By MIKE EDDLEMAN
For the first time in a dozen years, there will be a new face at the center of the dais in Williamson County Commissioners Court.
With long-time County Judge Dan Gattis leaving the court, two Republicans and a Democrat are running to replace him. Republicans Frank Leffingwell and Bill Gravell are seeking the party’s nomination in the March 6 primary, with the winner taking on Democrat Blane Conklin in the November General Election.
In 1979, Frank Leffingwell moved to Round Rock, where he went to high school before eventually deciding to raise his own family in the same city.
“I’ve watched a lot of changes occur in that time,” he said. “It creates a context for where we are now and the changes I think we will continue to see.”
He will celebrate 25 years of practicing law in November, and many years of work with nonprofits and in public service roles he believes have prepared him to serve as Williamson County’s next county judge.
Service with organizations such as the YMCA of Williamson County – where he served as treasurer – led to a positions as chair of the Round Rock Planning and Zoning Commission and city council member, where he currently serves.
One of the skills Leffingwell believes is most critical to the county judge position – listening – he learned through that service.
“I’ve learned how to really intently listen to different groups of people who have different understandings and different objectives,” he said. “Listening to those people before you form an opinion so you take in all the relevant information before you allow yourself to start forming an opinion on something and dealing with everyone, even those you may have great disagreements with, respectfully is critical.”
Once all sides have been heard and considered, then he believes the judge must build consensus.
“It has to be done,” Leffingwell said. “If whoever is the county judge can’t find ways for agreements to be made and the business to continue moving on, then we get stuck in a position where nothing is getting done and new things are building up.”
Specializing in tax law and business law, Leffingwell is knowledgeable in the tax issues facing the county. While working on the planning and zoning commission and city council, he learned the benefits of working closely with the business community to spur growth.
“It is that way by necessity,” he said. “We are in a real sense partnered with (the real estate and development community). It is important we have respectful relations with them and healthy relations. That was a real learning experience.”
In his capacity on the Round Rock City Council, he serves on the boards for the Capital Area Economic Development District and Capital Area Council of Governments.
Promoting and managing growth are key issues for Leffingwell as he looks at the county judge role, and he said transportation is a key concern for businesses that consider relocating or building in Williamson County.
“Some of these larger employers worry about this mobility issue,” he said. “They worry about the situation where the company headquarters might be located in one place in the region, but they have employees who live in another part of the region and worry that their employees will have too difficult a time making their way to their place of employment.”
Attracting those businesses are also important, as the county considers its financial situation.
“The things that I find myself most focused on is the county’s financial health, particularly with regard to our ability to continue to provide necessary core services,” he said.
In addition to infrastructure and mobility services, Leffingwell said it is important to consider the needs of law enforcement and emergency personnel.
“Williamson County has a well-deserved reputation for being safe, and having low crime,” he said. “That is attributable to the work that our law enforcement does. They do a fantastic job. But they also need resources and that has to be carefully considered.”
Leffingwell said good decision-making is made more important because the county has a debt of about $1.3 billion and about one-third of the annual budget going to debt service.
“That leaves us with two-thirds of what we would have otherwise had to provide those core services,” he said. “That means there is much greater pressure than you would have otherwise, to prioritize what our goals are with the remaining funds. That means by necessity we’re not going to be able to do all the things that we would want to. I think the county judge plays a very important role, not only in watching the budget and making sure we adhere to those priorities, but because there is a limitation on resources it becomes necessary for the judge to play the role of consensus builder.”
Low taxes are important to Leffingwell, but he believes there is a balance between the desire to provide services and provide for growth while trying to lessen the tax burden.
“That’s the trick. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. I think that’s the job and the work and it’s a constant effort to prioritize and find ways to meet the greatest amount of need,” Leffingwell said. “It is complicated because in order to keep taxes low, you have to increase the base. In order to increase the base, you quickly get into a conversation about infrastructure and improving property and that invariably leads to a conversation of how we are going to finance that. It is a balancing act.
“The question though is, do you simply demand taxes be lowered or do you come up with a strategy that allows you to grow and still keep taxes low? I think most people would like to come up with a strategy where they’re able to maintain their quality of life and the things they enjoy about being in Williamson County, but also lower taxes.”
As he contemplates the possibility of becoming the next county judge, Leffingwell has his focus on what’s ahead.
“My concern is more on the future,” he said. “My vision for Williamson County is that we will successfully deal with the growth, so much so that it’s Williamson County that is the crown jewel of Central Texas.”
In March, Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace Bill Gravell will celebrate five years in office. He is proud of the work his office and staff has accomplished, especially considering the workload.
“This is the 22nd busiest judicial court in Texas,” he said. “When I’m not on the bench doing court stuff and off the bench I have to manage staff, and I have the largest judicial staff in Williamson County.”
In his time on the bench, Precinct 3 has cleared 68,000 cases, issued 18,512 arrest warrants and managed a $1.4 million annual budget while collecting millions of dollars in fines.
“We bring in millions of dollars per year from traffic tickets,” he said. “We’re a bank for a lack of a better word, and the great news is we’ve been able to account for every single penny that’s come in through that door.”
Gravell has been recognized by his peers in the state and nationally, winning a national award for creating innovative business processes in courts in America.
“We’re the only court in Texas to ever receive that award,” he said. “I know how to be efficient, I know how to manage people, I know how to evaluate systems and be effective.”
All of these experiences and accomplishments are what Gravell believes qualify him to serve as county judge.
“I know what our priorities are, I know how our county government works, I know how our systems work,” he said. “I have a strong relationship with other elected officials.”
While Gravell believes there are many issues the county must deal with, he is clear on his top priority.
“As the next county judge, my number one priority is public safety, period,” he said. “That is the mission of the county government, to make sure that our public is safe.”
That not only includes better pay and support of law enforcement personnel to include county jail employees, but also a more robust court system.
“We’re struggling in the area of courts in Williamson County,” he said. “We haven’t added a new district court in Williamson County since 2007. That’s only 11 years ago, but how much has our population increased in the last 11 years? You will see some steps to add a new district court, which isn’t a simple matter because you have to work through the legislature to do that. I have worked with the legislature, I know how to do it. We need a county judge that’s going to go fight that battle for us at the Capitol.”
Focusing on the mental health of first responders is something else he said demands more attention.
“We have to take care of those who take care of us,” Gravell said. “I believe we have to take care of the mental and emotional health of our paramedics, of our fire fighters, of our law enforcement, of our judges going to the scenes, and our victims advocate employees.”
Law enforcement and courts in the county need the same long-range focus as other areas, said Gravell.
“We have a master plan for our road system and a master plan for our park system, but we don’t have a master plan for our judiciary and for our public safety sector,” he said.
Dealing with these areas is critical, but for Gravell, it must be done with an eye on debt and the tax burden as well.
“Our indebtedness in our county is $1.3 billion,” he said. “It is staggering. We need to generate more revenue, while reducing the tax burden on the residents. I will never vote to raise taxes. I will not do that. I think our tax burden is massive. We’ve provided what people have wanted, but we’ve gone beyond our ability to pay for it.”
New business and economic growth are where Gravell wants to see the county focus on finding tax relief. He currently serves as the chairman of the Hutto Economic Development Corporation.
“We need to create incentives to bring in large businesses and industry that’s good and healthy for Williamson County, but that also relieves some of the tax burden,” he said. “The next county judge must work with chambers across Williamson County, and you need to be working with EDC boards to be successful.”
After public safety and debt management, Gravell believes the county must continue to focus on infrastructure.
“We need to do that without moving into major debt to accomplish it,” he said.
No matter the issue in front of him, Gravell said leadership is what is needed most from the county judge.
“The number one role of the county judge is to be the cheerleader in chief for all the department heads and elected officials,” he said. “You have to have experience bringing people together collaboratively, and I think it is important you are able to work with other elected officials. The person that sits in that center seat in commissioners court better be able to lead people.”