Comanche Peak’s declining value proves costly for once-flush Somervell County

Posted Tuesday, Oct. 08, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Unlike many rural areas in Texas where residents and revenue have steadily declined in recent years, Somervell County has prospered.

The little county tucked next to Hood and Johnson has more than doubled its population since 1980, to roughly 8,800 residents, and boasts several tourist attractions, such as the Dinosaur Valley State Park and Fossil Rim Wildlife Center.

Perhaps the county’s best-known landmark is the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant, which produces enough electricity annually to power 1.15 million homes — and has provided tens of millions of dollars in property taxes to Somervell’s coffers, a seemingly endless bounty of municipal gold.

As the tax dollars poured in — turning the state’s second-smallest county from property-poor to property-rich — Somervell built the Squaw Valley Golf Club, Somervell County Expo Center and Texas Amphitheatre, adding to its draw as a popular destination with day trippers from throughout North Texas.

But as energy prices have plummeted, so has the worth of the 23-year-old Comanche Peak, which lost about $330 million in value this year. And now Somervell County finds itself in somewhat of a financial meltdown.

Comanche Peak’s parent company, Luminant Energy, will pay the county about $8.75 million in taxes, down about $250,000 from 2012 and $350,000 from 2011. That’s after county commissioners voted to increase the tax rate nearly 4.5 cents to more than 40 cents per $100 of property valuation.

A six-figure drop may not seem large in the world of municipal budgets. But Comanche Peak accounts for more than half of the county’s $16.5 million budget.

“Comanche Peak has been the county's cash cow for several decades, so this devaluation really hurts,” said Kathryn Jones, editor of the digital news site glenrosecurrent.com and a resident of the county since 2005. “And there's not really much else to fall back on. ... Nothing can really take the place of Comanche Peak.”

To understand the financial weight of the mammoth plant, which was valued at $2.2 billion this year, consider that all of downtown Fort Worth is appraised at $2.9 billion.

The most valuable single property in Tarrant County is the huge Grand Prairie Premium Outlets shopping center at Interstate 20 and Great Southwest Parkway, which is appraised at $139 million.

Comanche Peak’s decreasing values, coupled with tax increases including those from a new hospital district, have sparked complaints from many residents who argue that the commissioners simply don’t know how to manage assets.

Jim Willis of Somervell County, a steady critic of the way the county has operated, said the loss of value in the power plant has been coming for years.

“It was no surprise to anybody,” Willis said. “In my opinion, the cuts out there haven't started yet. They just got a little taste of it.”

The Somervell County Hospital Authority, which was approved in May by two votes, took about $2 million in operating expenses off the county’s books but added a tax rate of 10.5 cents per $100 of valuation. Combined, the county’s tax increase and the hospital district levy add about $150 a year in taxes for the owner of a $100,000 home.

Glen Rose contractor Chip Harrison has helped organize a petition drive to force a recall election to dismantle the hospital district.

“I think our hospital authority board never looked at hiring an outside management company or selling it to someone like Texas Health Resources as Cleburne did,” Harrison said. “At this point, I would be willing to just hand over the keys and let somebody have it.”

If a recall election is called and passes, it would definitely affect the county budget.

“Frankly, if this is dissolved, it will have a domino effect on the entire county and it will crush us,” County Judge Mike Ford said.

Changes at Squaw Valley

Squaw Valley Golf Club, a rolling, 36-hole layout cut through thick patches of oak trees, is considered one of the top municipal courses in Texas.

But the course, which had been operated by a private company since it opened in 1992, has been as much financial drain as recreational destination.

Squaw Valley made money its first three years but has been in the red every year since. For years, the county has kicked in an average of almost $540,000 annually to keep it running.

County commissioners voted this year to take over operations and immediately began looking for ways to increase revenue and cut costs.

Greens fees have been increased for county residents, a longtime golf course mechanic was let go and pay was reduced for seven hourly and two salaried employees.

The county at first considered selling the course, only to learn that an appraiser valued its nearly 500 acres at $2.5 million, far less than the more than $15.7 million the county has spent on it.

“Nobody felt good,” county auditor Brian Watts said. “Everybody was reaching for the bottle of Tums when they saw it.”

County Commissioner Larry Hulsey said: “It’s kind of like having a swimming pool in your back yard that nobody wants. The land has more value [to a developer] without a golf course than with it.”

This year, with the county running the course, the county’s take is projected to increase to $1.6 million. There will still be a deficit, with expenditures projected at just over $2 million, officials said.

“Our expectation is that we will be able to reduce that deficit to below $200,000 with tighter controls and better policies in place,” Watts said.

Hope for ‘The Promise’

Officials are still discussing what to do with the Texas Amphitheatre, which costs the county about $100,000 annually for upkeep and utilities.

County officials have warned that the facility could close unless someone else takes over its management.

The amphitheater is home to The Promise, a popular biblical-based musical in its 25th season.

“We love The Promise,” Ford said. “We just don’t know if we can afford to keep it open.”

Many of those affiliated with the production, which runs from late August through the last weekend in October, say closing the amphitheater would be a big blow to the area.

“It’s an institution,” said Travis Tyre of Arlington, director of this year’s production . “People from all over the country and all over the world know about The Promise.

County officials have been in talks with the show’s producers, and both sides express hope that a deal can be reached to keep the amphitheater open.

“I’m having some good conversations with them over management and maintenance,” Ford said. “We don’t want to lose the asset.”

Philip Hobson, a Weatherford rancher and businessman who is one of the original Promise board members, remains optimistic that something will be worked out.

“We are putting in a proposal that involves relieving them of the expenses involved with the amphitheater,” Hobson said. “It’s such an underutilized facility.”

Expo center deficits

The Somervell County Expo Center, which is in the same complex as the amphitheater, is used primarily for equestrian events. A weekly barrel-racing series is being held this month, and in November, the center will host the four-day North Texas Arabian Shootout, among other events.

But even with its busy schedule, the expo center is projected to run a deficit of $921,000 in the upcoming fiscal year. That’s almost the entire $1.4 million combined operating budget for the Somervell County Expo Center and Amphitheatre.

Ford doesn’t want to see the expo center close and says county officials will spend much of this year trying to cut expenses for next year’s budget, as they did this year with the golf course. He believes the county can find a way to make it run more efficiently.

“That’s why individuals don’t run these things, because they don’t make money,” Ford said. “But it has a multimillion-dollar effect with the hotel-motel taxes it brings in and the visitors from out of town. We have already started the process of looking at personnel structure, our administrative structure, to make improvements.”

Comanche Peak’s plans

But the biggest uncertainty the county faces is Comanche Peak.

Numerous media reports have speculated that Energy Future Holdings, the parent company of Luminant, is headed toward bankruptcy. What that would mean for Comanche Peak remains unclear.

Reuters reported last week that Energy Future, which has more than $40 billion of debt, wants to finalize a restructuring plan before $250 million in bond payments are due Nov. 1.

Last month, Moody's Investors Service said it expects parts of the company to seek Chapter 11 protection before year’s end.

Ford, the county judge, said he tries to ignore the rumors.

“Somebody calls me weekly saying that they’ve declared bankruptcy or the plant’s been sold,” Ford said.

For now, county officials aren’t expecting dramatic changes and remain hopeful that the plant’s value won’t drop significantly again.

“I don’t honestly think a bankruptcy will have a big effect on us,” Chief County Appraiser Wes Rollen said. “To me, a bad scenario for us would be if it sold at half or 75 percent of what we have it for now on the books.”

If energy prices rebound, Rollen said, the value of the plant could increase. As recently as 2007, it was valued at $2.7 billion, he said.

Luminant spokesman Brad Watson said the company does not expect changes at Comanche Peak, which employs 1,200.

“We do not anticipate that any potential restructuring would impact Comanche Peak or any of our operations since it would be a financial, not an operational, restructuring,” Watson said.

Preparing for future

Dennis Moore, mayor of the county seat of Glen Rose, said he isn’t a fan of government-run enterprises but said his city has benefited from county facilities that attract tourists to stay at motels and eat at restaurants. Because Comanche Peak is outside the city, Glen Rose doesn’t receive any of its property tax benefits.

“If they had to shut down or cut back on something, it’s going to affect us,” Moore said.

Officials with the Glen Rose school district, which also receives money from Comanche Peak, said they are more concerned with state budget cuts than with the loss in property taxes from the plant.

“It’s had an impact on us but how it impacts is much different than with the county,” Superintendent Wayne Rotan said said. “The state budget cuts have impacted us the most.”

If the plant is further devalued, it could eventually affect the school district, but Rotan said trustees have set aside $20 million in reserves as a safeguard.

Other efforts are underway to bolster the county’s tax base.

George Best, who retired to Glen Rose seven years ago from Coppell, is a member of the recently formed Somervell Economic Development Council, which is working to ensure that the county benefits from the construction of the Chisholm Trail Parkway.

The toll road, which is scheduled to open in mid-2014, is expected to cut about 15 minutes off the hourlong drive from Fort Worth to Glen Rose, Best wrote in an email.

“As a result, we believe our community will experience growth as families discover our hometown atmosphere, low (by Metroplex standards) property taxes and exemplary schools,” Best said.

The council also wants find ways to encourage commercial growth and promote the area as a retirement community, he said.

“We want to make sure we are … attracting businesses that are complementary with our current tourism and industrial base, along with our community culture,” Best said.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna

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