Six Programs Earn 2013 County Best Practices Awards

The 2013 County Best Practices Awards Winners: Collin (X2!), Comal, Hidalgo, Tarrant and Harris counties
The Texas Association of Counties honored six county programs with 2013 County Best Practices Awards during an awards ceremony at the Association’s County Management Institute, held April 10-12 in Austin.
The County Best Practices Awards Program was created to recognize th​e efforts of county leaders in creating new, efficient and effective services to challenges facing local governments. These solutions include innovative programs, increased delivery of services and superior achievements pertaining to public safety and corrections, health and human services, financial and general management, technology, community improvements and other county-related responsibilities.
The Best Practices Program honors counties for their accomplishments, inspires leaders to develop improved programs, and creates an avenue for promoting replicable and proven solutions to county government concerns.
All Texas counties are encouraged to nominate programs and projects for these awards. Each nominated program is evaluated individually based on its results and how well it satisfies the Best Practices Program’s mission. The mission of the Best Practices Program is to honor and promote the best of the best of the replicable improvements in county government.
This year’s winning counties and programs are:​

Collin County:

The Tire Shark

Contact: Tim Wyatt, Public Information Officer

fter the Collin County Public Works Department joined forces with the Collin County Sheriff’s Office to battle the illegal dumping happening along its county roads and creek beds, the county faced a new problem: what to do with all the tires it had collected during the clean-up of dumping sites in its 600 square miles of rural land.

While most trash went to the landfill, the county had collected tons and tons of old tires, each one of which could cost the county $5 — about $500 per ton — to dispose of. Since cleanup crews were finding three to eight tons of tires each month, disposal of the tires would cost the county thousands of dollars each year.

After reading articles and researching other options, officials and staff discovered that disposing shredded tires is much cheaper: just $31 a ton. So the question became: could the county find a cost-effective method to shred the tires?

There are commercial tire shredders on the market, but most machines cost between $50,000 to $100,000, so they wouldn’t be a cost-effective strategy.

Instead, county road and bridge crew employees decided to DIY (Do-It-Yourself). They worked together to design and build their own machine that could cut tires in half. They inspected commercial tire shredders purchased by other counties, took pictures and came up with a design. Within months, they had collected a mish-mash of spare angle iron, steel plating, metal mesh and other parts, including an old trailer frame. The department spent about $2,000 on a hydraulic pump and gas motor, put the pieces together and created a working portable shredder, which they affectionately dubbed the Tire Shark.

The Tire Shark has served the county well for three years now, slicing through more than 20,000 tires and saving the county more than $100,000 in disposal fees. At 200 tons of collected tires, a $2,200 investment saved the county $93,428.87.​

Collin County:

Marks, Brands and Tattoos

Contact: Stacy Kemp, Collin County Clerk

Ranching has been important business in Texas from the beginning, but not all aspects of it have evolved with time. The registration of livestock is one such practice: it has pretty much stayed the same since the first livestock brand was registered in 1869.

In Texas, brand registration, which occurs at county clerks’ offices, is good for 10 years, beginning in any year ending with a 1: 2001, 2011, 2021. If a brand isn’t registered or re-registered within a specific timeframe, that brand is up for grabs.

So coming into 2011, Collin County Clerk Stacy Kemp knew that she was in for a lot of brand registrations, which, according to tradition, took quite a lot of time. Livestock owners or their representatives would have to come to the clerk’s office and search through a brand book to ensure their ranch’s brand was unique. Once that was verified by the clerk, the person would have to complete an application and a hand-drawing of the marking. The clerk would have to complete a two-part registration card that required another drawing of the marking. When the application and registration were completed, the registrant would have to draw the marking in two additional places, after which the clerk would take the brand book apart, type information next to each drawing, reassemble the book and pass it along to the next clerk dealing with the next registration. The process took at least 40 minutes each time, Kemp estimated.

Kemp wanted to make the process more efficient and convenient by putting it online, so she talked to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and the county’s information technology department about creating a web-based renewal and registration process. She also talked to state Rep. Ken Paxton about amending the Texas Agriculture Code to allow for electronic registration, which the Legislature agreed to. Kemp then scanned her county’s brand book, created a database containing all the required registration information and archived the digital images of the brands. Kemp put the brand book online and worked with her county’s IT department to create a web-based application that could assign identification numbers to livestock owners and make the process more convenient and efficient for ranchers.  

Comal County:

QR Codes on Tax Statements

Contact: Cathy Talcott, Tax Assessor-Collector​

Comal County Tax Assessor-Collector Cathy Talcott wanted to ensure that her office was giving county taxpayers the most up-to-date, convenient, expedient payment options and customer service available, so she worked with a team of vendors to create a website that provides personal tax account information instantly to taxpayers when they use their smart phones to scan a QR code (a unique pixel-based image). 

The office gave the QR codes a trial run in April 2012, during which the system was closely observed and tested for errors. When the 2012 tax statements were mailed, the office worked with local media and social media outlets to get the word out to residents about the new property tax payment option. She also sent letters to taxpayers that explained the new online payment options.

Comal County was the first governmental agency in the United States to offer the ability to pay for property taxes through a mobile device with a QR code, according to the county’s Best Practice nomination form. Property tax season proved smooth for the office. More property owners paid their property taxes online than any other year in the county’s history. The county saw its property tax payment collection increased by 12.93 percent in December 2012, compared to a 0.8 percent increase in December 2011. “With the popularity of smart phones growing throughout the world, each year more and more taxpayers will want to pay their taxes from their mobile devices via QR code,” the nomination form stated. “With our world becoming more dependent on technology, the goal of the Comal County Tax Office was to find a more efficient, user-friendly way for customers to pay their taxes from anywhere in the world within a matter of minutes.”


Harris County:

Warrant Laser-Fiche Program

Contact: Tim Cannon, Assistant Chief

H​arris County Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman is responsible for one of the largest constable precincts in the country. His office serves a population of more than 800,000 people.

One of the biggest challenges his office faces is space. His office is charged with the responsibility of storing tens of thousands of arrest warrants, many of which stem from unpaid Class C misdemeanor citations. 

Back in 2004, those warrants were all paper, hand-filed and hand-searched by his staff. As the number of filed warrants topped 100,000, the amount of time spent filing and searching for the warrants became overwhelming. The office either needed to pay for additional space and staff to manage the files or create an electronic filing solution for its warrants — something it had attempted to do for years before reaching the conclusion that “the complicated and convoluted requirements for such a large county would require a vast amount of man hours and an almost overwhelming technical investment,” according to the county’s Best Practices nomination form. But the office did have better luck with scanning other department documents, using a software program called Laser-Fiche. 

In 2008, the constable’s staff began looking at the Laser-Fiche capabilities more closely and discovered that it could allow for the electronic filing of warrants. Staff created a template for scanning the warrants into the system and began training clerks and court personnel on how to use the system for warrants. Now, warrants can be searched via a variety of fields and the office no longer has to house thousands of paper warrants. 

“We have met our challenge and found that this program is the most fiscally responsible program with the least amount of overall interruption to current operating systems. It is easily installed and easily learned,” states the nomination form.​

Hidalgo County:

Domestic Abuse Intervention 

Contact: Lupe Trevino, Sheriff​

After a domestic disturbance in the county led to the tragic death of its victim, Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office deputies decided they wanted to do more to reach out to victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse. They wanted to find a way to intervene, to reach out to victims and to prevent perpetrators from reoffending. 

That is no simple task. Domestic abuse victims often feel a bond with their attackers and are afraid of retribution. They often hide the crime out of shame or fear.  

Sheriff Lupe Treviño realized that his deputies could not tackle the problem on their own. He and his staff reached out to agencies already working to help victims and educated themselves on the dynamics of violent relationships. They worked to strengthen their ties to their community through informal networks and generated a report of the repeat domestic disturbance calls they had taken so that deputies could focus their efforts on those known repeat offenders.

In August 2011, the department certified 20 deputies as Domestic Abuse Intervention Specialists. The deputies, all of whom completed a 32-hour TCLEOSE-approved course — make contact with victims and offenders and work to educate the public about domestic violence. “By establishing this specialized group in domestic violence, we want to yield an increase in the number of cases investigated, decrease the amount of repeat offenders and provide a more efficient process for the victims of domestic violence and refer them to crime victims’ services that will meet their needs,” states the Best Practices nomination form. And the results are encouraging — the office saw a 5.3 percent decrease of domestic violence incidents in 2012 compared to 2011, and incidents committed by repeat offenders decreased by 68.3 percent.

Tarrant County:

Bridging the Knowledge Gaps 

Contact: Jeff Nicholson, Chief Deputy​

With more than 140 employees, the Tarrant County Clerk’s Office faced a challenge common among many large employers: how to best disseminate new and timely information and training materials regarding new policies and procedures to staff so that they can provide the best possible experience to customers. 

“The size, turnover and varied physical locations made it difficult for employees to know each other and what their area of responsibility was. This made it difficult to direct callers to the proper person,” states the county’s Best Practices nomination form. “It was difficult to create a sense of connection to one another. … The office lacked a comprehensive, searchable knowledge base.”

The office, led by Chief Deputy Jeff Nicholson, decided to develop a robust internal website — called an intranet — for staff that could leverage all the advances in web technology. Working with a technology solutions provider and employees, the office created a proactive and collaborative site that was easy to use, increased efficiency and broke down departmental barriers.

To ensure that employees regularly use the site and find it helpful, the office has each department maintain its own subsite and individual users maintain their own pages. The site is searchable and includes an employee directory so that staff know who is responsible for specific duties. Managers can use the site to organize employee vacation needs, analyze workload data and staff assignments, reducing customer wait times and the need for overtime. The site also includes a community page for all employees that includes photos, online resources, a bulletin board and other features. The site has also allowed the county to streamline many of its procedures and responsibilities via the creation of online libraries and other functionality.