Every so often, County Progress asks our distinguished Judges and Commissioners to allow us a glimpse into their public lives, giving us a fresh appreciation for the myriad of roles and responsibilities they shoulder every day. Our thanks to Upshur County Commissioner Paula Gentry for taking the time to visit with us.
Deciding to run for County Commissioner was six years of prayer and contemplation. I had been an employee of the tax assessor-collector’s office for six days shy of 18 years of being sworn in as Commissioner. I felt that working for the county gave me a knowledge and skillset others didn’t have and that I would bring something useful to Commissioners Court.
My husband, Randall, said that “if you’re going to run, then do it in faith,” and “know that if God intends for you to win then that is His plan, and if you lose God is going to grow you and teach you something in the process.” So with a leap of faith we started collecting signatures on my petition to place me on the ballot; I was one of five. I felt that if I couldn’t get the necessary signatures, I was wasting the voters’ time as well as my own. And so started months of knocking doors, rain or shine. I heard over and over, “I’ve lived here for 20 years, and you are the first candidate to come to my door and ask for my vote.”
I was bitten by a dog, unintentionally mooned, and shooed of the front porch like a puppy. I treated each door as a personal job interview, just me and the voter. I won the election against the incumbent and took office on Jan. 1, 2013, as the second female Commissioner in Upshur County’s history. I have since been blessed to seek a second term unopposed.
What is history without family? I have been blessed with a great family support system including my husband of 33 years, Randall Lee; sons Christopher and wife Diana of Dallas and Caleb who is currently attending Kilgore College; and daughter Britney of Gilmer, who has two children, Sydnie age 6, and Orey age 11, who call me “Honey.” These grandchildren make my heart happy and my eyes smile. In fact, I have a campaign sign with their handprints on it that my daughter helped them make.
During my campaign my mom, Patricia Davis who lives in Gilmer, would fix me dinner, make phone calls, and sometimes ride along. My Aunt, Jerri Neely from Pasadena, Texas, would come up on some weekends, drive me door to door, and help me put out signs. I can’t imagine running for an office without family support and encouragement.
Is it what you expected?
The job of County Commissioner is what I expected and a WHOLE lot more! Having worked for the county for 18 years, I now say with a smile that I knew just enough to be dangerous and have an opinion, and not necessarily in that order. County government is a lot like an onion; it has many layers and the ability to make you cry (ha ha).
Each layer is an opportunity to learn something new, and often that something is about me. I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that it is ok not to know everything because what you don’t know, you can learn.
Being one of five people on Commissioners Court means you can learn from each other’s strong suits. Each member of our Court has a niche, and we have learned to respect each other as well as what we bring to the table in service of our county. We agree to disagree. Sometimes you are out on a limb all by yourself, but once the Court votes, the members are committed to do their part in seeing that the particular agenda item is successful.
Part of my service is through the East Texas Council of Governments and the four committees I now serve: the Area Agency on Aging, Executive Committee Board of Directors, East Texas Regional Development Company, and the East Texas Economic Development District.
I am active in seeking grants; I work with the indigent health care system and program compliance; I am involved in our Veterans Driving Program; and I work closely with my justice of the peace and constable.
Our Court recently took steps toward voting centers by purchasing new voting machines. We have also created an elections administrator’s office, and we are now contracting with an emergency services coordinator.
My completion of the NIMS certification’s four online classes as well as ICS-300 and ICS-400 has shown me that in a disaster, you want someone who knows the business and can speak the language to get you the help you need. I highly recommend taking these courses, as they open your eyes to many things we take for granted.
A typical day for me starts about 8:30 a.m. with checking my email and returning calls. I have a legal pad I keep on my desk. When you call me or come by to visit, I get your name, address, phone number, why you called or came by, what action I took, and any information I gave you. After that, the day takes on a life of its own.
Calls range from “I need you to come bury this dead cow I got out here” (my very first call), or “I can’t sit in my backyard because my neighbor is burning trash again and the smoke is killing me” (one of my favorites). Another favorite was being asked if I would be the Easter Bunny for the annual Easter Egg Hunt held on the courthouse lawn…HOT but fun! I worked with the local Gideons, and they handed out New Testament Bibles to children who asked for one.
I have been a last-minute substitute driver for the Extension Service on a fieldtrip to the Lion Preserve (a reward the kids earned for record books), again HOT but fun. I have attended Homeowners Association meetings, Neighborhood Watch programs and Veterans Service Fairs through our local American Legion Post.
I try to be involved in community activities whenever possible countywide. If invited, I try my best to go and take part. I feel that it’s important; it may not be in my precinct, but I represent every community in the county with every decision I make. If a citizen asks me to come and check a ditch, culvert or road, I come, often accompanied by the road administrator.
A day may find me helping my justice of the peace with filing, answering the phone, helping shred old document in the Election Administrator’s office, or prepping confirmation cards for mailing. Every year during tax season I help fold tax statements for three or four days; I know what a work load we have, as I have “been there, done that.”
It’s hard to pick just one challenge, as the job as a whole is challenging. I would pick budget for starters. How do you give everyone, citizens and employees alike, what they want and feel they deserve without raising taxes? Property tax funded UNFUNDED MANDATES from the state kill rural bedroom counties like ours when your largest tax base is a roof top and farmland. Add to that the anticipated proposal of reducing the rollback rate to 4 percent that is coming in the near future and state reimbursements that do not keep up with trending costs.
The education of our citizens is a close second when it comes to challenges of the office. Many people do not know or have forgotten what local government does. I wish I had a dime for every time I explained that just because you write your check to the county at tax time it doesn’t all stay with the county. We collect and disburse to all the entities and municipalities in the county through the tax office. The county’s portion of the tax is about 28 percent, and that pays for everything from roads, courts, clerks’ offices, jail, indigent defense, prisoner medical, indigent care and employee salaries, to name a few.
We give it our best effort, but it never seems to be enough; someone is likely to be angry, or at best unhappy.
I love it when a plan comes together or when what I did made a difference in helping in some way. It might mean being the Easter Bunny, serving as a last-minute driver for a field trip, or getting help for a citizen who called with a problem. Being told that you’re doing a good job doesn’t hurt either. Those are the things that make it all worthwhile.