When Gene Terry, the former executive director of the Texas Association of Counties (TAC), created the County Relations Officer program in 2011, he wanted to serve counties without trying to sell them a service.
"It was frequently said by county judges and others who were in office that the only time they ever saw anybody from TAC was somebody from the Pool," Terry said. "County judges see a lot of people trying to sell stuff, and we just wanted to differentiate TAC from some other vendor."
With TAC back on the road after months of pandemic-induced travel reductions, County Relations Officers (CROs) are among those who have ramped up physical visits with all Texas counties.
The CROs are TAC’s one-stop shop to connect counties with resources and programs. If a county needs something from TAC, but isn’t sure who to call, it can always contact its CRO, who will connect it to the right people. The CROs are a two-way communications system to help refine TAC’s services — they help relay critical information and solutions to counties, and they also provide TAC staff with feedback and requests from the counties.
All counties are divvied up among three CROs: Alan Bristol serves the western part of the state, Rhita Koches serves the eastern part, and Tramer Woytek serves the southern part. All of them have served as county judges and have spent decades working for public offices in other capacities.
"We’ve been in the courthouse and understand the isolation and frustration county officials sometimes feel," said Koches, who previously served 10 years as Van Zandt County Judge. "We can usually assure you that you’re not alone and that your problem is not as unusual as you might think. We’ve probably heard it, or something similar, before."
The CROs interface with all county officials, from county judges and commissioners to sheriffs and tax assessor-collectors. They make on-site visits and attend regional conferences.
Among the recent issues they have handled for counties include answering questions related to budget development, the proper disposal of retired flags, IT services offered by TAC and grant funding. The more recent questions have been around the federal American Rescue Plan, which provides $5.7 billion in funding to counties.
"I really, really love when I am in a member’s office, and I can get a consultant (Risk Management Pool or Health and Employee Benefits Pool) or education member on my cellphone, and they answer the official’s question, or get them registered for a conference or webinar on the spot," said Bristol, who was Navarro County Judge for seven and a half years.
Woytek said that he also particularly loves to hear about practices that have worked in counties that he can share with others.
"I’ll add it to the collective wisdom and maybe help someone else down the road," said Woytek, who served as Lavaca County Judge for 10 years.
Woytek added that while CROs have done their best to serve members during the pandemic virtually and over the phone, he and his colleagues say face-to-face meeting opens "more opportunities to help."
All three CROs said the best way to get the most out of their services is to call to ask them a question or to just discuss recent events. Koches said that one such talk last legislative session led to TAC Print Services helping to produce large displays at the Capitol to help show how much counties must spend to repair county roads.
"My tip would be to stay in touch and let your CRO know what you have going on," Koches said. "You never know when we might be able to help because, as I said before, who doesn’t want their friends to succeed?"