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OUR TURN: Commissioners Court needs clarity on assistance procedures

The time has come for the Burnet County Commissioners Court to rethink its policy on helping some private groups by using taxpayer-funded services. If nothing else, it could save them from legal challenges in the future.

A recent authorization that allowed a county work crew to deliver base material to a property owners association for repairs on two subdivision roads prompted the controversy.

The work crew used county equipment and county fuel on county time to deliver the materials to the unnamed subdivision. In short, taxpayers — in a fashion — paid to help repair two roads that aren’t county property.

On the other hand, the subdivision’s property owners association bought the material — not taxpayers — and took care of the road maintenance themselves. Also, the road is used as much by the public as by the residents living in the rural subdivision.

While this may not  be illegal, which is a question the District Attorney’s Office will have to answer, it has certainly raised some eyebrows.

The law is murky when addressing public resources for roads in the county.

There are county-owned roads, county-maintained roads that aren’t owned by the county, publicly dedicated roads open for public use but generally owned by a POA or a subdivision and private roads.

The roads in this case are publicly dedicated ones.

To avoid such complications in the future, the commissioners need to update their policies about helping POAs, subdivisions and other private groups so as to avoid any hint of impropriety.

County Attorney Eddie Arredondo has advised the commissioners to draft new policies that govern how county government responds to requests for assistance from subdivisions and other private groups that want to use taxpayer monies when there is a benefit to the public.

In their defense, the commissioners for the past 20 years have been basing these actions on some old legal opinions. It seems clear they’re only trying to help some constituents and there is no criminal intent involved.

Over time, commissioners have used public funds to help cemetery associations, a county fair and neighborhoods.

And they mean well.

On the other hand, the money isn’t theirs. And most taxpayers expect the money will be spent on county infrastructure before it goes to anything else.

If there is any question at all about the legality of their largesse, it should be addressed immediately by updating old policies and making procedures clearer.

That way, if there is a legal challenge to the county assisting — or not assisting — POAs, subdivisions or other non-profit associations, at least there is a policy in place.

As one commissioner noted, this is a situation that has needed clarification for more than 20 years.

Now is as a good a time as any to arrive at some definite answers.