Heath Sims is one of the five members who make up the Ellis County Commissioners Court. He is in his second term as county commissioner for Pct. 3 after being re-elected in November.

“Most people really assume that the commissioners court is the governing body of all elected officials and we are not. I think people have that misconception because the commissioners court is the administrative body of Ellis County,” Sims said.

“The commissioners court is like a legislative body in Austin, if you want to look that as an example,” he said. “Rules and regulations can come before our court and we can pass them. When they pass in commissioners court that is the rule at that time.”

As a commissioner, Sims is elected to a four-year term and represents about a quarter of the county’s population. On the court, he serves with the three other commissioners and the county judge. The commissioners’ responsibilities include setting a budget for all county departments, adopting a tax rate and making sure all county roads are maintained. 

Other responsibilities include setting a yearly property tax rate, setting commissioner and justice of the peace precinct boundaries, establishing long-range thoroughfare and land uses, overseeing construction and maintenance to county roads and bridges, adopting a county budget, authorizing contracts and providing ambulance service and rural fire protection, among others.

The only regulatory power commissioners have over elected officials is when it comes to approving budgets for the different departments. Commissioners can decide whether it would be beneficial to increase or decrease that department’s budget.

Sims and his fellow commissioners also are tasked with approving contracts on behalf of the county, such as food service and inmate health at the county jail, purchases of equipment and road materials for construction and the contract for printing of county materials. 

“The commissioners court also sets the number of employees in each department. A department head could not go out and hire a new person on the spot. Generally requests for increases in staff usually come around budget time to commissioners. Before any decision is made it has to be formally presented before the court.” Sims said.

“The court is the administrator over property owned or leased by county. Only the court can bid the county on property matters on buying, selling or leasing. No other elected official or citizen can do that. That has to come through the court.”

One of Sims’ goals includes improving the infrastructure of the county road system. Through the years, greater demand has been placed on county roads from traffic coming off of the interstate or the farm-to-market system. Home development and growth in the unincorporated areas also has triggered greater demand on a system that was first designed to provide farmers with all-weather surfaces to their homes.

“At the time I got elected, I felt that there was not enough forward vision in Ellis County. There were some good people that were elected on that court, but times were changing and it was passing us by,” Sims said.

“You know, in 2000, we had a population of 110,000 people and now we’re fixing to be a little over 160,000 people in 2011. We are still for the most part building roads the same way we did back in the 1950s and 1960s. That is one of the primary reasons why I ran,” he said.

Under Sims’ leadership, the county has entered into a bridge replacement program with the Texas Department of Transportation that replaces wooden bridges with concrete and rehabs existing concrete. Improvements also have been made to low-water crossings to make them safer during high water. 

“In a growing county like ours, I don’t think a commissioner should be elected only on the fact that they know how to drive a motor grader.

“With about a $40 million budget you don’t want to have five guys on the court that only know how to do that. You need people with varied experience on the court with the development and growth that are currently taking place in the county,” he said.

Sims and his fellow commissioners act as mediators when working with the public and other officials on different projects.

Commissioners are also charged with reviewing legislation that comes from the state legislature in Austin. One of the trends facing commissioners is unfunded mandates issued by the state.

“The legislature is sending more and more of these mandates down to us without providing the funding to do so and they are saying, ‘You have to oversee this.’ So we have to keep watch and fight the ones that are not going to benefit our taxpayers,” he said.

Sims grew up in Ellis County and is a fifth-generation county resident. His father previously served one term as Pct. 3 county commissioner.

“I try to voice an opinion that is a reflection of what the public feels and needs. When I’m wrong I’ll admit I’m wrong and I’ll also listen to other people’s ideas and thoughts,” he said.

“I want my kids and grandkids to know that these elected officials did everything to improve the quality of life for people here in this county,” he said.

E-mail Andrew at andrew.branca@wninew.com