In 11 years as the county’s top administrative official, Fowler said, he has worked with two district attorneys, two tax assessor-collectors, four county auditors, eight constables, nine justices of the peace, 12 assistant district attorneys, and 11 county commissioners.
He praised the current Commissioners Court, which he said didn’t have the “discord of the past.”
Fowler said presiding over the County Court at Law is a major part of his duties.
“At docket call, we have about 110 to 130 cases each month,” he said. About 30 to 40 generally plea bargain, to probation or a jail term.
“If someone can prove they qualify, we provide them a court-appointed attorney,” Fowler said.
In County Court at Law, two classes of misdemeanor cases are considered.
The maximum sentence for a Class A offense is a year in the county jail, and a Class B Misdemeanor can draw up to 180 days.
The judge also handles probate, to settle estates. He can also appoint a guardian for someone too young or suffering various incapacities to handle their own affairs.
The judge can also order an emergency mental commitment if someone comes to him and says that a relative is a danger to him- or herself.
The judge can also issue search warrants, including warrants authorizing officers to draw blood of a suspected drunk driver.
“I sometimes get calls in the middle of the night to provide an order to draw blood,” Fowler said.
He estimated that the judge’s administrative duties take 50 to 60 percent of his time.
This includes working on Interlocal Agreements with schools and incorporated areas of the county to get certain types of work, such as road repairs, done.
“The biggest part is preparing the budget,” he said. Fowler said that he begins preparing the annual fiscal year budget, which always takes effect Oct. 1, during the spring. Between May and July, commissioners have input.
In July, the Tax Assessor-Collector notifies the court of the “effective tax rate,” after the Upshur County Appraisal District has provided a list of certified values for tax purposes.
Fowler explained that the county’s governmental operations, including Road and Bridge Department work, are financed by property taxes, fines and fees, which taxes providing the bulk of that.
He said that the budget for the coming fiscal year is about $13.1 million. When he took office 11 years ago, it was about $12 million.
“That’s a 9 percent increase in 11 years,” he said. This compares to an overall rate of inflation during the same period of 26 percent.
In answer to a question, he said that the courthouse’s work to become ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant is going well.
He said that about three years ago, the federal Department of Justice completed an ADA audit of the courthouse and other county buildings.
Holding his fingers about three inches apart, Fowler said that was the thickness of the binder of instructions the county must meet to be totally ADA compliant.
Part of the work is a new wheelchair ramp being completed in the northwest corner of the first floor (basement) of the courthouse.
Also an area was converted to restrooms, with the women’s room having five stalls, one of them handicap-accessbile, and the men’s having three stalls, one handicap accessible.
He also said that seating had to be rearranged in the county courtroom on the third floor of the courthouse, with some benches being shortened to accommodate spots for wheelchairs.
“This greatly reduced seating,” he said.
The ADA work is being financed with $140,000 from the county and $260,000 in a state grant.
They also were required to take out the drinking fountains, because the fountains were not at a height convenient for all.
Fowler said he was surprised at how much the drinking fountains were missed.
“We had a jury trial a few weeks ago, and several complained that there were no fountains,” he said.
Fowler said that the county still hopes to get a grant to “restore” the courthouse to the way it appeared in 1936, but that won’t happen at least before the next biennium of the legislature, in two years.
The judge said the recently adopted budget allows the county to put a projected $250,000 in reserve.
In future expenses, the county needs to upgrade its software, some of which is 30 years old, and it will also require rebuilding the county’s computer network.
He praised the hard work of the Road and Bridge employees, and pointed out that trees killed by the lingering drought are providing hazards on many rural roads.
“It’s scary driving the roads in the north end of the county (toward Wood and Camp Counties)” because of dead trees extending over the roadways.
A dying oak tree on the southwest side of the courthouse lawn will also have to be removed for safety, he said. At their meeting Monday, commissioners authorized County Maintenance Supervisor Chuck Mears to get bids and have the work done.