Cindy Hernandez

Staff photo by Albert Villegas

Cindy Hernandez mask on as she explains how Wharton County Tax Assessor-Collector’s office utilizes books to perform duties for customers. Hernandez will be sworn into office Jan. 1, 2021.

Even days after she won the Wharton County Tax Assessor-Collector position, Cindy Hernandez said she never considered herself a politician. She signed up to run for public office because of the experience she had in an office where the head position was going to be vacant.

Having done this job for 21 years, Hernandez felt she could enhance the tax office if given the opportunity.

More than 2,200 voters who cast their ballot in her favor during the Joint Primary Runoff Election are now waiting to see what she will do next.

Hernandez garnered 66.6 percent of the vote for the Republican win over Sara Hudgins. It comes at a perfect time for the tax office just as the Wharton County Commissioners Court will be mulling over county funding for every department in preparation for the Fiscal Year 2020-21 budget, which begins on Oct. 1.

Hernandez is no stranger to those county meetings as she had been present to hear what elected officials are discussing and deciding on. 

In an interview with the Journal-Spectator on Friday, July 17, Hernandez said she has a good working relationship with county commissioners and the judge. She said working alongside Grace Utley, who was named interim alongside Grace Utley, who was named interim tax assessor-collector several years ago, has also been rewarding and educational.

Hernandez will be sworn into office on Jan 1, 2021, so in the meantime, it is Utley’s office to maintain. Hernandez said she wants those who voted for her, as well as all residents, to know it will be a smooth transition once she begins her tenure.

Hernandez will be in on the budget process for the tax office. 

When asked what are some of the enhancements she would like to bring to the tax office, she mentioned technology. There are archives and archives of important documents in the tax assessor-collector’s office that need to be transferred over to digital. 

“A lot of this is historic and I would like to see how we could get this preserved with the state,” Hernandez said. If the booklets were stolen, burned, or suffered flood damage, Hernandez said it would be a great loss. She would like to also have it on microfilm so customers, gas and oil business persons included, could also gain access to this public information on to an internet platform via the WC tax office. It would save many people from throughout WC and beyond from traveling to the annex building on Milam Street in Wharton.

Hernandez would like to enhance the WC tax assessor-collector website and make it more user friendly and do away with some paperwork that involves a lot of mailing. It could potentially save tens of thousands of dollars in mailing and put the money into something else. She will look to see if grants could be obtained, saving tax payers money.

“Right now, you can see how much you owe in taxes, because you can pay online now but I want you to be able to pay your taxes online, print a receipt online, from this year or last year, whatever we could do to enhance our services,” Hernandez said.

Another major operational change Hernandez would like to introduce is setting up satellite tax office locations through WC, including places like East Bernard, and Louise. She said this is a big county, and for many residents, they are required to travel to Wharton to conduct tax business.

Patrick Kubala resigned at the end of September 2018. Later that month, his deputy Grace Utley was unanimously appointed by the WC Commissioners Court to finish his term, which ends in December.

Utley’s last day as interim is Thursday, Dec. 31.

Election process

She admits she grew tired of her name. She continuously introduced herself to potential voters during her campaign. COVID-19 only prolonged the campaign trail not only for her, but Hudgins as well. The Texas Primary for both Democrats and Republicans was set in March. The GOP tax office race pitted Hernandez, Hudgins, and Jessica Schultz, who also works in the tax office alongside Hernandez. No one signed up in WC on the Democratic side.

After the GOP Primary, none of the candidates garnered more than 51 percent of the vote, forcing a runoff between the top two finishers. The pandemic forced Gov. Greg Abbott to move back the primary runoff to July 14.

In both early voting and election day, Hernandez outpaced Hudgins. Hernandez received 1,668 early votes to Hudgins 700. On Election Day, Hernandez had 397 votes to Hudgins’ 249.

“I was surprised that many people came out to vote, but it says that people thought this position was important enough that they had to come out and vote,” Hernandez said. 

Hernandez said Hudgins is still an important part of the community because she is active and works with various organizations. Hernandez thinks Hudgins was outvoted in this particular instance because of her two decades of experience in the tax office.

Campaign signs theft followup

On Monday, June 22, Hernandez reported that several of her campaign signs had been stolen from the yards of supporters overnight. The complaint was reported to the Wharton Police Department, which investigated the incident after she called police at 7:35 a.m. that June day.

At the time, Police Chief Terry Lynch said after viewing video footage from a residential video from a Facebook posting, WPD developed potential leads. He said in the course of investigating one of the leads, WPD officers located more than 40 of the election signs in the bed of a suspect’s truck.

This week, Det. Ariel Soltura told the Journal-Spectator there are currently four active warrants out for the arrest of the alleged suspects, two of which are juveniles. 

Soltura said two of the other suspects have been identified as Blayze Becerra and Joe Muñoz, Jr., both 17 and both from Wharton.

Back when the signs were stolen, Hernandez said the incident was unsettling for her.

After the election, she wonders if the youth who did allegedly steal the signs even knew what a campaign sign looked like.

One thing is certain, the youths who were accused in connection with this incident are barely eligible to vote.  

According to the Texas Secretary of State, a youth needs to be 17 years and 10 months if they want to register to vote. 

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