Men's Breakfast, January 9, 2016

The Men’s Breakfast Group met Saturday. January 9th with County Commissioner Donald “Dude” Payne as featured guest.   This was the first meeting in which women were invited as regular guests and there were two women present among the fourteen total guests.  Dude also brought three county employees who worked with him. 

Dude grew up in Brazoria County and was a pipefitter at Dow for several years.  When Dow laid off many of their pipe fitters, Dude decided to run for county commissioner.  His wife had previously run a campaign for a different politician.  Dude won, defeating the incumbent commissioner.  He has been commissioner from precinct 1 for the last sixteen years, the first fourteen running as a Democrat and the last two as a Republican. 

The county budget was discussed.   The county is among the top ten employers in the county with more than 1000 employees.  Among the top expenditures are criminal justice and roads and bridges.  The Jail houses and feeds around 800 inmates on average.  They are fed for less than five dollars a day.  Dud said that the warden is very good about sending prisoners to the state once they have been convicted of a state crime.  This helps keep county costs down.  Dude also mentioned that the major increase in prisoners recently has been in women prisoners.  Previously there were very few women but now about a quarter of the prisoners are women and the county has to devote an entire wing of the jail to women. 

The county is experiencing an economic boom.  In 2008 only one industrial project for eight million dollars was approved.  Last year multiple billion dollar projects were approved.  The main cause of this was the availability of cheap natural gas due to fracking.  The LNG plant is constructing a third export train and considering a fourth.  This would exhaust the land they have available.  The chemical industry has objected to the export of gas because cheap gas is their chief competitive advantage over the rest of the world and the export of gas reduces this advantage.  The chemical industry employs many more people than the export industry so this should be encouraged. 

This brought up the topic of tax abatements.  When Dude was first elected he was very leery of tax abatements for industry.  He has found that they are necessary for attracting industry and jobs.  We are competing with other localities and states for the plants.  He mentioned that Louisiana has a simple form from the state that allows a project to receive abatement from all taxes.  In Texas, each taxing district must approve the abatement so industry finds this more trouble and risky since a district such as the school district may not grant the abatement.  Dude said that industry keeps trying to push the abatements further.  One company asked for a one year extension, but Dude opposed this because if you give abatement to one company, all the other companies will demand it also.  One example was Tennaris Steel. Tennaris wanted not only the standard ten-year abatement but an additional fifteen-year abatement.  Tennaris went to Matagorda Commissioners Court which granted the extended abatement.  A primary reason for locating in Matagorda was that Tennaris would have produced excessive nitrogen oxide emissions, which are not allowed in Brazoria County.  Dude said that everyone worries about industrial tax abatements but individuals receive the equivalent of tax abatements.  Homeowners receive homestead exemptions and extended exemptions if they are over 65 years old.  These exemptions are equivalent to tax abatements and exceed in total the industrial abatements. 

Transportation was another topic of discussion.  Several projects are in the planning stage or have been funded.  A primary one is the extra lanes in the median of 288 from the medical center to Pearland.  The county has insisted that the expansion go all the way to Pearland instead of dumping the traffic onto the highway at the Brazoria county border.  These lanes will probably be toll lanes since there are few other sources of funding.  Another project is to expand county road 288 (Old Angleton Road) to four lanes.  This will be expensive but has been needed for years.  The replacement of the Pine Street Bridge has been delayed but is still in the works.  This bridge is necessary for the expansion of the port.  Another project is to expand Highway 36 from two to four lanes from Freeport to Highway 59.  This will also be of great use for expansion of the port. 

Another transportation item of great importance to the port and to the local chemical industry is the possibility of a new railroad.  This would run on the west side of the Brazos River and run from the Burlington Northern tracks to the port.  It is estimated that it would cost over 500 million dollars.  Union pacific will strenuously object to the project since it would eliminate their monopoly in Brazosport.  It was not clear how this would be financed. 

The men, and women had an interesting discussion and a good breakfast.  The next meeting will be Saturday, February 6th.