Hispanic Heritage Month: Juan Ornelas
Juan Ornelas has a history of public service. He's been the mayor of Miles, and, 2 years ago, he was elected as the Commissioner of Pct. 4 in Runnels County. Ornelas is the first Hispanic to be elected to the Runnels County Commissioners Court. He also owns an automotive repair shop in Miles.
When it comes to county business, Ornelas said that the most surprising aspect of the county budget, for him, was the jail budget, "The majority of our budget goes to the jail. The state mandates requirements for the jail, but they don't give us any additional money to cover the cost of those mandates." Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the jail hasn't been able to bring in inmates from other counties, something that usually puts additional money in the county budget. The cost of the inmates in jail can also skyrocket, "If someone is in jail, they're considered indigent. We have to pay for their attorney's fees and medical treatment. If there are children involved, we have to pay for their attorney fees as well since they all have to have different attorneys," Ornelas said. The jail just recently brought in 10 inmates from Tom Green County. Earlier this year, there was a murder in Winters, Ornelas said that the suspect attempted to commit suicide before he was arrested, "The suspect drank antifreeze. We had to pay his medical costs and pay for an officer to guard him around-the-clock at the hospital. There is now way that we can ever replace that money."
Ornelas said that it's not just the cost of the inmates, it's the jail upkeep that can quickly empty a county budget, "Our jail is 20-years old now. That means that we have a lot of maintenance and upkeep, as well as dealing with destructive inmates who cause damage." Ornelas is in charge of all building repairs in the county, not just the jail repairs, "We have the county annex buildings, the courthouse and other buildings that we have to put money towards to maintain them. It's all about that tax dollar and us (commissioners) trying to keep those costs down. This year we had to make some cuts to be able to make our budget. The taxpayer foots the bill for that."
Ornelas said that taxes are a double-edged sword for the commissioners, "When property values go up, we don't increase our tax rate. But, when appraisals and valuations going up, our costs also increase. Running the county is a business. The people bear the burden of running that business because their tax dollars pay for it all. People who are not homeowners or property owners don't fully understand that."
This year Ornelas cut $30,000 from the budget in his precinct, "Other than the jail, road repair and equipment are our biggest costs. Everything today is expensive. In my precinct we do our own tire and mechanical repairs at the county barn. That has saved us money. We save on the labor and the county just pays for the part. We work hard to try and keep our costs down. If we can keep costs down, we can keep our taxes down."
There are times when the work required to repair equipment becomes too big for the county to handle. Ornelas says that those jobs are sent out for work, "We've updated some equipment but there comes a time when you have to decide whether purchasing a new piece of equipment makes more sense than continually repairing the same piece of equipment. I've actually been able to keep my budget down by purchasing new equipment."
The roads are the main area that Ornelas receives complaints about, "We just received a grant to repair the roads. Each commissioner got some money to spend in their precinct. We each got around $53,000. It costs us about $50,000 - $60,000 in asphalt and labor to pave one mile of road. We have a road and bridge paving fund so each commissioner tries to pave one mile of road each year. I just repaved the Co-op road in Miles. The roads are the biggest concern for most folks out here." According to Ornelas, a truckload of road base will cost about $600. The cost for caliche is about $140, "Each commissioner has over 200-miles of roads. We have 3 cotton gins in the county and we get a lot of truck traffic that causes wear and tear on the roads," Ornelas said.
Jail repairs and road repairs aside, Ornelas believes that some people come up to him now for one main reason, "Hispanic people come up to me because there isn't always that language barrier now. But, to me, we're all the same, everyone in the county. We're all in this thing together. I treat everyone the same and we spend an equal amount of tax dollars on everyone." Being the commissioner of one precinct isn't something that limits Ornelas, "I don't feel that I just represent one precinct. I feel like I represent everyone in the county because every decision made in this county comes through our commissioners' court. All four commissioners and the judge work for the people of Runnels County."
According to Ornelas, being a county commissioner is a duty that doesn't have set hours, "It's an every day job. It's a 24-hour a day job. People will always find us, whether we're at the store or at church. People come up to me wherever I'm at to talk about roads or other issues, and that's okay. That's what I'm here for. I have people who come to my house and knock on my door to talk to me about issues. I always listen to what they have to say and I address their concerns. Sometimes, people just want you to listen. That's it. They want to know that you're listening to them."