With a population of 1,600, a countywide prohibition on alcohol sales and a conservative Republican electorate, Throckmorton County has little in common with Travis County.
But the two have been linked since the 19th century, when the Republic of Texas allotted Travis County thousands of acres of revenue-generating land 140 miles west of Fort Worth to fund schools in the Austin area.
On Tuesday, the Travis County Commissioners Court took a step toward bringing that relationship into the 21st century by hiring a consultant to explore the possibility of building a wind farm on the land, which currently makes money from grazing and oil-pumping leases.
“We have for a long time wanted to generate maximum revenue off of that property through a wind lease,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said.
The commissioners voted 3-0 to bring on Michael Osborne, who retired last year as a top official at Austin Energy and chairs the city’s Electric Utility Commission. (Commissioner Brigid Shea was absent because she is at the climate change talks in Paris, and Commissioner Margaret Gómez was briefly off the dais.)
Osborne, who is working on the project for free, will help the county craft a request for proposals from firms that might be interested in leasing the land and building a wind farm. He told the commissioners Tuesday that it’s not a sure thing.
“I wouldn’t want to exaggerate and say it’s a great wind site, but I think it’s a potential wind site,” Osborne said.
Texas leads the nation in wind power. In the past few years, energy market pressure and technological advancements have driven down the price of wind power, making it more competitive with fossil fuels.
Both new and old energy sources thrive in the area of West Texas that includes Throckmorton County. The four-hour drive from Austin to Throckmorton, which is about 60 miles northeast of Abilene, is lined for long stretches with huge sweeping wind turbines and small nodding oil derricks.
Texas in the 1800s gave so-called “school lands” to 238 counties, which used to be responsible for education. The money generated through Travis County’s 18,820 acres at the Spade Ranch is held in the Travis County Permanent School Fund, not the general fund, and aids local districts.
As of 2013, the ranching lease was generating about $200,000 per year, and the oil and gas money came to more than $100,000 per year. Last year, the commissioners approved a more lucrative deal for the oil operation with S.B. Street Operating Inc., which agreed to pay the county $625,000 as well as one-quarter of its revenue from pumping.
Also Tuesday, the commissioners voted to lower the cost of pay phone services for inmates in Travis County jails and eliminate an $840,000 source of revenue for the county. The Federal Communications Commission is in the process of issuing rules that will likely require local jurisdictions to ensure the services are affordable, and Tuesday’s vote puts Travis County in line with a potential ruling.
The measure amended the county’s contract with Securus Technologies, which manages the phone system, to reduce the cost of a 20-minute phone call from $4.65 to $1.65 and eliminate a separate percentage-based commission that went to county coffers.
Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was the lone dissenter in the 3-1 vote.
“I’m not trying to be punitive to the inmates, but I do want to be careful about just assuming that this money is not something that our sheriff’s office needs,” Daugherty said. “If you don’t have some kind of revenue, then it just is all on the taxpayer, and I don’t think that that’s completely fair.”
Eckhardt, however, said she didn’t think the county should be profiting off the prison population.
“This is a fair taxation question for me,” she said. “We have instituted a de facto tax on people who are predominantly poor by generating such significant revenue off of that contract.”
It was the second measure that the commissioners have adopted this year that makes it easier for inmates to communicate with their loved ones. In September, they set aside money in the budget to bring back in-person visitation, which had been replaced by a Skype-like video-based system.
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