Area officials give progress report
Special to the LPR
The Northern Caldwell County Coalition (NCCC) hosted its 5th Annual “State of Northern Caldwell County” public meeting at the ML Cisneros Education Support Center on Thursday evening. Caldwell County Judge Hoppy Haden, City of Lockhart Mayor Lew White, City Manager Steven Lewis, and LISD Superintendent of Schools Mark Estrada provided updates from the past year as well as glimpses of what is on the horizon for the county, city, and school district.
City of Lockhart Public Information Officer Victoria Burns welcomed attendees and those who tuned in for the live broadcast. She explained the NCCC is a partnership between Caldwell County, the City of Lockhart, and the Lockhart Independent School District to keep each other updated on changes and developments in each sector and collaborate on joint programs or issues in order to best serve the community.
Caldwell County Judge Hoppy Haden began his presentation addressing the current situation in the county related to COVID-19. Over 60 percent of residents have at least one inoculation of the vaccine, the second-highest rate in the region. Current COVID-19 cases are in the single digits per day, a stark contrast from the hundreds of cases per day during the recent surge.
Economic development in the county continues to grow. Chem Energy recently announced a solar manufacturing facility and solar farm that will include a $1 billion investment in Caldwell County and 400 jobs in the first year. In ten years, the facility will have generated up to 800 jobs.
While the Austin Business Journal reported the median home value in Lockhart increased 53 percent from 2009-2019, housing in Caldwell County remains an affordable place to live. According to the National Association of Realtors, the average price of a home in Caldwell County is among the lowest in the Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) submarket at $134,389, compared to Travis County at $315,900, Hays County at $253,426, Bastrop County at $195,584, and Williamson County at $294,619.
In the county’s 547.2 square miles, 57.71 percent of its population live in urban areas, and 42.29 percent live in rural areas. The median age is 36.1 years, and the median household income is $54,186. Haden noted that the jobs created by Chem Energy will provide individuals with an income equivalent to the current county’s median household income.
The County’s annual budget is $29,398,826. Haden stated the tax rate has gone down steadily since 2017 to .6719, partially due to rising property values and also due to county efforts to reduce the rate. The County employs 278 employees, of which 235 are full-time. The County has been intentional over the last four years to increase its pay to maintain employees.
Budget revenues are generated largely from ad valorem taxes. Additionally, Caldwell County’s Grant Administrator Dennis Engelke has generated a grant portfolio of $32 million, of which $17 million will be used for the evacuation/community service center to open in the next few years.
The County also received $8.4 million from the American Rescue Fund. From this, $250,000 was allocated to the Community Services Foundation, a foundation that was created to serve as a resource for other nonprofit organizations to pursue grants. The County allocated $243,750 to pay a match on a state grant for the Texas Water Development Board to conduct a floodplain study that has not been updated in decades. Next, $1 million was provided for Odyssey software, enabling the County to go from using three platforms to one, becoming more efficient. The County also allocated $975,000 for road projects and equipment, $100,000 for veterans assistance, and $50,000 to a Maxwell Special Utility District project.
The largest portion of the American Rescue Fund, totaling $1.4 million, is prioritized for the investment in rural broadband. Haden stated, “We feel like this is akin to electrifying Texas in the 1930s. This is a once in a generation opportunity to get this done, and we intend to use these funds to do that.”
Market values in Caldwell County have increased from $3,087,419,623 to $5,194,777,891 in 2021. Haden stated the increase is partially due to the Texas Comptroller’s office advising the county appraisal district that valuations are too low and should be increased. Additionally, growth in new business and new development companies have contributed.
As Caldwell County’s population is expected to grow 164 percent from 39,347 to 103,815 by 2045, Caldwell County has over a half-billion dollars worth of transportation projects identified through 2040. The majority of the projects are either new location roadways or upgrading the existing network such as widening roads and adding turn lanes to address the county’s growth.
Caldwell County’s employment is expected to jump from 16,693 in 2015 to 50,582 in 2045, an increase of 203 percent. Most of the growth and new mobility are expected to be from Lockhart westward to the county line as San Marcos and Lockhart grow towards each other. Also, increased demand on SH130 will occur as well as demand for new connectivity and road upgrades west of SH 130.
Haden described transportation projects in the works for the county. Highway 21 Super 2 is under construction and halfway complete. The county is planning for Highway 21 to be a four to six-lane project by 2045. The County continues to pave county roads and stabilize existing gravel roads for future paving. The Western Caldwell County Project would be a connector that goes from Maxwell to the toll road.
Economic development successes over the last year and a half include Verticore-Vitamin and Supplements Production and Packaging in Luling, Iron Ox, the Industrial Park, development of Hartland Ranch, and the $1 billion investment by Chem Energy in the county over the next ten years.
Haden concluded his presentation with a list of the challenges and opportunities for Caldwell County, including transportation, managing growth, improving services and customer service, finding new sources of revenue, attending to public health throughout the pandemic, continued economic development, and the development of countywide rural broadband.
City of Lockhart
“As many of you know, Lockhart has been on a path for steady growth,” said Mayor Lew White. “Over the years, we’ve been predicting increases in the rate of growth, and we are starting to see that now. Those predictions are starting to come true.”
The 2020 Census revealed a city population of 14,379. This was an 11.4 percent growth over the last decade, and 9 percent of that growth occurred in the last five years. Growth is predicted to continue at a faster rate over the next 5 to 10 years.
White shared the workforce within driving distance of Lockhart has remained strong. Over 140,000 workers are available within a 15-minute drive. Almost a half-million workers are within a 30-minute drive, and over a million workers are within a 45-minute drive. This workforce continues to be a very attractive factor for new businesses considering a move to Lockhart.
The City shared information about the population growth within different radius ranges around Lockhart. In 2021, within 15 miles, there was a growth of .2 million people. Within 30 miles, the growth yielded 1.2 million people, and within 45 miles, it yielded 2.5 million people. In looking at predicted growth from 2021-2026, the annual growth percentages will be 3.1 percent within 15 miles, 2.7 percent within 30 miles, and 2.4 percent within 45 miles.
Within Lockhart, there are 4,655 employed in the area. Of this number 70 percent live outside of Lockhart. Of people living in Lockhart, 82 percent are employed outside of the city. The City aims to continue to attract economic development that will provide even greater opportunities for residents to be able to live, work, and shop in Lockhart.
White provided an overview of economic development activities for the City, which have been strong and visible. Last year, Governor Abbott actually delivered the 2021 State of the State address from Lockhart, the first delivery ever outside of the Texas Capitol. The address was broadcast from the premises of Visionary Fiber Technologies. Also, the City shared the recent arrival of Iron Ox, a robotic hydroponic farming company from California that chose to make Lockhart the heart of its operation. It will be a 535,000 square foot facility of indoor shipping, offices, and large greenhouses. This $10 million initial developer investment will provide over 100 jobs. It plans to operate by this January. Iron Ox also just recently announced an expansion of its operations on South Commerce Street. On Tuesday night, the Lockhart Economic Development Corporation and City Council passed incentives for another 1 million-plus square feet expansion, another 120 million dollars of initial investment, and 28 additional jobs. “This represents the largest economic development win ever for the City of Lockhart,” said White. “We’re very, very impressed and happy to have Iron Ox in our community. And I think it’s a feeling that is likewise shared by the company.”
Last year, the City announced the arrival of Hershey’s Ice Cream distribution center, which will be located off Martin Luther King Jr. Industrial Boulevard. The company will build a 25,000 square foot facility. This is a $2.5 million initial investment, and it will yield 20 jobs. The development had been delayed due to the pandemic, but the City anticipates activity by this January.
The City announced McElroy Metal as its first tenant at the new industrial park. The company, which builds metal buildings, comes from Louisiana. It intends to build a 28,000 square foot facility with a $3.5 million initial investment, providing 15 jobs. They expect to begin construction in January. White added, “This is all part of our new industrial park, which about a year ago, the City Council and LEDC agreed to proceed with the purchase of 75 acres off of 130 and 142, just north of the railroad track. LEDC passed its first sales tax revenue bond, $1.6 million, to finance the purchase. We had assistance from Bluebonnet Electric and from the County as far as funding the industrial park.” The City closed on the industrial park property, and it finished the water and sewer out to the site and the infrastructure of a new road to go into the property.
City Manager Steve Lewis added that 14 acres of the 75-acre tract for the industrial park have already been sold or are under contract. Lewis shared an aerial view of the park, bringing attention to the new natural gas distribution systems for the park. Recently, the City Council approved a franchise agreement with West Texas Gas to provide service to the park, and as a result, Lockhart now has two natural gas providers.
Lewis continued with a summary of the business recruitment activity by the Lockhart Economic Development Corporation. The LEDC worked on twice the number of leads compared to the same time last year, and it has had over twice the number of companies actually come to Lockhart to explore the community and the opportunities. The City expects these trends will continue even more aggressively into 2022 and 2023.
A breakdown of the leads by industries shows 31% are from advanced manufacturing, and 27% are from general manufacturing. Others include aviation, biotechnology, consumer goods corporate operations, distribution, IT, and automotive industries. The interest in Texas across the country continues to generate opportunities for the community.
The City shared an update on its support of local companies during the pandemic. It provided 17 grants totaling $42,500 and 18 loans, totaling $110,000, to help small businesses. Lewis noted the Austin MSA is the first MSA in the country to reach pre-pandemic employment. Lewis added, “You can see we are leading the charge, and Texas is leading the charge and trying to restart our economy.”
Lewis continued the presentation with construction and development trends in the city. He showed a map of residential lots ready for development. He shared that three major homebuilders have begun activity in Lockhart, including KB Homes, DR Horton, and Lennar Homes. Historically, Lockhart has built 50 new residential homes a year for the past 20 years. Based upon conversations with builders, it is expected they will easily build 300 in the next calendar year. “We’re about to see the building boom in the community,” said Lewis.
Lewis spoke about community projects, beginning with the Downtown Revitalization Project. The City had a public meeting Monday night to talk about capital improvements to be addressed in the downtown area. “We all know that downtown in any community is really the fingerprint for the community. It is the gathering point, the focal point,” said Lewis. “It’s really kind of a visual proxy for the health and vitality of the community, so we want to make sure that we’re taking care of our downtown.”
The downtown area is in need of some capital investment including replacing water and sewer lines that are 75 years old, street resurfacing, and reconstruction. Needed investments also include improving pedestrian safety and making improvements to parking, hardscape, and landscaping. The City held a public meeting on Monday with 150 attendees to discuss the needs. There will be another public meeting in January. Recommendations will then be made for capital improvements for the City Council to consider.
The City discussed the impact of Winter Storm Uri in which Lockhart experienced multi-day road closures, power outages, loss of heat, broken pipes, and other impacts. The City has been working with Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) regarding its recommendations which will create a permanent backup system should the main water distribution pipeline lose pressure for any reason.
Other highlights from the City included the success of the Lockhart Farmers Market held every Saturday at the Courthouse Square, the creation of the temporary Courthouse Square Park on the corner of Market and S. Commerce Streets on land made available by Jim and Amelia Smith, the fully-equipped dog park at City Park, and Lockhart Fire-Rescue’s new Engine No. 1.
Lockhart Independent School District
Superintendent Mark Estrada began the District’s presentation with the announcement of the newly appointed Trustees Rebecca Pulliam, welcoming her to the Board. Then, he shared with the audience the “Spirit of 1.5,” which is the promise to grow them 1.5 years each year, from their highest performing students to students who need the most support. The commitment is to grow them as individuals, improving year after year, so that when they leave and graduate, they are prepared to take on whatever challenge they choose, whether it is joining the workforce, the military, or attending college
Then, Estrada spoke of the school district’s culture and the district’s values of having a “LockHeart for People,” being “Locked on Excellence,” and “UnLocking Potential” of everyone within the district. He shared, “It’s really been a driving and rallying force, especially leading during COVID, when there have been so many hard decisions that we had to make as leaders.”
The superintendent highlighted The Education Foundation for Lockhart ISD for their tremendous work in fundraising and providing grants to classroom teachers. Every dollar of the money that the Foundation raises goes right into the classrooms across the school district. None of it is used for administrative costs or anything else other than directly helping classroom teachers.
The 5A district currently has about 6,200 students and 800 employees. LISD spans an area of 300 square miles. About 60 percent of LISD students live in rural areas. As a District of Innovation, the Board and district leadership’s vision is to constantly look at what it can do innovatively so that students have the opportunities that they deserve
The 2021-2022 annual budget is $68 million, and the tax rate is currently $1.13. In 2018-2019, the rate was $1.33. It decreased in 2019-2020 to $1.26, and it dropped once again in 2020-2021 to $1.16. There has been a steady and intentional decline in the LISD overall through the work of the LISD Board of Trustees.
The district’s enrollment in 2021 is 6,191, a substantial increase from 4,767 a decade ago. For the past two years, COVID impacted district enrollment, even though the community has grown. There have been parents who have opted to educate their children in a different setting due to concerns of COVID-19. However, LISD expects continued growth, aligned with what the City and County had shared. Even with current student enrollment, the district had to purchase 11 portables last year to accommodate students.
Estrada transitioned to a discussion of school finance, offering an overview of how schools and districts are funded. He explained residents pay taxes, and that money goes to the State of Texas. The State then distributes those funds back to the community and Lockhart ISD, which is about 30 percent of the district’s budget. The other 70 percent of the money the district receives is from the State of Texas, which is redistributed to us from other school districts that are considered property rich.
“As you’ll see, there’s been a very strategic approach to bringing down the taxes as much as possible with a 20 cent tax rate decrease since 2018,” said Estrada. He further explained that the State has pressured the county appraisal office to raise values. The district’s approach has been to keep the burden as low as possible for community members by decreasing their tax rates. Still, taxpayers may experience overall total tax increases due to increased property values.
“We see this tax as an investment, not a cost. Educating our kids is important so that we have kids who graduate high school, ready to go into our workforce and be a contributing member of our community.” Estrada shared a chart of the LISD total tax rate in comparison to other school districts. LISD has the lowest at $1.1297. Neighboring school districts have higher tax rates, with San Marcos CISD at $1.170782, Del Valle ISD at $1.2020, Bastrop ISD at $1.273, Seguin ISD at $1.2846, Manor ISD at $1.3620, and Hays CISD at $1.3724. He noted an important community conversation to have is how much the community is willing to invest. While the district has pride in having a low tax rate, Estrada spoke of the need for resources and opportunities students deserve.
The superintendent shifted to the discussion of school district debt. Because of the State of Texas school funding formula, especially for fast-growth areas, districts must take on debt to build new buildings. Districts must call for a school bond election, and if the bond passes, the district acquires debt to build new facilities to accommodate student growth. Estrada shared a chart of the 2020 debt-per-student comparison with other school districts. He said, “When you look at the debt-per-student that we do have, you’ll see it’s far lower than all of our neighbors as well.” He then shared a chart showing the revenue received per student in LISD and neighboring school districts. Per student, LISD receives $11,423 per student with 6,200 students. He noted San Marcos CISD receives $13,470 per student, and when one multiplies that amount by 6,200 students, the difference between the two districts is about $12,700,000 less per year that LISD teachers have to educate students compared to a neighboring school district. Estrada noted that given this reality, the district works very hard to get better results with fewer resources. He added, “I think it’s really a celebration of our teachers and the hard work that they put in every single day, really producing more with less.”
Estrada then spoke about LISD’s response to COVID-19, noting this school year was the third school year impacted by the pandemic. LISD delivered over 1,000,000 meals during this time. It also worked to knock down barriers to educational access with the launch of the Lion Link free internet for educational purposes, free school supplies for all students, and becoming a 1:1 district two years ahead of schedule to ensure every student had a device with which to learn.
The district’s cases of COVID-19 are very low at this time with five students and one staff member. There are 102 students who are currently quarantined. He shared the district continues to review its practices and policies to make sure they align with student needs. The county’s positivity rate is 8 percent. LISD has been working with Caldwell County’s chief medical officer and district health advisors to see how to get more students back in school as cases have decreased significantly.
Attendance is a significant concern for LISD and other school districts across the state. The district’s budget is built by taking into account how many students attend school since the district is funded based on this number, not the number of students enrolled in the school district. This year, the district’s budget assumed a 95 percent attendance rate, anticipating up to five percent would be absent due to illness during the pandemic. The district has had a much lower attendance rate. As a result, not only are students missing learning opportunities during a year in which the district is trying to accelerate learning due to the COVID-19 learning slide, the absences resulted in a loss of approximately $900,000 so far in funding from the State. Estrada warned, “If we were to continue on with the same pace of our attendance for the rest of the school year, we would be on track to lose over $3 million, which would be a substantial amount of funding to lose.”
On a more positive note, the district shared some of its celebrations from the past school year. For example, the district’s goal last year was to grow at least 75 percent of students 1.5 years in reading. Even during a pandemic year, 76 percent of students grew 1.5 years in reading, exceeding the goal. Additionally, staff culture has been an intentional focus as the district wants to recruit and retain the best teachers for its students. According to the school district’s staff engagement survey results, over the last three years, LISD has had a 24 percent increase in staff believing that the district is making good decisions; a 21 percent increase in the staff feeling comfortable referring their friends to work in Lockhart ISD; an 18 percent increase in staff feeling recognized and valued; a 24 percent increase in staff feeling the district understands their needs; a 19% increase in staff feeling appreciated for the work they do, and a 14 percent increase in staff feeling good about their role in LISD. Between 2019 and 2021, the district’s results increased from 79 percent to 91 percent of staff feeling proud to work for the school district. Also, the district’s teacher turnover rate decreased from 24 percent in 2019 to 13 percent. The state average is about 18 percent. Estrada said that these indicators point to a positive culture in LISD.
Other areas of celebration included the school district’s expansion of its Career and Technical Education courses, the growing success of the LISD’s fine arts program, and recent celebrations of the performances of the band, volleyball, cross country, and tennis programs.
Challenges highlighted by the superintendent included the learning loss referred to as the “COVID slide,” the social and emotional health of students and staff during the pandemic, the lack of enough bus drivers and substitute teachers, the need to plan for future growth, the availability of teacher housing in the community, and an increased understanding of LISD among community members.