Blanco County Commissioners held a Special meeting on Tuesday, June 24, 2014, at 9:00 a.m. All four County Commissioners and County Judge Bill Guthrie were present. The meeting was held in the Commissioners Courtroom of the Blanco County Courthouse in Johnson City, Blanco County, Texas.
After Judge Guthrie called the meeting to order Blanco County Commissioner John Wood led the Court in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Blanco County Clerk Karen Newman read the minutes of the Regular Meeting held on June 10, 2014. The minutes were approved as read with a motion to accept from County Commissioner Wood and a second by Blanco County Commissioner James Sultemeier.
Judge Guthrie asked Blanco County Commissioner Paul Granberg if he wanted to give an opening statement to the Court regarding the proposed Middle Creek bridge project. County Commissioner Granberg began, “this project has been in the works for at least 14 years. It is not a spur of the moment proposal. The reason it has not moved forward is because there was no right of way and a lack of funding. We have acquired the right of way and the funds are available. So we are ready to move forward and engineers have completed a plan that includes costs [of the project]. All is in place to move forward, but we have opposition to the project and we want to hear public comments. There is a sign-up sheet for those who wish to speak.”
Judge Guthrie introduced Greg Haley to the Court. Haley prepared the engineering proposal that includes costs of the project. Haley said the project has been approached in the same way as similar projects have been, and strict design criteria are required. Right of way acquisition is also important with no severances. The profile dictated the design, with avoidance of the creek bottom. Haley continued, “PEC Consultants of Austin did the structural design. Cost of the bridge is estimated at $178,500 and this does not include add on items, insurance, bonds, etc. Approximate cost of the structure could be $200,000.”
Judge Guthrie said, “there is a large contingent here who opposes the Middle Creek bridge project.” He asked Attorney Colby Karhan, speaker for those who oppose the proposed bridge, to address the Court.
Karhan told the Court, “We have lived here since 1976 and I am a 2001 graduate of Blanco High School. I was a member of the All State football team. As an attorney I am here to speak for all who are opposed to this project. It is important to me. When a project makes sense it is pretty easy to connect the dots. This is a road less traveled and there are no documented injuries or fatalities on this road or crossing. It [this project] is not fiscally responsible for this County. Please refer to the Blanco County Transportation and Economic Development Plan that was just approved in January.” Karhan added that this was a two year project with good input and an advisory committee. All necessary partners were included, and the Plan represents a future blue print of the County. “Seven low water crossings are listed in the Plan, and there is no mention of Middle Creek. It doesn’t make sense.”
Karhan continued, “cost of the project is estimated at $200,000. That’s a lot of money for this County, approximately one fourth of the road and bridge funds. A recent report shows the County is 7.2 million in debt. All residents should have public input because this proposal affects them. There are 341 people in the community who have signed the petition. ‘They are against this bridge proposal.’ They do want to improve the road, and the pavement could be fixed and trees trimmed. This would improve safety. There was no [opportunity for] input given on the project until this April when it was thankfully asked for by Commissioner Granberg. Karhan ended his statement and added that the question of what about a compromise that would include signage and a cost efficient crossing has been asked. The response given to us was a 100 year bridge and nothing less.”
Judge Guthrie asked the assembly if there were questions, and someone asked, “does traffic warrant this? What about a compromise; that is good government. This project is not fiscally responsible.” Judge Guthrie asked for those who were opposed to the Middle Creek bridge project to please stand. Judge Guthrie informed the Court, “we have a list of a number of names who wish to speak.” He asked how many still wished to speak following Attorney Karhan’s statement. Mrs. Russell said, “we need to connect the dots.” She agreed with Karhan’s comments. Carl Russell said he also agreed with Karhan’s statement. As Judge Guthrie called the names of those who had signed up to speak many of them answered that they agreed with the statements made by Karhan and did not need to speak.
Larry Martin of Blanco told the Commissioners Court he had questions in regards to the bridge. Martin asked Commissioner Granberg, “do you have funding?” Commissioner Granberg answered, “yes.” Martin asked, “will funding leave a tax burden for County residents?” Commissioner Granberg told him, “funding is from issuance of certificates already included, there is no increase proposed.” Martin continued, “this will not cost the tax papers money?” Judge Guthrie answered, “cost is $200,000, but no tax increase.” Martin asked, “does $200,000 include approaches?” Engineer Greg Haley replied that it did not. Commissioner Granberg said, “in my opinion the approaches will be minimal and will be done in house.” Martin also asked if the roads on both sides of the bridge will be fixed to the standard of the bridge. Commissioner Granberg replied this would be fixed to the existing road standard.
David Ford addressed the Commissioners Court next. Ford introduced himself as a civil engineering graduate of University of Texas ’64 with considerable engineering experience. Ford began, “safety is important and I am against this project. There is no major safety issue here.” Ford referred to the relatively low incidence of flooding in the area. Ford continued, “this is really a financial issue. Given engineering costs of $60,000 to $80,000 the total cost could be extrapolated at $750,000…this project will take a lot of land and cost a lot of money. Environmentally it will take a lot of silt and concrete. The project makes no sense environmentally. I have no financial stake in this but I am opposed from an engineering and financial perspective.”
Citizen Virginia Russell told the Court that the question has been asked what to do in a flood? The answer is we have it covered. So what is your question? Is there no confidence in our EMS? Regarding cost let’s see what construction companies offer…I think the project will cost more.
Middle Creek property owner Mrs. Lane spoke to the Court in support of the proposed bridge. Mrs. Lane told the Court, “my family owns the land where the crossing is an issue. There are six streams feeding in at the crossing and the road drops 100 yards. There is dry creek before it enters water. I’ve seen road rage here and it is a dangerous road. If two vehicles meet someone must back up, and when backing up someone can go over into a deep pool. The crossing is very strange and it is especially dangerous at night. There are eight dry creeks on our land alone.”
Lane added, “opponents of the project have a toxic political and selfish reason to keep out our first responders, working people, and others so they get to have their private paradise road. Regarding traffic, it is already here. Yes, there is a petition. On the petition there is no mention that on this narrow public road a cement truck lost its brakes and went down. There is a facility here where many events take place and the motorcyclists and bikers have found our road too. My family has 105 years of records and people have been misrepresented. Signatures on a petition are only as good as what the people have been told. I have seen the figure of $500,000 repeated in the paper over and over.”
Lane continued and said they say there are no floods but I have pictures and it floods…McCall and Monarch Creeks. “Look in your hearts and see if a pulse beats…and do the right thing.”
Lane added there is concern that residents will lose prescriptive easement across the crossing. A gate proposal has been proposed and gate openers would be needed. Does the County pay for this? “It is documented that in 2001 we met with Commissioner Granberg and we all have liability issues. Traffic came when the road was paved, and I don’t remember any complaints about paving. So do we never construct the bridge? Do we abandon the studies that have been made? The scenic view isn’t more important that the need to protect citizens. I cannot see how it got so out of hand.”
Tom Jones spoke to the Commissioners Court next. He introduced himself as the attorney for the Lane family. Jones told the Court that the Lanes donated the land for the bridge and the County is on notice that flooding is a big issue. “Your duty is to maintain, inspect, and make safe for the general public. We must take action to protect the public. The County has viable options.” Jones added that under the Texas Tort Claims Act no caps may apply if knowledge of liability exists. The County is on notice and continues to be on notice of substantial liability. “We must put emotion and personal and community issues aside and do what is best for the County and general public. Thank you.”
David Steitle also spoke to the Commissioners. Steitle told the Court he has experience in traffic engineering in San Antonio and other cities. He is a resident and says this area is growing. Steitle said he is very concerned about who is responsible for the safety for those who use the road and for the precinct. Steitle read a letter he had written to Commissioner Granberg. The letter asks the Commissioner to consider safety first and not popularity and not to compromise safety of the public.
As Director of Public Works in San Antonio Steitle recounted an incident where safety was not maintained and an 18 year old girl lost her life. “Lives were ruined and I have lived with guilt.” Steitle ended by saying, “lives are the issue, not County liability. We have an opportunity…with growth the need for safety increases. Don’t compromise based on public emotions.”
As the public discussion and comment session of the meeting was ending Karhan asked if he could speak again. Karhan asked if the Court could vote today. Judge Guthrie answered, “there would be no action, and there are no specifics re costs. This was not an action item.” Karhan said, “we do not want this issue lost.” Judge Guthrie replied that the item will most likely be put on the Agenda for the first meeting in July. Steve Marshall added a comment, “usually engineering costs run 10%, why is this 35%? Has the possibility of safety and increased traffic after the bridge is constructed been considered?”
After the public comments and discussion ended the Commissioners Court approved payment of outstanding bills in the amount of $105,546.10. Judge Guthrie asked the Court to consider accepting the resignation of Ty Grenwelge, Constable Precinct Four as effective on June 30, 2014. Judge Guthrie received a letter from Grenwelge in which Grenwelge expressed his gratitude for the opportunity of rewarding service. A motion to accept the resignation was made by Blanco County Commissioner Granberg and seconded by County Commissioner Chris Liesmann. There was no discussion and this motion passed.
Blanco County Commissioner Granberg asked for authorization to advertise for paving in Precinct Four. Granberg said he would like to get on with this [process] and advertise for bids to start the paving process. He said the roads to be paved had not all been determined yet. Blanco County Commissioner Wood seconded the motion made by County Commissioner Granberg. No discussion followed and the motion carried.
Blanco County Commissioner Liesmann asked for authorization to advertise for paving in Precinct Three. County Commissioner Liesmann’s motion was seconded by County Commissioner Sultemeier. This motion passed with no discussion. At this time the Special meeting ended with a motion to adjourn from Blanco County Commissioner Liesmann and a second from County Commissioner Granberg.