"We believe there's a lot of stuff behind the scenes we haven't seen. We've got people doing in-depth research on this."
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By Bob Ochoa
Hays County commissioners court, in a lopsided 4-to-1 vote last week, Aug. 11, approved a special tax and road construction deal worth $1.75 million to help U. S. Foodservice relocate to Buda from Austin. County Judge Liz Sumter was the lone dissenter. That's a pretty expensive helping hand, we thought, when Foodservice is just a hop and a skip away and belongs to a family of companies that seem to be pretty well off financially.
It turns out there's a long and winding story behind this generous act by our county commissioners. Part of the story includes some members of the court being on the receiving end of contributions to their campaign accounts. Another part includes Foodservice reportedly bouncing from Buda to Kyle, to the county, back to Buda and still talking to Kyle.
and former Buda mayor Jim Hollis.
From local press reports, we learned that almost on the very day commissioners court made its offer of corporate welfare to Foodservice, a group of Buda citizens organized as BudaFirst was handing over to Buda City Hall a petition with 800 signatures – 800! – calling for an up or down referendum on the Foodservice project. Seems like the sensible and democratic thing to do. Buda's city council had mysteriously reversed an earlier vote, 5-to-2, to now allow Foodservice to build in a commercial spot, not in the designated industrial zone embedded in the city's master growth plan – a major faux pas, and a slap, some say, at a master planning process in which the city and taxpayers invested much time, $750,000, and received a yes vote by the citizens.
We wondered, why would commissioners totally dismiss the wishes of 800 taxpaying citizens in favor of a project that, by Foodservice's own admission, will add only 38 new low to moderate income jobs to the local economy, not to mention lots more big truck traffic to an already heavily congested area (near the intersection of I-35 and Main Street-east)?
And why would the city council look the other way, in a major unexplained reversal, and grant Foodservice a huge exception (zoning amendment) to the city's master plan? The petition . . . ? Buda City Hall has taken on a really sniffy attitude: Go away lowly citizens, this is an executive decision we're making. The people will not be deciding these matters.
BudaFirst has a lawsuit waiting to drop in the hopper, just in case.
This from David Patterson, who along with Mr. Hollis, is a central character (among many) in BudaFirst: "The county is already moving forward with the paperwork (on the tax & road deal for Foodservice – a 3 month deadline). There'll be a county public hearing coming, then the city's ruling on our petition question. We suspect Buda will rule against the signatures. They may validate all the signatures but still not allow a referendum. If they do that, we're going to court. The lawsuit will put the kibosh on the project . . . We're drawing up a writ of mandamus (petition for a court ruling)." Raises the key question, whose court? In Hays County, that always seems to be an important question.
The RoundUp believes that Messrs. Hollis and Patterson, perhaps along with the rest of the BudaFirst crew, don't have any real big dogs in this fight other than to uphold prior commitments of the city, per the master plan, and holding their elected officials' feet to the fire. We can relate.
– More of the story: The location Buda's city council approved for Foodservice sits within a group of Municipal Utility Districts (MUDs, known collectively as Sunfield, formerly known as Winfield) comprising around 2,000 acres, out behind the old abandoned truck stop on I-35. "The #1 MUD," says Hollis, "is the honcho MUD. They're all out-of-towners, a huge pension fund is behind it. They've batted around 8,000 homes, donated land for a school and a fire station. It will eventually dwarf Buda. Here's the central nut – none of this is in the Buda comprehensive plan. It's against what the citizens worked for in our master plan." Somehow, former Austin kingpin developer Gary Bradley's name got mentioned.
– We are told that an investigation is under way into certain aspects of this tangled web.
– A member of the Buda city council is said to be professionally associated with Foodservice.
– Mr. Patterson: "We believe there's a lot of stuff behind the scenes we haven't seen. We've got people doing in-depth research on this."
– Mr. Hollis: "This is not against U. S. Foodservice. This is against the process. That's what sticks in my craw, it is overboard with arrogance."
– Mr. Patterson: "Jeff Barton (Pct. 2 commissioner, Buda/Kyle) has been involved all along, trying to play it down the middle. There's no point in even speaking to him (Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley-Wimberley/Woodcreek) because he's already got his mind made up."
This one's worth a whole chapter in someone's book, "Hays County: Never a Dull Moment/Stories of Political Intrigue and Behind the Scenes Corruption." We'll be getting back with updates as they develop.
U.S. Foodservice has a really fun web site, by the way, with a truck in it tooting its horn. You should check it out. Here's what it says:
U.S. Foodservice® is a federation of extraordinarily diverse and talented people. Their talents have been blended together to create a team capable of catering to any need. Currently, we are one of only two national broadline distributors operating in the multibillion-dollar foodservice industry.
• Provide food and related products and services to more than 250,000 customers, including restaurants, hospitals, hotels, schools and governmental operations.
• Employ more than 26,000 associates and operate more than 60 distribution centers.
• Offer more than 300,000 fresh, frozen, dry and nonfood products from every major national brand and a robust offering of exclusive brands of our own.