Kimberly Kay Kreider-Dusek is the only lawyer in McMullen County, Texas.
She likes it that way.
McMullen County residents—there are about 800 of them—reported the highest average adjusted gross income in the nation, $303,717, according to an analysis of Internal Revenue Service data by researchers at Syracuse University.
The county—about 60 miles south of San Antonio in the center of the Eagle Ford Shale play, one of the hottest shale deposits in the United States—is home to landowners “making nice amounts of money” from oil and gas royalties, Kreider-Dusek explained. When you divide total gross income across such a small population, the high average pops out.
The calculations, however, fail to capture the income diversity in McMullen, where not everyone is rich, she said. When the news broke about the county’s average adjusted gross income rankings, “we were shocked,” she recalled.
McMullen County is definitely a rural spot, as Kreider-Dusek said there are still plenty of parts where she can’t get cellphone service. The county is where two state highways, 16 and 72, meet; the county’s seat is Tilden, a town named after Samuel J. (Whispering Sammy) Tilden, an unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate in the election of 1876, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
Kreider-Dusek said fracking revenues undoubtedly have changed things in McMullen County, largely for the better.
“We didn’t even have a red light and now we have three red lights,” she said.
Those fracking revenues have also helped lift her own family’s finances—allowing Kreider-Dusek, who previously served as a municipal judge in San Antonio and worked in private practice, to assume a public service role as county attorney in 2012.
Her husband’s family’s land, once used to grow cotton, then to graze cattle, now produces crude, generating enough income that Kreider-Dusek can afford to keep her private practice to a minimum.
In her county role, Kreider-Dusek prosecutes misdemeanors, which at one time numbered about eight cases per year, but rose at their height a few years ago to 200 per year. She also advises county commissioners on civil matters, including a growing dispute with an oil and gas concern that wants, despite McMullen County residents’ objections, to put a landfill near a watershed. The conflict may lead to a hearing before the Texas Railroad Commission, for which she is helping prepare and the county has also hired a big-city, tall buildings law firm, Kreider-Dusek said.
“We have lawyers out of Austin that help advise on that, but I still look at everything,” she said.
As the only lawyer in McMullen County, Kreider-Dusek also serves as an all-around pro bono legal handywoman. She answers residents’ questions—about language in a letter from Social Security, for instance. And she helps resolve property disputes between neighbors.
“I do informal mediation. I find that the most rewarding work,” she said.
Sometimes, she still squeezes in a little time for her part-time private practice.
“I may do a divorce here and there,” Kreider-Dusek said. She does some of those pro bono too.
She chose her public service role because “I love my county. We are very conservative people and I want to make sure our way of life stays the same,” she said.
The inaccuracies in news accounts about McMullen County tickled Kreider-Dusek. One report tallied the county’s population at 8,000—the reporter must have added an extra zero.
For Kreider-Dusek, the accounts didn’t capture the culture in McMullen County. Despite the fracking wealth, she described it as “a yes ma’am, no ma’am” kind of place.
Esther Garza agreed that fracking money, particularly given that oil and gas prices dropped in the past 18 months, hasn’t transformed McMullen County entirely. A 50-year-old who has lived in McMullen County all her life, Garza works in one of Tilden’s restaurants, which is next to a gas station located in Tilden. About the newfound wealth leading to spending splurges, Garza said: “There’s nobody really going crazy. They might be doing repairs to their home.”
Some of the ranchers with royalties landing in their bank accounts on a regular basis have built extra structures on their land so adult children who may have left for college may move home and start families, she said.
For her part, Garza has no oil on “my little piece of property” but “I’m comfortable with what I make” working for her eaterie. The jobs her employer offers are good enough that people from other counties drive to McMullen to take them.
Unlike Kreider-Dusek, Garza steers clear of the litigious issues, and defers any questions about the controversial landfill near the watershed, suggesting it might be better to talk to the county lawyer about such matters. “She’s in the courthouse everyday so she’d know about that,” Garza said.
But both Kreider-Dusek and Garza express equal gratitude that their county is somewhere everyone knows everyone else. “We know who all the kids’ grandparents are, so we take care of them,” Garza said.
Earlier in her career, Kreider-Dusek worked in more populous settings—like Bexar County, which, she said, “has a great bar.”
But she prefers operating as the solo solo in McMullen County.
“I actually get to really help people,” she said.