Grapeland City Council Hears Complaint About Garbage, Sewer Rates

By Robert Neel, Reporter

Asa Cascavilla and Rhonda Carpenter of Grapeland Apartments shared their concerns about utility rates at a regular meeting of the Grapeland City Council on Tuesday, Sept. 9.

Cascavilla made a presentation comparing garbage and utility rates of Grapeland to other surrounding cities where they own apartments.

According to their information, the price per apartment unit for garbage pickup is $24 in Grapeland, $6 in Henderson, $7 in Athens and $5 in Kilgore.

"We are basically paying four times as much for garbage pickup per apartment in Grapeland as we are elsewhere," Cascavilla said.

Total water and sewer costs for a month at apartment complexes in the various cities were also provided as follows:
• Kilgore had a water bill of $2,306 and a sewer bill of $2,387.
• Henderson had a water bill of $935 and a sewer bill of $821.
• Athens had a water bill of $629 and a sewer bill of $676.
• Another Athens apartment complex had a water bill of $464 and a sewer bill of $459.
• Grapeland Apartments had a water bill of $207 and a sewer bill of $897.
"Grapeland does not provide the 1:1 ratio of water to sewer prices we see at our other complexes," Cascavilla noted.

According to City Superintendent Shaun Wiley, the sewer bill for the Grapeland Apartments is based on a 4,000-gallon minimum per apartment, which is $28 per month. He proposes to reduce this minimum to 2,000 gallons, which cuts the monthly charge in half.

"For garbage there is not much we can do," Wiley said. "How much do you pay for your garbage?" he asked the council. "Twenty-four dollars," Mayor George Pierson replied. Wiley went on the say that each apartment is being charged the same rate as each residence.

"Henderson, Athens and Kilgore are much bigger towns than Grapeland. We are not comparing apples to apples," Pierson said. He asked Cascavilla to get him comparisons to towns similar in size and asked the council if the issue could be tabled. Cascavilla agreed to submit additional data and the council tabled the issue.

In other related utility actions the city council unanimously approved the following:
• Requirement to provide a mandatory water shut-off valve on the customer side of water meters.
• Eliminating the 50% discount for large water losses due to customer negligence. The discount will be reduced to 1/3 after Oct. 1 and no discounts will be allowed after Jan 1.
• Allow 45 days to pay late water bills.

Moving to other business, Pierson told the council he has made a request to the Texas Department of Transportation to close the southbound lane of Market St. during the Peanut Festival. This request was generated by a near accident where a child almost got run over at last year's festival. The closure also will allow greater access to the park for emergency vehicles, according to Pierson.
Next, the council approved the Certified Tax Roll and adopted a tax rate of $0.607344 per $100 of taxable value for Fiscal Year 2014-2015. This rate is up $0.03 from last year. There was no discussion or comment prior to this vote.

In other business the council unanimously approved the following:
• Appointment of Ben Childress and Marilyn Walker to fill vacancies on the Grapeland Economic Development Cooperation.
• Audit engagement letter from Todd, Hamaker & Johnson, LLP
• Proposal from ATS construction for fencing at the new city well site at a cost of $6,200.
• Amending the park closing time from 10 a.m. to 12 a.m.(midnight) during Peanut Festival activities.

Commissioners Approve Creation Of HR Committee

By Robert Neel, Reporter

Houston County Commissioners Court approved County Judge Erin Ford's nominees to the County Human Resource Committee at a regular meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 26.

The first priority of this committee will be to review pay scales, Ford announced.

According to information provided by Ford, other duties will include reviewing and making recommendations on:
• Job descriptions,
• Benefits including health insurance, retiree benefits, longevity, etc.,
• Supplemental policies and
• Personnel Manual.

Ford recommended the following individuals to serve on the committee: County Attorney Daphne Session, County Tax Assessor/Collector Danette Millican, County Auditor Melissa Mosley, Road and Bridge Employee Frank Womack and Houston County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Gary Shearer.

The court unanimously voted to approve all nominated individuals.

County Treasurer Dina Herrera and District Clerk Carolyn Rains also will serve on the committee. Jan Pigford, human resources representative, will be a non-voting member of the board.
The action came because, at the Aug. 12 commissioners court meeting, District Judge Pam Fletcher requested a salary increase and title change for the district court administrator. The new job title would be district court coordinator.

At that time, the commissioners requested a job description and for the county's Salary Review Board to determine the salary for the coordinator position.

The Aug. 12 discussion of the matter revealed the membership of the board had not changed since it was created in July 2001. Only two of the original members still are county employees.

In other business, County Auditor Melissa Mosley shared a five-year overview of road and bridge funds prepared for the Texas Association of Counties (TAC).

"TAC is preparing for the next legislative session," Mosley reported. She said she hopes TAC will be able to get additional funds for the county.

Her information showed that revenues for roads and bridges are down almost a million dollars from 2009 to 2013, due mostly to the loss of allocation of timber funds from the federal government.

Road and bridge expenses have been reduced but the commissioner's road and bridge precinct fund balance is down from $505,284 at the beginning of 2009, to $43,418 at the close of 2013, according to Mosley.

She said the county was spending what it had, hoping the federal timber funds would come and trying to avoid raising taxes last year, but the funds didn't come.

"Three cents of last year's 4.9 cent tax increase went to roads and bridges," Ford added.

Next on the agenda, Ford presented the Houston County Historical Commission (HCHC) with the Distinguished Service Award from the Texas Historical Commission (THC). The THC issues Distinguished Service Awards each year to county historical commissions that demonstrate concerted efforts to preserve the history and character of Texas. In a press release, THC Executive Director Mark Wolfe said, "We commend these hardworking individuals for their efforts to save Texas history and look forward to promoting their accomplishments throughout the year."
Paul Stringer and Tom Streetman accepted the award on behalf of the HCHC.

In related business, the commissioners court approved Elizabeth McCoy and Vaden Caldwell as new appointees to the HCHC.

Kudos also went to Terri Meadows, court coordinator manager for the County Court at Law. Meadows recently graduated from the Texas Court Management Program.

"Terri Meadows is an outstanding court coordinator manager who has been recognized for her expertise by the State of Texas. I am so pleased that she has dedicated herself to continue to advance her training and knowledge and to serve with professionalism in Houston County," County Court at Law Judge Sarah Clark said.

A consulting agreement with Sturgis Web Services for the tax office website was presented by County Tax Assessor/Collector Danette Millican.

"Sturgis Web Services offers a much better website than our current consultant, Pritchard & Abbott, for the same amount of money," Millican told the court. The agreement was approved.
Also approved was the collection of a $60 permit fee for licensed beer and wine retailers. There are currently 31 active permits in the county, according to Millican, which must be renewed every two years.

Millican also presented the following high bids on four properties that have been "struck off" the tax rolls:
• $4,200 for 12.45 acres off of FM 2180 near Lovelady,
• $601 for 2.00 acres off of CR 4195 near Lovelady,
• $400 for 0.47 acres between Oak and Hackett streets in Crockett and
• $200 for 0.12 acres between Oak and Hackett streets in Crockett.

These properties have judgments against them for unpaid taxes and are currently not generating taxes, Millican reported. All four bids were approved unanimously.

Additional comments were held on safety issues at the Lock and Dam, which had been tabled at the last commissioners court meeting.

Game Warden Zak Benge again asked the court to consider restricting access to the middle wall, west wall and chute area of the Lock and Dam.

"We are all for safety," stated Leon County Judge Byron Ryder, "But there is a strong sentiment from the Leon County Commissioners Court to not eliminate access to the Lock and Dam."

"We are working with Texas Park and Wildlife Attorneys to determine who actually owns the structure," added County Attorney Daphne Session. The issue was tabled again.

Other actions taken were:
• Approved the acceptance of a grant from the Office of the Attorney General for the Victim Assistance Coordinator position within the County Attorney's office and
• Approved an application with the Texas Department of Agriculture for the "Texans Feeding Texans" Home Delivered Meal Program Grant.

Immediately prior to the regular meeting, a public hearing was held on the proposed 2014 ad valorem tax rate of 46.5 cents proposed at the Aug. 12 commissioners court meeting. This rate remains unchanged from last year according to Ford. No public comments were made.

Tourism Stash Proves ‘HOT’ Topic At County Commissioners Court

Jones Dorothy Harrison, president of the Houston County Museum aka Depot Museum (pictured above), has been on a mission of late to find operating and maintenance funds for the museum.  The county contributes budgeted funds for insurance payments, but on Tuesday, July 22, said “no” to a portion of the county’s Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) funds.  The museum has received recent assistance from the Crockett Rotary Club and the City of Crockett, which approved a portion of its HOT funds for the museum’s operation and advertising expenses. (Photo by Lynda Jones) Dorothy Harrison, president of the Houston County Museum aka Depot Museum (pictured above), has been on a mission of late to find operating and maintenance funds for the museum. The county contributes budgeted funds for insurance payments, but on Tuesday, July 22, said “no” to a portion of the county’s Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) funds. The museum has received recent assistance from the Crockett Rotary Club and the City of Crockett, which approved a portion of its HOT funds for the museum’s operation and advertising expenses. (Photo by Lynda Jones)

By Sherry Driskell, Courier Reporter

The Houston County Commissioners Court had standing room only for its regular meeting Tuesday, July 22.

Three entities asked for a portion of the Houston County Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) funds.

Those entities included the Houston County Museum (Depot Museum), Piney Woods Fine Arts Association and the Michelle Lynn Holsey Foundation.

The commissioners unanimously denied the request for funds for the Houston County Museum.

Dorothy Harrison, president of the museum board, had submitted an application for $10,000 to be used for maintenance, advertising, utilities, alarm system fees and repairs.

The museum relies only on donations to operate annually. The museum houses historical items (such as an antique Crockett fire truck), pictures and over all history of the county.

Harrison's application states that the museum drew 293 visitors in 2013, with about 2/3 of them being from out of town and some even from out of state.

By state law (Tax Code 352), the County of Houston collects a Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) from hotels, bed and breakfasts, and other lodging facilities which may be used only to directly promote tourism and the hotel and convention industry including:

• Promotions of the Arts that Directly Promote Tourism and the Hotel and Convention Industry: the encouragement, promotion, improvement and application of the arts that can be shown to have some direct impact on tourism and the hotel/convention industry.
All forms of art include instrumental and vocal music, dance, drama, folk art, creative writing, architecture, design and allied fields, painting, sculpture, photography, graphic and craft arts, motion picture, radio, television, tape and sound recording, and other arts related to the presentation, performance, execution and exhibition of these major art forms will be considered.
• Historical Restoration and Preservation Activities that Directly Promote Tourism and the Hotel and Convention Industry: historical restoration and preservation projects or activities or advertising and conducting solicitation and promotional programs to encourage tourists and convention delegates to visit preserved historic sites or museums.

Harrison and Melissa Mosley, county auditor, spoke on behalf of the community and historians to preserve the museum for future generations.

Mosley said there is about a $140,000 balance in the county's HOT funds account.

During the discussion, Precinct 2 Commissioner Willie Kitchens said the tax is for "heads and beds" (i.e, it is intended to bring people to stay overnight at local lodging facilities) and that Harrison was unable to prove how many of the museum visitors actually patronized local hotels and motels.

In the same meeting, the commissioners granted Piney Woods Fine Arts $5,000 for country singer Merle Haggard's Sept. 1 performance, and $5,000 for Michelle Lynn Holsey Foundation's NCHA Cutting event, benefit dinner, auction and concert in October.

Both PWFAA and the Michelle Lynn Holsey Foundation had requested $10,000.

In the vote to give HOT funds to PWFAA, Precinct 3 Commissioner Pat Perry voted "no"; Precinct 4 Commissioner Kennon Kellum abstained. Kitchens, along with Precinct 1 Commissioner Roger Dickey and County Judge Erin Ford voted "yes".

The vote to give funds to the Michelle Lynn Holsey Foundation was unanimous.

UPDATE:  Houston County Auditor Melissa Mosley was not speaking on behalf of the museum.  She was explaining to commissioners and the public how the HOT funds can be spent.

Property Owners Can Expect Insurance Break This Fall

City Of Crockett ISO Rate Drops From 6 To 2

By Lynda Jones, Editor-in-Chief

After working for three years to upgrade the Crockett Volunteer Fire Department with his target being to make the city safer and lower the city's ISO rate, Crockett Fire Chief John Angerstein was beaming with pride during the Monday, July 14 City Council meeting.

After giving his monthly report, Angerstein stated, "It is with great pride to announce that the City of Crockett has achieved a Public Protection Classification (PPC) rating of 2 from the Insurance Services Office. This is a rating given to Crockett by the ISO after reviewing the city's firefighting capabilities which include the fire department, dispatch and water distribution."

Angerstein continued, "This rating, according to statistics on the ISO website, indicates that the Crockett Fire Department will now rank in the top 1.5% of fire departments nationwide (810 out of 49,010 registered fire departments) that have achieved an ISO PPC Class 2 or better.

"Previously, the city's rating was a Class 6, but will now be improved to a Class 2 rating by the ISO and is being forwarded to the Texas Department of Insurance. The anticipated publication date by the Texas Department of Insurance will be October 2014."

Oct. 1 is when Crockett homeowners and businessowners are urged to contact their insurance carriers and determine what their new rates will be.

Angerstein added that, in addition to the ISO PPC Class 2 rating, a property owner's insurance rates also are affected by other factors, such as number of previous claims and credit ratings.
Crockett Economic and Industrial Development Corp. Executive Director Thom Lambert said this new rating will help the CEIDC in its efforts to bring more businesses to Crockett.

Carlton Jones, a local insurance agent, also spoke and said the rating change is great news. All said a 4-point improvement is almost unheard of.

Crockett Mayor Robert Meadows was one of several to praise Angerstein and the CVFD for their efforts and to acknowledge what great news it is for the citizens of Crockett.

Angerstein explained, "Most insurance companies use the PPC ratings from the ISO as a factor in determining fire insurance rates. According to the Texas Department of Insurance website, the improvement from a Class 6 to a Class 2 equates to an average of 18.2% savings in property insurance premiums for a single family dwelling.

"This means that if your insurance premium is $1,000 annually, it could be reduced to $818, providing a savings of $182 annually."

He continued, "Using that data, that would be an estimated savings of approximately half a million dolars, not including commercial properties which would likely far surpass those numbers."

"To achieve this rating," Angerstein said, we have had to improve many aspects of the department. Some of the many improvements made to the Crockett Fire Department within the past few years include hiring three full-time firefighters through a SAFER grant, the purchase of a new fire engine, adopting the latest fire code and designating a fire marshal who now performs commercial inspections, plan reviews and all fire and arson investigations. We now have certified fire instructors on staff who provide departmental training and public education.

"All of our fire hydrants are inspected, flow tested and logged annually. All apparatus, equipment and small engines are now inspected and operated regularly."

Angerstein further stated, "This rating demonstrates our city and fire department's commitment toward providing exemplary public safety for our citizens. We have worked very hard to reach this designation. Not only do we expect our citizens to save on insurance, but we believe this to be a key marketing tool and will make Crockett a more attractive place for new businesses. This is also a mark of the level of service the Crockett Fire Department provides to all of our residents.

Commissioners Court Accepts Unexpected Timber Funds, Rejects TxDOT Request For Road Closure

By Lynda Jones

The Houston County Commissioners Court addressed a medley of issues during its regular meeting Tuesday, June 24.

The county has received an unexpected $363,000 in timber funds, another road project has been approved by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and will be funded by the County Energy Transportation Reinvestment Zones (CETRZ) grant awarded to Houston County and the Piney Woods Fine Arts Association's (PWFAA) free summer concert series is drawing visitors to Houston County and

The commissioners unanimously voted to use part of the timber funds to pay off a lease purchase agreement in the amount of $224,334.95 on June 30. The loan was made at Citizens National Bank in Crockett for road equipment. During the discussion, County Auditor Melissa Mosley said the county's fund balance is very healthy, that this commissioners court is very conservative and builds its budget each year based on funds already in the bank. By paying this debt, the county will save any additional interest fees (the rate is more than 1%, Mosley said).

With the commissioners also unanimously voted to approve, per TxDOT requirements, a revised project list of estimates for the CETRZ grant. Pct. 2 Commissioner Willie Kitchen said the list is basically the same as previously approved, but it includes the addition of a road in Precinct 2.

The CETRZ grant is for repair to roads damaged by heavy oil and gas traffic. The project list now includes 4,000 ft. of CR 2210 in Precinct 2, 4.5 miles of CR 3375 in Precinct 3, 1.5 miles of CR 3510 in Precinct 3 and 1.75 miles on CR 3400 in Precinct 3.

The state's share of the funding of these projects is $788,085 and the county's share is $87,564.

With regards to roads and bridges, the commissioners unanimously rejected TxDOT's request to close FM 227 at Hickory Creek and Hickory Creek Relief on FM 227 for approximately 18 to 24 months.

TxDOT will be rebuilding the bridges at those locations and sought the road closure to give themselves total access to the bridge sites.

The bridges are in Precinct 4 and that precinct's Commissioner Kennon Kellum objected to the closure. Kellum explained the closure would result in a complete road shut down and cause his constituents to make about a 10-mile detour to exit the area.

Kellum suggested that TxDOT build a temporary by-pass for access to the construction sites, noting he does not feel it would be every expensive for TxDOT to do so.

In March, the county entered into an interlocal agreement with the PWFAA for its free summer concert series. With the goal being to enhance and promote tourism here and through this agreement, the commissioners court approved PWFAA's application for $5,000 of the county's Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) for the concert series.

One of the conditions of that agreement was that PWFAA would present a post-event report to the commissioners court. On Tuesday, PWFAA representatives Ann Walker and Glenn Barnhart presented that report during commissioners court.

Walker reported that she surveyed 23 persons who attended the series, and of those 23, 65% were from out-of-county. Some came from Frankston, Bryan-College Station and Madisonville, she said. PWFAA will be sharing these results with the state as local fine arts/entertainment patrons continue their pursuit of a cultural arts district designation from the State of Texas for parts of Crockett.

Walker and Barnhart reported HOT funds were used for out-of-county advertising, noting the large sandwich-board posters in neighboring counties appeared to be successful.

The commissioners also unanimously approved an agreement with MOdesigns (Mikey Osborne of Crockett) to develop and host a tourism website for Houston County. Osborne was the only bidder for the job.

In accordance with the agreement, MOdesigns will provide Houston County Tourism with a rough draft of the website within two weeks of the project start date. The fee for creating the website is $500, plus a $30 per month hosting fee. It does not include a logo design (+$150) or domain name ($20 per year).

In other action, the commissioners unanimously voted to accept a Texas Historical Commission Round VIII Emergency Grant in the amount of $178,364 with a 50% county match and necessary budget amendments.

The grant funds are for repairs to the county courthouse roof. Kitchen commented the roof has needed repair since he took office in 1999.

Houston County Judge Erin Ford and Kitchen both stated that the THC said the county can change its mind about the grant at a later date, but if the commissioners did not accept it now, the money would be gone.

Ford and the commissioners expressed concern about the county being able to afford 50% of the repair cost.

The THC requires a courthouse easement while making the repairs, which the commissioners unanimously voted to approve.

A third requirement attached to the grant is to approve an architect for the design and construction administration services for the roof replacement scope. THC asked the county commissioners to approve Bailey Architects.

Bailey Architects is familiar with the Houston County Courthouse, having done some work here previously. They also helped with the preparation of the grant application.

However, the commissioners court is not comfortable with the price tag of $12,530. The commissioners unanimously voted to table this decision in hopes of getting a lesser price for the architect services.

The next Commissioners Court meeting will be a special meeting at 2 p.m. Monday, June 30, to accept the independent outside audit of county funds for the Fiscal Year 2013. Todd, Hamaker and Associates.

The commissioners also will consider action on a request to amend the Hurricane Ike Round 2.2 grant budget by removing the Senior Citizens Center generator project ($70,000) and reallocating funds to road improvements, and to rescind the bid advertising to accept proposals for the generator project.

Latexo ISD To Focus On Adding New Classrooms

By Lynda Jones

During its regular meeting Monday, May 19, the Latexo ISD Board of Trustees canvassed the votes from the May 10 election.

Outgoing President Mike Furrh and Secretary Sharla Killion gave brief statements, saying they enjoyed being on the board.

Furrh, who did not run for re-election, said he has always considered it a privilege to serve on the board.

Killion described her six years on the board as "a great experience", noting it was both fun and hard.

After new trustees Denine Gibbins and Willie Patton took the oath of office, proceeded to elect its officers. Ed Stockton will be the board's president; Jennifer Patton, vice president; and Stacy Dise, secretary, for the coming year.

In other business, Superintendent Don Elsom asked the board, "After the bond election, what is the next step?"

The majority of persons voting in the May 10 bond election rejected the board's request to sell bonds to finance upgrades to the campuses.

Trustees Ed Stockton and Dise both said the focus needs to be on adding classrooms, minus the previously proposed new gym. Others nodded in agreement.

Elsom said he will look at other plans and their costs and bring that information to the June board meeting.

Board members also reviewed floor plans for high school and elementary school security upgrades as Elsom explained the details. The board voted to table a vote on approval of the plans until bids for the project are returned.

Elementary Principal Dr. Stacy Easterly presented the most recent STAAR results which showed significant reading improvement from last year in a comparison of this year's fifth grade scores to last year's fourth grade scores. Easterly said she is very pleased with how elementary students have performed this year on the state's academic tests.

High School Principal Adam Ivy proudly reported the school's math and current events teams, as well as a student competing in the UIL Editorial Writing Contest, are in Austin this week competing for state UIL titles.