May 24, 2023 759 PM
JEFF DAVIS COUNTY — HB 1330, a bill that allows for unincorporated communities in Jeff Davis County to apply for grants typically reserved for municipalities, recently passed both the House and the Senate. The legislation now heads to Governor Greg Abbott, who local officials expect to sign it into law, effective September 1.
Last week, The Big Bend Sentinel caught up with Judge Curtis Evans as he was driving back to Fort Davis from Austin, where he testified on the bill’s behalf to the Senate Local Government Committee at the Capitol.
After meeting with Senator César Blanco and other legislators, Evans was hopeful the bill would soon make it past the Senate and to the governor’s desk to be signed into law, a move which would allow rural Jeff Davis County to apply for more state and federal funding relating to infrastructure projects and more.
Upon hearing the news this week that the bill passed the Senate, county employees were already looking into funding opportunities, said Evans.
“We are elated and ready to move forward. We are beginning searching for grants right now, in order to put it to use for Jeff Davis County,” said Evans.
“There’s no guarantee that we’ll get anything, but it just affords us the opportunity to apply for more funding,” he added.
The bill, sponsored by Blanco and Representative Eddie Morales, will specifically allow Jeff Davis County Commissioners Court to pursue grants on behalf of its unincorporated communities, such as Fort Davis, for public improvement projects including sidewalks, streets, roads, water, wastewater and drainage, as well as more general initiatives including advertising, promotion, health and sanitation, public safety, security, business recruitment, development, recreation, and cultural enhancement.
Evans said the passage of the bill, which previous County Commissioner Todd Jagger originally pursued two years ago during the 87th Legislative Session, will open up an array of funding opportunities, and while there were no specific priorities set, county commissioners would begin to assess options as soon as possible.
“We will just have to find out what all else is available that hasn’t been in the past,” said Evans. “It may help us with our police, our fire, our EMS, parks.”
In a statement to The Big Bend Sentinel, Rep. Morales said the new program should help local government officials further invest in the county’s infrastructure, in turn positively impacting area residents.
“For decades, our communities out in West Texas have been left behind and not provided adequate access to state funds for maintaining infrastructure projects — especially our ‘unincorporated’ communities,” said Morales.
The bill is specifically written for Jeff Davis County, and does not include Ozona, for example, another unincorporated West Texas town located in nearby Crockett County.
Evans said Fort Davis has chosen to remain unincorporated rather than become a municipality to avoid city taxes in addition to county taxes. As it stands, the county commissioners court effectively runs the area, he said, without additional city roles such as a mayor or city council.
“We don’t need to create more taxes in order for that [extra] layer of government. The county is already handling it,” said Evans. “Our taxes are maybe a little higher, but you don’t have that second layer of taxes.”
Valentine, however, is an official city located within Jeff Davis County, which means the county is restricted from spending its funds within city limits, and Valentine is on their own relating to infrastructure projects.
The county works with a handful of grant writers, including GrantWorks, as well as locals Sandra Chambers, the judge’s executive assistant; Peggy Fonseca, the EMS chief; and Erin Ray, the Jeff Davis County library director, who will assist with new grant funding initiatives.
Evans, who traveled overnight to Austin to address state leaders at the early morning hearing on the bill and made the journey a previous time to address the House, said he believed his in-person appearances were more meaningful than if he had appeared virtually, and it was worth the extra effort to see HB 1330 adopted into law.
“I want to be able to shake their hand and thank them for their hard work and their support of rural communities,” said Evans. “The connections I made today in the Senate, you can’t make those connections virtually. It’s more personable, and I think it’s way more official.”