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Bell County's top official on the challenges ahead

Judge David Blackburn
Posted at 10:32 PM, Jun 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-01 12:18:58-05

Bell County Judge David Blackburn said his conversations with healthcare providers informed his decision to issue his face covering order.​

But 25 News wanted to know more about the other, potentially life-altering decisions the judge must make in one of the fastest growing counties in Texas and the nation.​

As the county with the largest population in Central Texas, Bell County leads in many ways. But some born and raised here say there’s progress still to make on several fronts.​

First, Bell County's most obvious issue- growth.​ In a county where a cow pasture can turn into a subdivision overnight, at what point does Bell County stop growing?​

"I don't see that slowing down. I think there continues to be more people moving here and more people staying here," said Judge Blackburn, a former city manager in both Killeen and Temple.

Judge Blackburn said the 1990 Census put Bell County's population at 191,000.​ He expects the 2020 Census to show as many or more than 400,000.​

Will taxpayers or newcomers pay for the new roads, lights, water and sewers Bell County will need? ​

"I think there's always a debate, there's always a discussion about how to pay for that and who should pay for that and I don't see that discussion or that debate going away," he said.​

He says he's ready for that debate.​

Meantime, he admits most property owners were not ready for tax assessments that went through the roof this year.​

He said the appraisal district, a separate branch of government, puts values on property. He and county commissioners try to make sure Bell County lives within its means. ​

"That's a challenging issue. No one wants to see tax increases, and I can assure you what commissioners do, we spend a lot of time trying to find ways to be as efficient as we can," said the judge.​

Another hot topic- law enforcement and people hired to protect and to serve make up about two-thirds of the Bell County budget.​​

Judge Blackburn says Bell County leaders have watched nationwide protests and have taken note.​​

"Are we aware of the national conversation and the issues being discussed? Yes, absolutely. Are we cognizant of those as we go through our budget process? Absolutely we are," he said.​

Though Michael Dean's death was one of many in the national spotlight, Judge Blackburn would not address the Dean case in any way, but said he believes Sheriff Eddy Lange and his staff have also taken time to listen and learn about ways of improving what they do.​​

"I think our law enforcement officials are also very cognizant of that. So yes I think we should be looking at what we do, how we do it, in law enforcement and that should be continuous, as should the conversation about better race relations. They both should never stop," he said.​

That's important, because as Bell County keeps growing, it'll need all hands on deck for new jobs in the county's three economic pillars- the military, healthcare, and light industrial.​

He cites the Temple industrial park as an example.​

"There are 30 to 40 industries in that park- manufacturing industries, distribution and logistics, all kinds of industry there," he said.​

As to the future? He says Bell County's biggest challenge comes in managing growth without losing its identity.​

"Are we gonna become Austin or Dallas? I hope neither. My hope is we continue to do what we've been doing in terms of trying to manage our growth and development but manage it in such a way that we don't lose the identify of who we are," said Judge Blackburn.​

No one person alone can bring permanent positive change. Judge Blackburn calls his job a partnership with not just commissioners and county workers, but also with the people of Bell County.​