"I concur," was uttered several times by county commissioners during the Tuesday, Jan. 12 Houston County Commissioners Court meeting.
Several bridges in Houston County are scheduled for replacement between 2016 and 2020 by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). One of the steps towards this work is the approval - or concurrence - of the Houston County Commissioners Court to temporarily close those bridges during construction.
With two representatives of TxDOT present to answer any questions during Tuesday's meeting, the commissioners unanimously voted to approve the requested closures.
Traffic on County Roads 1545, 4180, 1765, 2245, 1515, 2235, 1680, 1750, 3365 and 4025 will be affected for about four months. According to TxDOT documents, the existing bridge at Cook Branch Tributary on CR 1545 is scheduled to let to contract in June 2016 with construction beginning in the following weeks. The bridges at Rich Creek on CR 1765 and 1750, and Silver Creek on CR 1680 are scheduled to let to contract in July 2016 with construction beginning in the following weeks.
The existing bridges at White Rock Creek on CR 4180, Big Elkhart Creek on CR 2245, and Flat Branch on CR 1515 (Sullivan Rd.), are scheduled to let to contract in January 2018.
The bridge at Gail Creek Relief on CR 4025 is scheduled to let to contract in September 2019. Two bridges are scheduled to let in January 2020, one at Tantebogue Creek on CR 3365 and one at Big Elkhart Creek on CR 2235.
During the public forum at the beginning of the commissioners court meeting, Lonnie Ellis, a resident who has requested a number of documents from the county, said, "All people listening, people here at the county, we're not mad at ya'll. We love ya'll. God is on our side, and in fact he's on your side....We don't do their job and protect the taxpayers, and we want the roads (inaudible) . We pray for ya'll, and we don't hate ya. We love ya." Ellis then sat down and County Judge Erin Ford thanked him for his comments. Precinct 3 Commissioner Pat Perry voiced frustration about a contractor wanting to move a crane weighing about 154,000 pounds across a bridge in Precinct 3, much more than the 84,000 pounds Perry thought it might be. Perry also stated that when he told the contractor he couldn't sign off for that heavy a load, the contractor told him to talk to the county judge. Ford said he has not talked to the contractor about the bridge and indicated he was displeased with the contractor's reported statement to Perry. Ford added, "I make enough mistakes on my own."
At the end of the meeting, Ellis stood and asked who drove a truck he pointed to outside the courtroom. Ford reminded Ellis the time for public comments was at the beginning of the meeting. The court, being finished with its posted agenda, then adjourned.
The Crockett City Council during its Monday, Jan. 11 meeting, approved a zoning change for a new business, held a public hearing and approved a plat for an existing business that reports rapid growth. All votes were unanimous. Precinct 3 Council Member Ernest Jackson was absent.
The approved zoning change will allow the site of Park Hill Farm to be used as a special events venue. Larry Christopher recently sold the historic estate to the owners of Rings True & Event Venues (Rings True).
Dan Huggins, CEO and partner of Rings True, was present at the meeting.
Huggins explained to the council that the property will be a high-end events venue.
When Mayor Robert Meadows asked for clarification that the site will not include a Bed & Breakfast, Huggins confirmed that overnight stays will only be available to persons renting the entire venue. For example, he explained, if a wedding party rents the entire ranch they will be able to include overnight stays.
After the meeting, Huggins said they plan to be open by June, in time for the wedding season. They already have a website (www.ringstrueevents.com) that describes the venue, "Nestled deep in the heart of the Davy Crockett National Forest in Houston County, this 100-acre event venue is in the historic town of Crockett."
The new owners foresee the property as a perfect place for weddings, corporate events, family reunions, Quinceanera celebrations and more.
Huggins and his wife, Kim, previously lived in Abilene for 40 years. Their partners, Laura and Robert Norris of Houston, also were present at the meeting.
Meadows noted that the city's Planning and Zoning earlier approved the zoning change and recommended that council do the same.
Council members extended a warm welcome to the owners of the new business. Also related to the local economy, the council held brief public hearing regarding plat approval on a tract of land behind Los Ranchos, on Loop 304. No one spoke against the proposal.
Meadows explained that Los Ranchos is expanding, and with the recent property purchase the owner plans to add more parking behind the Sonic Drive-In.
The mayor added that the proposed plat approval came with the blessings of the Planning and Zoning Commission, which already gave their vote of approval.
As the council voted to approve the plat, members congratulated owner Emilio Estrada on his successful business.
The council also approved the resolution calling for the May election of council members in Precincts 3, 4 and 5, and approved a joint election agreement between the Crockett ISD and the City of Crockett. Meadows explained the two actions were normal business items required before an election.
A law allowing the open carry of weapons in Texas goes into effect Friday, Jan. 1.
The law passed by the state legislature last summer has governmental entities across the state asking how it affects existing bans on weapons in courthouses and other county-owned buildings. Houston County is no exception.
Houston County Judge Erin Ford raised the issue during the Tuesday, Dec. 22 County Commissioners meeting. After Ford reported the Texas Attorney General's Office has issued two opinions on the issue from the Texas Attorney General's Office, County Attorney Daphne Session stated, "That's just their opinion."
According to the correspondence regarding the opinions that Ford received from Allison, Bass & Magee LLP, the Attorney General Opinion notes an "absence of clarity from the legislature".
Session noted the existence of multiple statutes that pertain to weapons in government buildings.
Ford said he feels the current prohibition of weapons (except by law enforcement) in county-owned buildings should continue, and the four commissioners agreed. They voted unanimously to continue the existing ban on weapons in county-owned buildings.
They weren't so quick to act on the question of having weapons in county-owned vehicles or equipment.
This issue will be addressed at the next Human Resource Committee meeting, with input from Session and Precinct 1 Commissioner Roger Dickey.
In other business, the commissioners unanimously approved the renewal of a two-year contract for data processing services with Indigent Healthcare Solutions for inmate healthcare.
After accepting as information the Compensatory Time Report, Ford told the commissioners they can expect the compensatory time to show a significant increase next month due circumstances of the one suspect currently in custody for the Lovelady Bank robbery on Dec. 10.
Ford explained the suspect is still hospitalized in an area hospital where he receives dialysis three times a week. As long as the suspect is there, Ford said, the HCSO must provide around-the-clock watch of that suspect.
Ford suggested thanking those in the HCSO who are sacrificing their holiday and vacation time to perform that service for the community.
The medical expenses for the suspect also were discussed. County Auditor Melissa Mosley explained that, because the suspect does not live in Houston County, the expense must be born by the county as long as he is in custody. If he was a county resident, the expense would be the responsibility of the Houston County Hospital District, Mosley explained. The county is required to provide minimal healthcare and will pay only what Medicare would pay.
Adoption of the 2015-2016 budget and the $0.15 per $100 valuation 2015 tax rate, a progress report on the air ambulance service and reports on Houston County Medical Center (HCMC) operations were on the agenda of the Tuesday, Sept. 22 Houston County Hospital District (HCHD) Board of Directors meeting.
In response to HCHD President Larry Christopher's request for public comment on the tax rate and budget, Houston County resident Bobby Bowlin addressed the board.
"Everyone in Houston County knows we have to a hospital to make things work, and everyone knows we need the tax rate hike to make the hospital work," he said.
"It seems like negotiations with ETMC have been ongoing for two or two and a half years," Bowlin said.
"So my question is; Why did the board wait so long to raise taxes? Why were you not preparing for this a year or two ago? Raising taxes a little at a time instead of all at once," he asked.
Christopher addressed Bowlin, "To raise taxes, you have to prove need. Before the lease with ETMC was over, we were sitting on over $3 million," he said. "It would have been rather hard to justify a tax increase at that time," he said.
"Also, I'd like to point out that we were looking at the transition even before it was begun. We had our cash, but we also had a situation under the contract that is in litigation... so I have to be pretty careful how I say this... but it (the situation) had the potential where ETMC owed us $2.4 million dollars," Christopher added. "We have yet to get that money."
(Christopher spoke with the Courier editor after the meeting and clarified there is no new lititgation between the HCHD and ETMC. He said he was referencing the last unresolved piece of the original law suit.)
Christopher further said to Bowlin, "Our budget without the tax increase is sitting at a $1.5 million annual loss. Of that, we are also projecting $3.5 million of indigent care."
The $3.5 million in care will be owed by Houston County taxpayers regardless of where in the State of Texas the indigent treatment is rendered, explained Christopher.
"So we are talking about a 15 cent (per $100 valuation) tax rate for indigent care, air ambulance, emergency room, OB/GYN, physical therapy, occupational therapy, (ambulance service, rural health clinic) and the hospital with all the staff," he said.
"And for a 15 cent tax, I think that's a pretty good deal," Christopher said.
"We are in the bottom of the tax rates for the state, and we are providing all this for the 15 cents (per $100 valuation)," Christopher said.
"The citizens of Houston County have to support the hospital to make it work. We are just like any other company. We are open for business, but if everybody goes somewhere else then we are not going to be viable," he continued. With no other members of the public choosing to address the issue, the HCHD board unanimously voted to adopt the 2015-16 budget.
The board also unanimously voted to adopt the 15 cent per $100 valuation tax rate.
In other business, Prosperity Bank was approved as the new home of HCMC operating accounts and lockbox. The appointed signers are interim HCMC CEO Gary Kendrick, HCHD Board President Larry Christopher, HCHD Secretary Barbara Crowson, HCHD Vice President Dr. John Stovall and HCMC Chief Financial Officer Richard Wallace.
Director of Rehabilitation Katherine Curless has been appointed as the new Compliance Officer for HCMC.
Curless outlined the mission of the Compliance Department, and said she intends for the department to present quarterly reports to the board.
While compliance procedures fulfill legal requirements, Curless stressed the procedures serve to emphasize and highlight excellent customer service and employee/employer relations.
"Have you had any customer surveys yet?" HCHD Board Member Robert Grier asked Curless.
Kendrick answered Grier and explained the new survey process, "We are trying to develop an interface with a company called HealthStream. The company will conduct telephone surveys of patients who have used the emergency department, or the inpatient/outpatient departments. The company will report the results of the surveys to HCMC once monthly."
Kendrick went on to speak on staffing efforts by his department, "I've been talking to a cardiologist. He has some interest in where we are now," Kendrick continued with the CEO report.
"Every other Tuesday, Dr. Cecolli comes here to see patients... I talked to Dr. Cecolli today, and he doesn't have a problem at all having the additional cardiologist," he said.
"Dr. Cecolli told me, 'What's good for the hospital is good for me, too.'" Kendrick said.
Stovall asked if the second cardiologist is an invasive cardiologist, and Kendrick answered, "No, he's not."
"Dr. Lucas, the family practice resident that worked here in the past - I have just received from the consultants two letters of intent. These let him know we are very interested in him coming," Kendrick said. "I received those letters today, and I will be sending them to him tomorrow. I know he will have other offers, but he seems interested in pursuing something with us."
"Dr. Lucas and Dr. Hurlburt know each other from residency," Kendrick said.
Kendrick also reported the floors at HCMC will get a face-lift. He told the board a professional cleaning company will come in and strip and rewax the floors. The work will be done at night, to prevent patient disruptions, he said.
Accreditation efforts are underway, and Chief Nursing Officer Lucy Norris and her team are focused on preparing the hospital for the inspection to earn that accreditation.
Kendrick told the board that once AirEvac is in place, they will begin marketing the service. Tentatively the price is set at $65 per family, per year.
"The website is underway. There are a few loose ends that need to be tied up," but it will soon be operational, according to Kendrick. Grier told the board that he would like to see several more town meetings, and the board expressed its agreement. Plans to conduct these meetings will begin soon.
A full house greeted the county commissioners as Houston County Judge Erin Ford called the Tuesday, Sept. 22 meeting to order. During this meeting, commissioners voted their approval of a price increase for meals at the Houston County Senior Citizens Center in Crockett. Effective Thursday, Oct. 1, meals for those 60 years and older will be $3, up from $2.50. The price will increase from $5 to $6 for those under 60.
Houston County Extension Agent Mandy Patrick reported the Senior Center serves over 1,400 lunches per month, and the slight increase in price is necessary to cover repairs and expenses.
The court also approved an extension of the county-wide burn ban, with Ford noting the drought numbers remain at the top of the scale.
In other business, commissioners voted to accept two donations. One had Precinct 2 Commissioner Willie Kitchen looking around the courtroom with a very large smile. His precinct received an anonymous donation of $58,275 from a generous citizen to repair and improve CR 3070.
Houston County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy G. P. Shearer was on hand to accept an anonymous donation of $1,000 for the sheriff's office.
"We are very grateful for this donation. These funds will be used to benefit the law enforcement effort in the community," Shearer said.
Financial assistance is available for certain businesses and agriculture producers, Ford reported.
He explained the Deep East Texas Council of Government (DETCOG) has a forgivable loan program for new or existing businesses that can provide employee growth.
"There is a $500,000 maximum allocation of funds, $50,000 per employee, to build or increase businesses' support to allow these additional employees," Ford explained.
The USDA has designated Houston County as a drought disaster area, and Ford explained, "We are in a unique position of recovering from 60 inches of rain last year, and already working with the FEMA program to repair those damages, and now we are in a drought disaster declaration area."
"Emergency loans under this program are available through the Farm Service Agency and Small Business Administration loans are available for those who qualify," Ford continued. (See details in the Thursday, Sept. 24 Courier)
Truancy laws in Texas changed on Sept. 1 and in many cases the new law for school absences is more moderate. That shift included a new requirement for all public schools to implement truancy prevention programs and directives on how and why school skippers can be penalized.
To be in compliance with the new law, the commissioners voted to approve the following members of the 2015 Houston County Truancy Committee: Chairman, Justice of the Peace Precinct 1 Clyde Black; County Judge Designee, Janet Pigford; Mayoral Designee, Crockett Administrator Sean Hutchinson; Terri Meadows from Juvenile Court, Municipal Court, Grapeland Municipal Judge Kathy Bush, School Superintendent or Designee, Crockett ISD Assistant Supertindent Wendy Tullos; Open Enrollment School representative, Vista Academy Principal Debbie Kelly; General Public Representatives, Billy Christian and Dr. Ianthia Fisher; Juvenile Probation Dept., Director Angela Cross; and Prosecutor Designee, County Attorney Daphne Session.
In other business, Ford publicly recognized Calvin and Bradley Neel.
"All of you may be aware that we are replacing the courthouse roof; part of that is to go through the air conditioning system," he began.
The units are obsolete, but still serviceable and functioning, according to Ford.
Ford explained that while the crews were working on roof replacement, they noticed the roofing fabric had previously been screwed into the air conditioning units themselves. Three screws pierced the freon tubes on the units, causing extensive and costly damage. "We couldn't get a replacement for the unit itself, and it would have taken three months to replace the coils. So Calvin and Bradley made a weld-sleeve repair," Ford said.
"That technique is common in industry, but not so much in air conditioners, but it is holding well," he said.
"So if you see the Neels, recognize them for their personal commitment. They saved the county over $20,000 and three months of no air conditioning in the courthouse," he added.
Delinquent financial tax updates were given by Tab Beall from Perdue, Collins, Fielder and Mott, LLP. Beall explained that statewide there are multiple lawsuits underway by oil and gas companies that are fighting compressor valuations.
These 'compressor litigation' suits allege the taxation method for the compressors is unfair, and the compressor is essentially an engine, meaning it should be taxed at a fraction of it's currently appraised value.
Beall gave the court the rationale behind the litigation. The issue began several years ago, when the automobile association got the vehicle inventory tax (VIT) approved. The change created a statutory definition of what falls into the vehicle inventory tax.
The oil and gas companies are saying the compressors have machines in them, and that they are engines, so the compressors should only be taxed at the VIT rate, or about one-tenth or one-twelfth of it's market value.
"The bad news for the county is that you have some money out there, but it's in limbo," Beall said. "In this case, they could actually win and you won't get your money," he added.
Ford inquired about back taxes in the event the compressor companies lose their suit. Beall affirmed that should the oil and gas companies lose, back taxes would be owed.
Beall summarized, "The good news is, your number one delinquent account was collected in August. It was $33,000. Last May, there was a commercial property in town that was delinquent that was collected."
"As of Sept. 4, the base taxes due for the county only were $643,000. There is roughly $8,000 in trust, and struck off. The other item of concern is deferrals, there is approximately $39,000 of property in deferral. Deferral refers generally to the property tax owed by senior citizens," Beall said.
The Michelle Lynn Holsey Foundation was awarded $7,500 from the Hotel Occupancy Tax to promote the annual event in the area. After scanning the provided information, Precinct 2 Commissioner Willie Kitchen commented, "The Commissioner's Court has almost set a precedent for giving $5,000 because of the nature of this foundation and the people they help. This year, I'd move we give $7,500 instead."
This year's event will be held from Oct. 7 through Oct. 11, and the foundation expects over 600 visitors to Houston County during the five-day cutting event.
Houston County Treasurer Dina Herrera submitted the Treasurer's Report to the court. Currently, the county has a cash balance of $2,970,083. The total for all invested accounts is $966,251 and the total debt owed in principal is $11,957,089. District Court Judge Pam Fletcher told the court that 212 cases were heard in August. There were 20 new indictments, so there are 237 criminal cases pending, down from 250 in July.
"The hot weather had caused more arrests than normal," Fletcher said to laughter, and more arrests were of out of county subjects;16 as opposed to 11 in August. There were 22 CPS cases heard in August.
Effective Oct. 1, Gloria Swor will be the new Elections Administrator. Swor has more than 10 years experience and was unanimously recommended by the Houston County Election Commission for the position.
Ford recommended Grapeland ISD Superintendent Gregg Spivey as the new Houston County Representative for the Workforce Solutions board.
The Commissioners issued a proclamation supporting the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP).
"The proclamation is a necessary part of moving forward in the approval process for the CWPP," Ford said. "It also ties into the bigger hazard mitigation plan. This will help us when that inspection comes," he added.
The CWPP relates directly to the Title 3 funds for Houston County in the amount of $70,000. The scope of use for the funds is extremely limited, said Ford, and the court approved the interlocal agreement with Texas A&M University to revise and update the CWPP.
Crockett Insurance will no longer be handling the county's account. Texas Association of Counties (TAC) will be administering the insurance account after submitting a bid that was almost $26,000 less than Crockett Insurance was able to provide.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Kennon Kellum summed it up succinctly, "We appreciate Crockett Insurance...but there's $26,000 there that I'm looking at. We're here to look out for our constituents."
Kitchen agreed and added, "If it were closer, even $5,000, I would be glad to make the motion to award the account (to you)." (TAC) Agent Robert Ruiz explained to the court that the risk management pool operated by TAC is able to provide more support with lessened costs for governments, counties and political subdivisions like appraisals and water districts.
County Auditor Melissa Mosely explained proposed changes in the county bond issue. "In 2008, we went out for a Certificate of Obligation bond for $13,500 to build the jail. We came in about $11,500. For the last couple of years we've used the leftovers for the debt payment, so it didn't affect the citizens," she began.
"We talked about doing road bonds this year, but that went away because the need was reduced with the FEMA money," Mosely said. "The interest rates are low, so we want to try and get something done before the feds change their minds," she laughed. George Williford is an advisor with First Southwest Company. Their company has been monitoring the bond issues as interest rates dropped.
"In simple terms, a bond refinance is analagous to a mortgage. If you have a mortgage on your home, and interest rates drop you have an opportunity to refinance and lower your payments," Williford said.
"It's literally a refinancing opportunity to reduce the debt," he explained.
A number of residents living within the Houston County Hospital District are asking how to start a petition for a rollback tax election.
Houston County Tax Assessor/Collector Danette Millican advised that persons should not start collecting signatures until after the HCHD Board of Directors formally adopts the tax rate.
The board held a public hearing on the proposed tax rate 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 2 of $.15 per $100 valuation.
It will hold another public hearing at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 8.
The required number of signatures on a petition in the HCHD calling for a rollback election is "almost 919", explained Millican.
(The Houston County Courier on Sunday, Aug. 30 should have reported this number, not 200.)
This figure is based on 10% of the registered voters living within the Houston County Hospital District boundaries. Millican stated there are 9,182 current voters living within the HCHD, and 10% of them would be 918.2.
Petitioners will have 90 days from date of adoption of the tax rate to collect the required number of qualified signatures.
The Texas State Comptroller's website and Millican have sample petitions.
The Texas State Comptroller's website (http://comptroller.texas.gov/taxinfo/proptax/) contains the following information regarding Rollback Tax Election petitions:
If a taxing unit adopts a tax rate that exceeds the rollback tax rate, voters in the taxing unit may petition for an election on the tax increase. A successful election limits the taxing unit's current tax rate to the rollback tax rate.
The rollback process starts after the taxing unit formally adopts the tax rate. If the adopted tax rate exceeds the rollback tax rate, voters may start the petition drive.
A petition must meet specific requirements. It must state that it is intended to require an election to reduce the tax rate for the current year.
If the tax rate adopted by a taxing unit imposes taxes for M&O of less than $5 million (Millican said HCHD's taxes for M&O are under $5 million), the signatures of 10 percent of the registered voters in that taxing unit are required on a petition. (There are 9,182 registered voters in the HCHD. 10% = 918.2 signatures) Signatures collected by a paid person are valid.
Voters must submit the petition to the taxing unit's governing body within 90 days of the tax rate adoption. The rollback petition provided on the Comptroller's website is an example for information purposes only. The Tax Code does not specify the wording required for a rollback petition, nor does it state the form that the petition must take.
Taxpayers must include several items of information on a rollback petition to assist the governing body in determining validity: date of signature, printed name of voter, birth date and home address. To be valid, a voter's signature is not required to appear exactly as the voter's name appears on the most recent official voter registration list.
If the taxing unit's governing body is unable to verify a particular voter's signature, it will look to the petition for some reasonable means to verify, such as home address.
Signatures collected more than 180 days before the petition is presented are not valid.
The State Comptroller's website advises that persons who are considering circulation of a rollback petition or a governing body that is considering the validity of a rollback petition should consult legal counsel for guidance.
The State Comptroller's website also addresses determination of a petition's validity, holding an election (if necessary) and acting on election results.
A simple majority is necessary for pasing the rollback election. If the rollback election passes, a taxing unit must reduce it tax rate for the current year to the rollback tax rate.
The responsibility of preparing and mailing new tax bills, if the election passes, falls to the County Tax Assessor-Collector.
For more information, visit http://comptroller.texas.gov/taxinfo/proptax/ and search "Rollback Elections".