Possibly the biggest thing to happen in Grayson County in 2018 is something that has been in the works for years.


After more than five years of effort, the control tower at North Texas Regional Airport — Perrin Field, finally made it into the Federal Aviation Administration’s federal contract tower program in October.


“We are pleased to inform you that North Texas Regional Airport will become an official participant in the Federal Aviation Administration Contract Tower Program, effective October 1, 2018,” the FAA said in a letter to airport officials on Oct. 28.


As part of the program, the feds will now pay for staffing the control tower, which means about a $300,000 savings for Grayson County taxpayers.


Grayson County Bill Magers told the Herald Democrat that getting the airport into the program was not the work of a single person, but rather a team effort by lots of folks including U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe, Texas Aviation Partners, former NTRA Airport Director Mike Shahan and Grayson County commissioners.


The work began back in 2012 but was stalled by government sequestration in 2013. The next year, funding was again provided for the program but the FFA looked at changes to the admissions process for the program. Then in April NTRA became a formal candidate for the program by making it on a short list of airports headed for the program. A few inspections and some $100,000 worth of improvements later and the announcement that NTRA, long called the county’s “diamond in the rough,” by Magers and others, had finally found itself all polished up and ready to shine. Since then the airport has become home to the country’s first Christian air


County sells bonds for future highway improvements


As the county was ending one fiscal year and starting another, commissioners issued $10 million in bonds in September to pay for its part of a projects that are expected to impact the way county motorists get around on U.S. Highway 75 for decades to come.


Commissioners issued $10 million in bonds to leverage additional state funds for improvements to U.S. Highway 75. The funds will be combined with funding through the Sherman-Denison Metropolitan Planning Organization and money from the Texas Department of Transportation, to bring more than $168 million in improvements in the coming years.


The county’s bond issuance is aimed to take advantage of changes in the way TxDOT selects projects which now favors projects that have not only local support, but also funding behind them.


“The thought that you can fund projects the same way as 30 years ago is misplaced,” Grayson County Judge Bill Magers said in an October article in the Herald Democrat. “By using local tax dollars on local projects, we can leverage TxDOT funds and that is a smart move.”


The bond proceeds will cover the first of two expected phases of improvements to the highway and encompass several individual projects. The largest of these first-phase projects, in terms of cost, is a restructuring of the intersection of Hwy. 75 and U.S. Highway 82.


Previously, officials with the SDMPO said the project would include moving the ramps along the intersection and the construction of new lanes on the service road to help alleviate congestion. SDMPO Executive Director Clay Barnett said moving back the ramps and the additional lanes will allow traffic more time and space to maneuver when approaching the intersection.


Additionally, the city of Denison will see improvements to the intersection of Spur 503 when crews convert the intersection into a more conventional intersection with connections to the access road and new ramps. In the past, officials with Denison said this was an important access project for the city because of the development ongoing at the site on all four corners.


The last of the first phase of the projects will see improvements to what officials have described as “the gap” — a nearly four-mile stretch of roadway from FM 1417 to State Highway 91 that does not meet current interstate standards. As part of the project, the highway will be widened to six lanes, with continuous service roads along the length.


Increased Spending on the County Jail


While the transportation issues at both the airport and on the highway made for a number of interesting stories in 2018, commissioners also spent some money on other areas of the county business. The new fiscal budget included nearly $1 million to fund 15 new jailer positions for Grayson County Sheriff Tom Watt. Several of those people replaced staff Watt’s office lost when the jail commision changed the way it counted jail staff for compliance to state regulations. The commissioners also approved another $419,000 to buy new cameras for the jail.


Watt told the commissioners in June that the money was needed to take the number of cameras at the jail from 105 to 165 and give those charged with securing the inmates a better view of what is going on at all times. He said they will also be switching over from analog to digital cameras.


Grayson County Purchasing Agent Jeff Schneider said the project will be a multi-year task. He said in 2019, the county will work on getting the engineering for the project done so it can be approved by the jail commission. Then next year, Schneider said, the county will pay for the purchasing of the equipment and installation.


“Our current camera system comprises of about three different camera systems,” Schneider said. “One for the 80s edition, 90s, and 2000.” The engineering costs were expected to be paid out of the jail’s commissary funds and commissioners agreed to pay for the rest out of the general fund. The new cameras will bring with them a yearly maintenance fee of about $68,000.


Retirements


Schneider was just one of the county’s long-term employees to announce his retirement. He is expected to leave in 2019 after more than 20 years with the county. This year the county’s long-term auditor Richey Rivers retired after 25 years with the county.


“When I got here, I was amazed at how much detail he would look at in so many things keeping us out of the ditch,” Commissioner Jeff Whitmire said when the court celebrated Rivers back in September. “We are losing a lot of institutional knowledge.”


“He is one of the best human beings you’ll every meet in your life,” Judge Larry Phillips, a former state legislator, said of Rivers. “He has done countless things for people that nobody will know.”


Rivers said he learned early on that an auditor isn’t political.


“My job is not to get you elected, it is to keep you electable,” Rivers said. “Sometimes the answer might be ‘No’ and sometimes the answer is ‘Let’s not do it that way but we can accomplish what you want to accomplish by doing it this way.’”


“But it has been a true blessing for me and for my family,” Rivers said. “I didn’t know it was going to end up being a 25-year career, but it has been great.”


Also this year, former State Representative Larry Phillips replaced Judge Rim Nall in the 59th state District Court. Nall had taken senior status back in 2017 and Phillips decided not to seek another term as state representative for District 62 and ran for the position left open when Nall retired. Phillips won the seat and was sworn in in May.


Herald Democrat reporter Michael Hutchins contributed to this report.