NCCC host State of Caldwell County￼
Special to the LPR
The Northern Caldwell County Coalition (NCCC) hosted its 6th annual “State of Northern Caldwell County” public meeting at the ML Cisneros Education Support Center on Thursday, Dec. 1.
The NCCC is a partnership between Caldwell County, the City of Lockhart, and the Lockhart Independent School District, intended to strengthen partnerships in planning and leading growth in intentional and collaborative ways. Caldwell County Judge Hoppy Haden, City of Lockhart Mayor Lew White, City Manager Steven Lewis, and LISD Superintendent of Schools Mark Estrada took turns providing highlights from the past year as well as glimpses of growth and development on the horizon for the region.
Caldwell County Judge Hoppy Haden said the county has been working to encourage the right kind of growth and has participated in efforts to bring well-paying jobs and tax revenue to the community as well as businesses that fit its target industries, which include hospitality and retail, life sciences, information technology, manufacturing, defense and distribution and logistics.
Recent victories for Caldwell County’s economic development efforts include X-Bow Systems, which chose Luling for its newest test site and is continuing to hire for that location; the success of the Industrial Park it made a significant investment in; Buc-ee’s, which chose Luling for its new location; and Verticore, which is undergoing an expansion.
“Caldwell County has been on a positive growth trajectory over the past few years. The county’s estimated population has gone up by more than 4,000 people in the past four years and today sits at more than 46,000 according to recent Census data, and in all likelihood that estimate is a bit low,” Haden said. “A number of companies are choosing to either expand operations or place their headquarters in our area because we have a lot of things going for us: Housing prices that are relatively affordable when compared to many cities just west of us and a lot of buildable land.”
Haden acknowledged that average housing prices in Caldwell County had significantly increased as they have in many parts of Texas and the United States, but noted that data from the National Association of Realtors indicated it’s still an affordable place to live relative to other nearby Central Texas counties in the Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area submarket. The average price of a home in Caldwell County has risen to $335,000 from $134,389 a year ago, but that number compares favorably in terms of value to Travis County at $540,000), Hays County at $464,000, Bastrop County at $405,000 and Williamson County at $460,000.
Improving county roadways remains a focus for the county as it looks to continue improving living conditions for its residents and preparing for future residential and commercial developments. Forty-two percent of the county’s residents live in rural areas according to recent U.S. Census data, and there are approximately 427 miles of county roads running through Caldwell County, of which about 227 are asphalt and 200 are gravel.
Haden said the Highway 21 Super 2 project was now complete, with attention being turned to converting the highway to a four-lane divided roadway in the next 10 years. He also noted that a project was in the works to expand FM 2720, an artery that runs from Lockhart to Kyle and Buda.
“We now have more paved roads than gravel roads and we have an aggressive plan to get those paved in the next five years,” Haden said. “Paved roads will be helpful to our residents and people driving in our county and will be attractive to developers looking to build in our area.
“There are half a billion dollars worth of transportation projects that we’ve identified, including installation of new roadways and updating existing roadways to complete through 2040. Major planned improvements include expanding Highway 21, paving county roads, adding turn lanes where appropriate and stabilizing existing gravel roads.”
Developers are choosing to build in Caldwell County, with approximately 450 residential permits being approved in 2022.
“It’s what Caldwell County has going for it that is drawing developers and builders here,” Haden said. “But it also creates a challenge. Our population is expected to grow to over 100,000 people by 2045, with a majority of the growth expected to take place West of Lockhart toward the San Marcos Corridor. Traditionally, it’s been difficult to control what is built out in the county because unlike a city, we don’t have tools in place like zoning to control what goes up out there.
“That’s poised to continue improving, though, with legislation passed last year that puts developers in check and more protections in place for landowners rather than developers, which helps slow growth to a more manageable level and attract more developers who do things the right way.”
The county’s annual budget for Fiscal Year 2022-2023 is $31,049,514. Ad valorem taxes make up the majority of the county’s revenue. The tax rate has dropped significantly over the past five years, from 77.53 cents per $100 valuation to 55.32 cents, though people are paying more property taxes now. Tax revenue has increased due to escalating property tax values. The total market value in the county is now $7,575,190,661, contrasting sharply with $5,194,777,891 just a year ago.
Haden said 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, although a portion of the additional tax revenue comes from a number of companies that have either chosen to expand operations of place their headquarters in the Caldwell County area. Additional property taxes are expected to increase revenue in FY 2022-2023 by just $1.5 million.
“Taxable revenue from new construction is set to increase, but much of the county’s rising taxable revenue in the short term comes from rising property values,” Haden said. “There are some obstacles to infusing that revenue back into the county’s operating budget. The county gets just 16 cents of every taxable dollar of property value and tax laws prevent the county from adjusting the tax rate to a point that would let it benefit appreciably from year to year.”
Grant money also helps fuel the county’s operating budget. Grants are helping fund myriad projects, including road improvements, the county’s new evacuation center that will also function as a community event space, the eventual addition of rural broadband internet, and more.
“The county’s grant department provides us some relief,” Haden said. “Since hiring our grants administrator, Dennis Engelke, we’ve gone from securing $2 million in grants to about $34 million. Making sure a good grant writer is on your staff is a must-have.”
Haden concluded his portion of the presentation by discussing some of the county’s efforts to improve sanitation and security, which include plans to install security cameras at the Caldwell County Courthouse, the Caldwell County Justice Center, the sheriff’s office, and the jail as well as working out an agreement to lease the old Polonia Water Supply Company building on FM 1185 in McMahan to create space for Justice of the Peace Pct. 4 and the Caldwell County Constable’s Office.
The county also recently entered into an interlocal agreement with the Lockhart Police Department to provide law enforcement services for the city while it works to hire more officers, helping ensure the safety of citizens of the county seat. Additionally, the county entered into an agreement with Lockhart ISD which will place armed peace officers at area elementary schools, improving safety for students and teachers by ensuring an armed peace officer is present at each campus.
On the sanitation side, the new Environmental Enforcement Unit has been cleaning up illegal dumping sites, catching and fining offenders, and holding clean-up events to reduce illegal dumping in the community by collecting more than 100 tons of household waste.
City of Lockhart
“As is going on in the County, growth continues to come to the City of Lockhart,” White said as he segued to the City of Lockhart’s portion of the NCCC presentation. “It is always our goal to grow our jobs and our commercial tax base.”
White opened the presentation announcing a record four economic development project announcements in fiscal year 2022, which included Millscale Metalworks and McCoy Building Supply’s move to Lockhart, Iron Ox’s greenhouse grand opening, and the Ziegenfelder Company’s expansion—which was secured through the City and County’s first Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF) award from the Office of the Governor. These announcements equated to a capital expenditure of $41 million and 153 potential job opportunities.
“It’s the second year of tremendous success,” White said.
He noted Lockhart Industrial Park III’s first tenant, McElroy Metal, is also settling in its 38,000-square-foot facility, which is now open and operational. The park, also known as the SH 130 Industrial Park, is currently going through Phase 2 with the construction of public infrastructure, including upsizing a wastewater line serving the western side of Lockhart to the new industrial park. That part of the project is funded by a $1.68 million U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant and $420,000 grant match from the Lockhart Economic Development Corporation (LEDC).
Growth was not exclusive to economic development in Lockhart, but also in population. The 2020 Census revealed the city’s population of 14,379. This was an 11.4 percent growth over the last decade, and nine percent of that growth occurred in the last five years. Growth is predicted to continue at a faster rate over the next five to ten years, an observation that also rings true for communities around Lockhart while ensuring a strong workforce – an attractive factor for new businesses considering a move in town.
To maintain that workforce, housing availability is critical. Lewis pointed out that the city’s location maximizes proximity to affordable housing by offering a reasonable commute to San Antonio and Austin. Caldwell County alone has 20,000 future lots in planned and proposed subdivision sections. To date, the number of residential building permits issued by the City more than doubled.
“Lockhart is a place to live, to work, and to play,” Lewis said. “Texas is going to double in population by 2045, well, it is going to happen here.”
With the anticipated growth, Lewis provided updates on City projects that have made considerable progress this year:
A Request for Proposals (RFPs) was authorized to seek qualified consultants to assist the City in developing and adopting a new Comprehensive Plan. The City’s current plan was prepared in 2000.
The City hired a Parks and Recreation Director, who developed the Parks and Recreation Capital and Operation Project addressing short-term and long-term recreation program and facility goals.
The Downtown Revitalization Project’s Final Conceptual Design Report and 30% Design Phase Reports were accepted. The 60% Design Phase Report will be presented to City Council in January 2023. Construction is expected to begin December 2023.
TxDOT finalized signage installation for Lockhart’s new truck re-route on SH 183, issued a Notice of Proposed Construction on the widening of FM 2720 from SH 21 to SH 142, and placed the Lockhart Municipal Airport under consideration for its Aviation Capital Improvement Program for runway and taxi-way resurfacing.
Boundary adjustments from the voluntary annexation request of 89.8 acres on the east side of FM 1322 and 2600 feet south of Seawillow Road is ongoing. The annexation of the 197-acre property — also known as the “Donut Hole” — south of State Park Road/FM 20, west of Twin Island Drive, and east of Arena Rd. is pending a public hearing in the December 6 Council meeting.
The City closed its portion of the presentation by providing an update on the Texas Monthly BBQ Fest. Event organizers reached back out to the City to express their interest in continuing their partnership with Lockhart and the community for the next TM BBQ Fest in November 2023.
Lockhart Independent School District
“Great things are happening because of the leadership of the County and the City, and the school district is always pleased to collaborate,” said Estrada. We appreciate our partnership.”
Estrada provided an overview of Lockhart ISD’s notable highlights from the past school year. The school district is a Texas Education Agency-designated District of Innovation and is considered a fast-growth school district. LISD has nearly 6,500 students within its 300 square miles. Estrada expressed pride in the selection of the LISD Board as the 2022 Region 13 Board of the Year, honoring the Board members who make decisions that are student-centered and anchored in district core values. “I’m blessed to be on this team of eight. I think we work very well together, and we make decisions to do what is best for kids and good for the community,” said Estrada.
He also highlighted the school district’s partnership with The Holdsworth Center and their collaborative work in developing leadership pathways to grow and develop staff in Lockhart so they do not have to leave schools or the district to grow professionally.
The school district’s student enrollment is 75 percent Hispanic; 20 percent white, and about 3 percent African American. Approximately 75 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch through economic qualifications. After the measure had climbed up to 78 percent, this year, the district saw a reversal in the trend with a decrease for the first time in recent years.
Estrada highlighted the “Spirit of 1.5,” the commitment to grow students by a year and a half each year, from the students in need of support to our most advanced learners. The district’s commitment is to prepare students for whatever opportunity they choose beyond graduation, whether entering a trade, going to a four-year college, or joining the military.
Estrada also shared the school district’s three core values: having a LockHeart for People, being Locked on Excellence, and UnLocking Potential in ourselves and each other to empower students and staff to thrive. These values anchor all decisions made by the school district and serve as the foundation of a culture that has attracted many newcomers – both staff and students.
The superintendent acknowledged the contributions of The Education Foundation for Lockhart ISD, a group of volunteers who work to support district teachers. He shared learning that the Foundation’s intention is to make a recommendation of up to $100,000 this coming year to support teachers. The foundation’s partnership has been critical in the school district’s success.
Lockhart ISD experienced record enrollment at the beginning of the school year with 6,465. As of December 1, LISD had 6,483 students. The district is expected to meet the 6,500 mark this year. It has grown by 9 percent in the last 5 years and 30 percent in the last decade.
This November, the community approved investing in a bond to provide needed facilities to support the growth of the district. The bond was basic in its approach, asking for funds for the land for an elementary school, a new elementary school, and a wing at Lockhart High School. Over 60 percent of voters approved the measure.
Even after approving the bond, Lockhart ISD has the lowest school tax rate in the area at $1.1123 per $100 valuation. Estrada expressed pride in the work of LISD teachers who outperform those in other districts even as they have fewer resources due to the low tax rate.
Estrada presented a three-phased district growth plan. Phase 1 included this year’s bond, with a new elementary school, land for the elementary school, and a high school extension. No later than 2025, LISD will initiate phase 2, going to the community to ask for a bond for a seventh elementary school, a second junior high school, a career and technical education expansion at Lockhart High School, and a Pre- K expansion.
No later than 2028, phase 3 would provide an 8th elementary school and an additional wing to Lockhart High School. LHS is landlocked. Once built, this would enable the school to then support 3,000 students. Beyond this, the community may be in the discussion for a second high school after 2030.
The plan is to grow with the community, staying within the capacity provided by that growth.
Estrada shared celebrations from the district. LISD recently launched a partnership with Caldwell County to provide a Constable School Security Program. In CTE programs, over 90% of secondary students are taking at least one CTE course aligned to a pathway. The district has had increases in industry-based certification to prepare students for success. The Lockhart High School theatre program continues to be in the top 20 in the state for 5A programs. This fall, LISD had strong band, football, and cross-country seasons.
In terms of staff celebrations, the school district began the year 100% staffed for bus drivers, something other school districts continue to struggle with. Additionally, LISD has been successful with double-digit gains in substitute hiring that supports our teachers when they need to be away from school.
LISD’s shared leadership program is developing into a model that is sparking interest from school districts throughout the state. In the school district’s partnership with The Holdsworth Center, LISD has shifted away from a hierarchical leadership model to instead developing leadership pipelines to grow staff in responsibility and compensation. This creates options that do not require district staff to leave the classroom, departments, or school district in order to grow.
In academic successes, LISD elementary school showed double-digit gains in Texas Education Agency scores for campuses, even during the pandemic. In 2019, Navarro Elementary School earned a 71. This year, it earned an 81. Plum Creek Elementary earned a 78 in 2019. This year, it earned an 88. Clear Fork Elementary had a 70 in 2019. This year, it earned an 85. Alma Brewer Strawn had a 59 in 2019. This year, it earned an 87. Finally, Bluebonnet Elementary earned a 69 in 2019. This year, it earned an 87. Estrada said, “This demonstrates the work of our teachers, students, and parents, all working together and working hard to grow our students by 1.5 years each year. Our goal is for our campuses to have A ratings, and we are well on our way to achieving this goal.”
In terms of needs, Estrada shared that student attendance at the secondary level remains a challenge. Estrada met with high school students to learn what can be done to help motivate students to attend and get what they need each day to be successful. LISD is embarking on a 5-year strategic planning process for the school district to continue to move the district toward more success The district continues to work to correct the COVID learning slide, something LISD and other school districts will be working on for years to come. Funding for teacher compensation and school safety are two areas that are priorities for the school district. With Lockhart ISD having the lowest tax rate, it also receives the lowest amount of funding in the area. This is a major concern for teachers who are being priced out of Central Texas. The school district is looking for ways it can improve and generate more revenue so it can better compensate staff as well as bolster school safety efforts.