the area around the pond, which is really where the park is going to be. So, to take advantage of that contribution, we’re sort of on their schedule, so to speak. And now they’re coming forward and saying, ‘Okay, we’ve got the final plat ready. We want to move forward.’ So, that’s a good thing as far as the park because that helps us kick that back off. We’re kind of back full strength now as far as delivering what was initially proposed as the Bob Cornett Park.”

Since it was incorporated in 2001, the city of Cresson has operated off of sales tax, and that revenue is holding steady, the mayor said. She noted the success of the Cresson Bluff Winery and Vineyards and Twisted Hooks Marine, which sells pre-owned boats.

City officials are hoping to delay imposing property taxes for as long as possible. Conway said city officials have saved money by purchasing mowing equipment and handling mowing in-house.

With Cresson’s elected body serving two-year terms, Conway’s second term will end next year. She indicated that she intends to seek re-election.

“I won’t be the mayor as long as Bob Cornett was the mayor, but I’d like to see some more of my clean-up activity actually happen before I let somebody else come in here,” she said lightheartedly.

Conway indicated that all is well as Cresson City Hall.

“I think that, you know, as we mature as a team, I think we’ve gotten stronger, to be honest,” she stated. “We just tend to work really well together.” 

TOLAR: ‘Hold my beer’

First-term Tolar Mayor Matt Hutsell laughs over a comment that was posted by a local resident on Facebook after the town recently hosted its’ first ever fireworks show during a well-attended community event that featured food trucks and live entertainment.

The feedback was “awesome,” he said, and his favorite post on Facebook stated, “Tolar just told Granbury, hold my beer.”

The annual fireworks show sponsored by the Granbury Chamber of Commerce is a big draw for tourists and locals alike. Although Hutsell found the post amusing, he said that Tolar wasn’t trying to compete with Granbury. In fact, its’ fireworks show took place on Saturday, July 1, while Granbury’s took place on the July Fourth holiday.

The comment, though, seems indicative of what Tolar is on the road to becoming. After that first successful event, Hutsell said the city will likely plan July pyrotechnics going forward thanks to Tolar’s quarter-cent sales tax that is starting to bring in more revenue.

Hutsell, who also serves as Tolar’s fire chief, said that things are going well for both the city and its volunteer fire department.

“City-wise, we’re finally moving forward getting the police department going,” he said. “We ordered a police vehicle towards the end of last year and it came to fruition. We got it in the beginning of this year, and now we’ve hired a police chief and he’s done all the necessary preparations. We’re waiting on the state now.”

Fellow volunteer firefighter Ray Wilson will serve as police chief once the police department becomes official. Wilson has been working with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to make sure the department meets all requirements.

Hutsell continued, “We used to have a police department, but we were literally broke because of it because it’s just so expensive to run and we didn’t have the tax base, really, to have one. So, that seemed like it was always a struggle.”

Tolar has gone more than a decade without a police department.

“Fast forward to now, with all the growth, the public demand for a police department is there, so we had to finally get moving on it again,” the mayor said. “We’ve been able to set aside some COVID relief money to get it going and that bought the car and stuff.”

Hutsell said he believes the tax base is now sufficient to keep the police department going. There are more people there now and sales tax revenues grow every year.

Another big move made by Tolar city officials in 2023 was applying for a TxDOT grant that would fund shared-use paths, providing connectivity so that pedestrians, runners and bicyclists can more easily get from one place to the other.

The City Council is working to improve other infrastructure as well.

“We’re moving forward with building a sewer plant and a new water well, and a new 40,000-gallon ground storage tank,” Hutsell said. “It’s been on our radar for several years and we’re getting moving on it. But, because of COVID, the price tag significantly increased.”

He stated that the City Council hired a consultant to re-examine the city’s water and sewer rates and then raised the rates to show creditors that the city has a plan to pay for the infrastructure.

“You always hate raising the rates for anything, but this matter, it was going to have to be done regardless of growth because the sewer plant was put in in the ‘70s,” Hutsell said. “We’ll be able to cover the cost of it with more people coming in and we’ll be able to lower the prices back down to what they were. But to get the initial loan and to get our credit rating where it needed to be and the low interest rate, that’s something we had to do, which is unfortunate, but it is what it is.”

Hutsell praised the city’s hard-working staff for the important role they play in moving the city forward.

As for how the books on 2023 will close, Hutsell said, “I hope we can say it was overall a year of growth and (that) we got stuff done that we’ve been talking about for a long time, that we needed to do to move on to other things.”