DALLAS — As Texas’ fastest-growing county, Williamson County, north of Austin, has seen its debt rise rapidly to keep up with demand for roads, parks and services.
The $1.24 billion of principal and interest has become an election issue, even though the county of 422,679 retains triple-A ratings.
Republican commissioner candidates Lee Ann Seitsinger and Valerie Covey have made debt their key issue in challenging Democratic incumbents Lisa Birkman and Gregory Windham.
“Only Bexar and Harris counties have higher debt, and we are almost tied with Bexar for second on the list,” Seitsinger says in her campaign statement. “Every man, woman and child owes Williamson County nearly $2,000.”
The county is looking to take advantage of low interest rates and its strong credit rating with a refunding deal of $153 million this week.
In its report on the upcoming deal, Fitch called the county’s direct debt levels “moderate,” while noting the rapid growth in overlapping debt.
“The county’s direct debt burden on the budget is elevated at 33% of fiscal 2010 spending, and the pace of principal amortization is average,” wrote Fitch analyst Rebecca Meyer.
“High overall debt levels reflect significant issuance by the 16 school districts, 25 special districts and 13 cities,” Meyer said.
When overlapping debt with school districts, cities and other taxing entities is considered, Williamson County is on par with other fast-growing suburban counties such as Denton and Collin in North Texas and Fort Bend in the Houston area, officials said.
With 69% growth between 2000 and 2010, “it’s unreasonable to think we could pay for this on a pay-as-you-go basis,” county auditor David Flores told the Austin American-Statesman.
Of Texas’ 254 counties, sparsely populated Maverick County, on the Mexican border, has the highest debt per capita, while the state’s most populous county, Harris, carries the highest amount of total debt, according to the state Bond Review Board.
Neighboring Travis County, which includes Austin, has a comparatively low debt of $587 per capita, according to the board.
Williamson County, which includes computer manufacturer Dell Inc.’s hometown of Round Rock, won voter approval for $350 million of road bonds in 2000 and $228 million in 2006.
The most recent issue of $76.9 million came to market last August.
In terms of principal outstanding, Williamson County ranks third in the state with $823.5 million, according to the Bond Review Board.
Local debt in Texas grew 4.9% to $192.7 billion in fiscal 2011 from $183.8 billion in fiscal 2010, the board says.