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Commissioners Receive Earful

CR 2210 Residents Want Their Share Of Road Funds

By Alton Porter
Courier Reporter
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The Houston County Commissioners Court received an earful about the conditions of County Roads 2210 and 4200 located in County Precincts 2 and 3, respectively, as well as related concerns during a lengthy discussion at a regular meeting of the court Tuesday, April 26.

After County Judge Erin Ford opened the floor to hear concerns from residents of CR 2210 in Precinct 2 about the condition of the road and possible use of County Energy Transportation Reinvestment Zone (CETRZ) funds to repair the road, Barrett Riess addressed the court.

Riess, representing himself, four other residents of CR 2210 and Grapeland Mayor George Pierson, who owns land on CR 2210, began the discussion with a presentation in which he addressed questions to the court about a "huge discrepancy in allocation of funds" between the two precincts and the condition of CR 2210, which is located in Precinct 2.

The four residents present at the meeting included Charlie Mae Burns, Hubert Burns, Mary Tryon and Herman Tryon.

"We're not here to complain about the commissioners; we're not here to criticize," Riess said. "We appreciate the hard job that all the commissioners do because it is a really challenging job with the budget limitations that we have in Houston County. But we are here; we're concerned about some discrepancies or differences in allocations of budgets."

Acknowledging that there are four precincts in Houston County, Riess said, "The General Road and Bridge Fund is not split equally between the precincts.... I'm not exactly sure why, but I'm sure there's a good reason. But, Precinct 3 has about 29 percent (or $593,688) of the Road & Bridge Fund and Precinct 2 has a quarter, 25 percent (or $487,564)" for 2015. "So, there's a difference there, and we're not exactly sure why; there's probably a simple answer," Riess said.

Ford explained that the allocation of road and bridge funds to a precinct is based on the total length of all the roads within that precinct, and noted that Precinct 3 has more miles of roads than does Precinct 2. He said there are 750 total miles of roads in the county.

Riess then turned his attention to the condition of the roads in his precinct. "I know everybody's roads need improving," he said. "We have a limitation on material. A lot of our base is clay.... Sometimes it's sand, and sometimes it's not good sand. And I know in Precinct 2 where I live, there's a lot of oil field traffic that tears up the road. It's 24 hours. They go across it. It's all-weather. They don't care if it rains and pours and monsoon. And they travel all throughout the night. We've had oil wells there. It's the Navarro Crossing Oil Field that's in that general area of Precinct 2. It's been around since the '30s."

Riess said there are three wells in the area of his and the other four residents' homes that "take up" on CR 2210 -- it's about eight miles of road -- and these wells have produced over a million barrels of oil and are still producing. As a result of the oil production from these wells, a lot of salt water is produced, requiring continuous truck traffic that severely damages the roads. "It's lots of trucks and traffic," Riess said. "We've pulled lots of people out of the roads, lots of regular citizens out of the road. They get stuck because those big trucks tear the road up."

He stated there's relatively little oil field truck traffic on roads in Precincts 1 and 4, unlike the heavy vehicle traffic in Precincts 2 and 3.

Then, Riess noted that Houston County is the recipient of state grant funds earmarked for infrastructure repairs and improvements that is available locally through the CETRZ program. He stated that there is a "huge discrepancy in the allocation of those funds" to the precincts within Houston County, as well.

According to Riess, Precinct 2 "only got $135,523, which is 17 percent of the CETRZ funds, and Precinct 3 received $644,935 so far, which is 82 percent. And we're not sure why; we wanted to ask that."

Ford explained that Texas' 254 counties were awarded $250 million from the state legislature through that state's infrastructure grant program to repair roads that had been damaged by heavy vehicle traffic. Out of that total $25 million was taken out for administrative use, leaving $225 million to be distributed to counties that applied for grants. Of that sum, Houston County, a 1,200-square-mile county, received $788,000 for the reinvestment zone that was established in the county.
The county was required to match 10 percent of that amount, which resulted in a total of $866,000 for the program. Once the reinvestment zone was established in the county, the whole county was open for any use of those funds. The legislature also granted the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) $250 million through the initiative.
The Commissioners Court was required to set up a project list to submit to TxDOT in order to establish which roads needed work, Ford said. "Precinct 3 had the most damage in the county; it was sustaining incredible damage (due to oil well production traffic). And the commissioners, to their credit, decided that the majority, 80 percent, of the funds (should go to Precinct 3 where it would do the most good). Those funds had to be allocated to roads that had been damaged due to oil and gas traffic. They couldn't be used for general maintenance. So, the project was established with Precincts 1-4. Precinct 3 got $650,000 of the ($866,000), and the rest of the precincts" got the remainder. "So, it was really a self-sacrifice on the part of the other (three) precincts in order to help benefit Precinct 3," Ford said.
To the judge's explanation, Riess responded, "Well, I agree that it was a sacrifice. That's why we're here, because I think we (CR 2210 residents and other Precinct 2 residents) have sacrificed too much."
Riess continued, "So, we acknowledge the roads are bad in Precinct 3. They're also bad in Precinct 2." He said it just seems like an extreme differential in the allocations to the two precincts. "It seems excessive," he said. "That's why I want to bring it to the attention of the court," he said, adding, there was only about a mile of roadway improved in Precinct 2 through the auspices of the program while Precinct 3 had almost 7 ½ miles improved with CERTZ funds.
Pierson was in agreement with Riess. He said members of his family have lived in the CR 2210 area since the 1800s. He said he owns about 200 acres in the area and manages 400 acres there, and he is aware that there have been oil wells nearby dating "all the way back when."
He said he has been down most of Precinct 3 roads as an employee of the Texas Department of Corrections, responding to a lot of escapes from the Eastham state prison facility, and he has seen the roads.
However, he said, "somehow in this community of Cedar Branch (in Precinct 2), in that area down there, we just can't get any consideration." He asked, "What is it about this area that we just can't get any consideration? That's all we're asking. I mean, look at us. Look at our tax rolls. We're talking to all commissioners. We're talking to the whole county, whoever is in charge of the county. What is it about this area? We can't get any kind of consideration. I want an answer to that question. Look at my taxes, what I'm paying. Okay? And the other thing is, we had Sun Oil come in there. Sun Oil put blacktop on our road. This lasted a long time. While the other precincts were getting money for their roads, there was no money really allocated for that road in Cedar Branch because it was blacktopped. So you talk about give-and-take, give-and-take, I think our area gave, too. And for me to be able to manage my operation, and some of the other people down there, I think it's time that we get considered."
Pierson concluded, "We've been put on the back burner ever since I was knee high to a flea. We're pleading to the Commissioners Court. And what is the Commissioners Court? It is the county judge and the other four county commissioners. Just give us some consideration. That's all I got."
In addition, while receiving comments on the condition and related matters about CR 2210, the court heard from Sharon E. Berry, chair of the Democratic Party-Houston County, who resides off CR 4200 in Lovelady in Precinct 3. Berry voiced concerns about the poor condition of the road where she lives. Her husband, Reginald Berry, is a candidate for the Precinct 3 County Commissioner seat in the upcoming November general election.
"In listening to the Court," Berry said, "it seems that the majority of the funds are going to help the roads that have already been improved. From the history that I've heard, 4200 was back then supposed to be paved, and because of local politics, they chose another. I've been a part of this community 25 years. At some point or another, that road should have been done. We have school buses that cannot come, and if that money given to Commissioner (Pat) Perry (of Precinct 3) was in addition to a budget, there should be some financial accounting. There should be somewhere we could go to pull up on the Freedom of Information Act to see where that money went because it is not coming to our community, as the gentleman said."
"I'm representing the county," said Berry, "and of course it affects me. What's so disturbing is that if there was an emergency that we needed a fire truck or an ambulance, it would be virtually impossible for that to come to us. And the time that we get recognition or help is after three or four citizens call."
"And then, we get these huge, humongous rocks that cut your tires," Berry continued. "There has to be a system. There are machines that sometimes sit for three days without moving. And when it does, it scrapes the thing increasing the problem. Why don't we dig ditches. Stop putting a band-aide on the problem and let's build the road up. Let's do something. And the citizens of the county, we do more cutting limbs off trees. You're wrong if you don't leave your home with boots and a chainsaw. That is ridiculous. That is 1800, 1900 stuff. This is the 21st century and we deserve better consideration."
After the court heard additional concerns and discussed the conditions of the roads and related issues further, attention was refocused on the situation at CR 2210 and updating the priority list under the CETRZ program and the use of the balance of the available CETRZ funds in Houston County.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Willie Kitchen offered a motion that would have allowed the remaining outstanding balance of about $3,995 of CETRZ program dollars to be used to fund repairs to CR 2210, but the motion died for lack of a second. The funds previously had been set aside for repairs to County Road 3575.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Gary Lovell moved to add CR 1597 to the CETRZ project list and his motion was seconded by Kitchen before being approved on a 3-2 vote.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Pat Perry submitted a motion seeking to add CR 3575 and CR 3585 to the CETRZ project list, and the motion was seconded by Precinct 4 Commissioner Kennon Kellum. The commissioners vote to pass the motion.
Then, Ford offered a motion to table any further discussion and action regarding the CETRZ project list and related issues to a future meeting. That will give him time to look into the matter and become better informed, he said. The motion was seconded by Kellum and passed on a vote.
In other business at the meeting, Bobby Bowlin and Kelly Stotts, representing the Crockett Housing Authority (CHA), asked the Commissioners Court to accept a payment of $4,802.86 to retire the authority's debt to the county. CHA owes the county roughly $19,000 that has accrued of the past four years as a result of CHA's failure to make agreed upon payments to the county in lieu of taxes. CHA asked the Commissioners Court to waive the balance.
Ford and the commissioners agreed to accept the reduced amount of $4,802.86 as payment in full of the CHA debt, but declined to issue a waiver of the balance. CHA asked to be allowed to pay the reduced amount because paying the entire balance would put the authority in a position of financial hardship.
CHA is a tax-exempt body and it entered a contract with the county in 1962 to make scheduled payments to the county in lieu of taxes (PILOT). During the last four years, the prior CHA executive director failed to make the agreed upon payments. The CHA is now making efforts to settle the matter with the county. Stotts became executive director in March. Bowlin has been a member of the CHA Board of Commissioners about six months and is the current president of the CHA board. Under the 1962 contract, CHA agreed to pay the county a percentage of its rent collections minus utilities in lieu of taxes.
Bowlin said the CHA wants "to make the past four years right." In requesting the waiver, CHA sought to have 75 percent of the $19,000 balance it owed the county nullified. Bowlin said the authority will probably request a 100-percent waiver of payments next year.
Kitchen told Bowlin and Stotts the Commissioners Court will accept the authority's payment of $4,802.86 as full payment of the amount in arrears, but the court would not sign a waiver of the balance because the court wants the record to show that it wasn't paid. Ford agreed.