By Teresa Holloway
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.