County Proposes Smaller Tax Hike

By Teresa Holloway
Courier Reporter
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The Houston County Commissioners Court reached an agreement on the proposed tax increase in the Tuesday, Aug. 25 meeting.

Houston County Judge Erin Ford initially proposed a tax hike of $.03, raising the effective tax rate from $.489 to $.519 per $100 valuation.

Despite the critical issues listed in Ford's media release (Sunday, Aug. 2 Houston County Courier), the proposed raise did not pass muster with the commissioners, and Ford re-worked the budget, lowering the proposed tax rate increase to 1- ½ cents.
"Between the last commissioner's court meeting and this one, two things happened that helped the county substantially. One is that ETMC decided not to sell their towers. We will continue to lease the equipment space instead of buying the tower," Ford began.

"The second is that for three months, I've been looking for our timber funds. The feds approved a two-year extension on the funds under the Secure Rural Schools Act, but we never saw the money and we were never sure we'd get the money." Ford said.

"I called the feds in Atlanta two months ago and they said the funds had been transferred to the State of Texas. I called the Comptroller's office at least 10 times to determine the status of the funds," he continued.

"Last Thursday afternoon I got a call from the Director of Accounts in the comptroller's office. She had checked against an employee who had retired without first forwarding those accounts to the proper area. So those accounts were lost – literally," Ford said.

"So that's $280,584 for the county. The schools will get half of those funds, and the county will receive $122,000," he added.
"We were fortunate in the timing of this. It helps us by reducing the burden on us as the taxpayer," he said.

"When I put this budget together, I made a serious attempt to ensure that the county is funded for the scope of work we will need for this year," Ford explained.

"The three cents I proposed was exclusively for road and bridge – to provide additional funding in anticipation of the forecasted El Nino effect on our roads," he continued.

"A little over one-half cent would have been earmarked to pay our part of the Lifeguard subsidy, about $67,000," he said.
"Since the re-work, the current proposed tax rate will be $.504. This is one and one-half cents less than the original proposal.
The proposed revised tax rate of $.504 and the public hearings dates on the matter were unanimously approved by the Commissioner's Court.

Public hearings on the tax rate increase will be September 3, at 10:00 a.m. and September 8 at 10:00 a.m. The commissioners will vote on the tax rate September 11.

Ford prefaced the public hearing portion of the budget meeting today with explanatory comments regarding the reduction in budgetary items.

"There's been a perception that this has been a closed review, but it has not. These are areas that I really feel we need. Some of it was for road and bridge, some of it for the Sheriff's office, Emergency Management and the District Judge's office," Ford said.

"I just want people to know that I don't do things secretly. I want to be transparent. What I did in that initial budget was include funding for District, County Court of Law Coordinator and the two Justice of the Peace clerks," he explained.

"But during the review of the budget, and the lowering of the proposed tax raise, I pulled those funds back, along with reductions at the Sheriff's department and EMS. That brought us to the lower one and one-half cent rate," he said.

"It doesn't mean that the individual is any less important to the organization. It just means those funds aren't available based on this proposed budget for FY 2016," he added.

District Judge Pam Fletcher made an earnest plea to have Ford reconsider pulling the District Court's requested funding, specifically $2,000 earmarked for an employee salary increase.

"Judge Calhoun and I have been here for the last three years, asking for a raise for one of my employees for work and additional duties. In this physical year there is money built into the commissioners budgets for 'good work' raises. But when you have one employee there's nothing built in," she said, speaking of the employee for whom she and Calhoun are seeking a salary increase.

"Judge Calhoun and I would like to increase, in a small amount, the salary of our employee for good work, for staying with the county and doing everything possible for changing and reducing the expenses in our department," Fletcher said.

"We initiated pursuing bondsmen for bond forfeitures. It hadn't been done in years in the district court," she added.

"We are finding ways to increase revenues. I believe I signed judgements last week that would be equivalent to the amount I'm asking for," she said.

"You've told me for the last three years that if you get more job duties, that's just part of the job. You don't get an increase," she continued.

"But that's not really true," Fletcher exclaimed. "People within your control and your department have gotten that. I don't have a problem with that. I'm just asking that the departments you don't directly oversee can have some of those advantages."

"I believe it's appropriate, I believe it is an extremely small percentage of the budget and with the cash flow you're talking about, I think the money is there if you are willing to do it. I'm asking you to do it," Fletcher concluded.

District Judge Mark Calhoun added to Fletcher's request, "The reality is that Henderson County has five people that do her job - one employee here. In Anderson county there are two employees that do the work of one employee here," Calhoun said.

"We've heaped more responsibility on her over the last few years. This is a long time coming. We've asked for a raise for her for a long time. The Henderson County employee makes $10,000 more than our employee does. She's vastly underpaid, not even commensurate with other people's secretaries," he added.

"I don't want to lose another person because they are underpaid...she's a very good court coordinator. She saves the county a lot of money. We have a very good employee and we'd like to keep her. To do that, you have to pay them well," Calhoun concluded.

New CEO For New Hospital

By Teresa Holloway
Courier Reporter
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Since the inception of the Houston County Medical Center, changes have frequently moved at a breakneck pace, with new personnel, new computer systems, new policies and new patients.

Despite the lack of preparation time before the change, each of the factors of the transition have been exceptionally smooth, and that credit goes to the staff of the hospital and the community effort, according to Interim CEO Bill Rohloff in prior conversations.

Gary Kendrick was introduced Tuesday, July 28 as the “new permanent interim CEO” of Houston County Medical Center.  (Photo by Teresa Holloway)Gary Kendrick was introduced Tuesday, July 28 as the “new permanent interim CEO” of Houston County Medical Center. (Photo by Teresa Holloway)The Tuesday, July 28 meeting of the Houston County Hospital District Board of Directors proved no exception. Rohloff introduced Gary Kendrick as the "new permanent interim CEO," and garnered laughter from the board.
Rohloff expressed his regret at leaving the Houston County Medical Center, but stated his confidence in Kendrick as the incoming CEO.

Kendrick has extensive East Texas experience, having worked in Nacogdoches for almost a year, and multiple years of experience with rural and community hospitals, Rohloff said.

"He and I will be working on the transition. There is a lot going on. Kendrick just got to town today. He hasn't even unpacked. But we will be transitioning for the official takeover, which will probably happen on (Saturday) Aug. 1," Rohloff said.
Roger Zink, treasurer for the Porter Springs Fire Department, addressed the board and expressed concern regarding the budget the Houston County Hospital District Board of Directors currently is developing.

Zink asked the board about the timeline for development and methods for public input into the budgetary process.
"I guess the question I have is, where are we in getting the budget together, and are there any public meetings that people can be aware of in that process?" Zink asked the board.

"Yes, there are," Board President Larry Christopher answered. "The board meets on the budget on (Tuesday) Aug. 4. The tax assessor steps in on (Tuesday) Aug. 11, on the 13th the newspapers will get the results to publish," he continued.

"Is the information being published as presented, or accumulated and published at once?" Zink asked.
Christopher stated his understanding that it would all be published at one time, on Aug. 13.

"We are working to get the budgets done before the deadline," he said.

Zink expressed concern members of the community had relayed to him about the importance of the budget.

"I'm saying it will all be published on the 13th," Christopher said.

John Jenkins, local businessman, addressed the board next. "One of the concerns out there right now is the people are looking at the factor of tax rate hikes," he said.

"When are we going to know, as far as the general public, where we are going to be as far as taxes?" Jenkins asked.

"I believe that Sept. 1 is the first public hearing on the tax issue," Christopher answered.
Rohloff addressed the audience, and reiterated the extensive work and planning the board is currently engaged in on the budgetary issue.

"We need to keep in mind that this board has taken on this hospital without much history," he said. "Unlike the fire department, who can look behind and see what came before, the hospital board must take into account not only the usual budgetary items, but also one-time budgetary items relating to the transition," he continued.

"There's been a lot of work on the budget, a lot of tweaking on the budget," he said. "We'll be coming back to the public with this. Will it be perfect? Probably not. We have little history; that would have been nice to have to make it work." Rohloff said.

"There is also the fact that the hospital district stepped up to help support the EMS here, so all these things have to get factored in," he said.

"The public will be aware. There will be public hearings on the budget," Rohloff added.

Despite budgetary and taxation concerns expressed by Jenkins and Zink, the meeting ended on an optimistic note.
Houston County Judge Erin Ford relayed the news that Houston County will be home to emergency air service from Lifeguard.

Judge Outlines Proposed 2016 County Budget

Dear Friends and Neighbors;

Since I took office in December, 2012, I have always wanted to communicate with you about any issue that affects our County, and I've made it my commitment to do so.

In this case, it involves our Houston County budget for 2016. Each year, I review the upcoming year's issues/expenses with the Commissioners and I propose the annual budget for that year. I have just completed the proposed budget for 2016 and will outline it as follows:

• I am proposing a tax increase of 3.0 cents per $100 above the 2015 Effective Tax Rate of $0.489, for a total tax rate of $0.519 per $100 valuation. As you may know, Houston County tax valuations have dropped from $1,430,728,932.00 for 2014, to $1,366,143,066.00 for 2015. That is a net loss of value totaling $65,585,866.00, which adjusted the Houston County Effective Tax Rate from $0465/$100 to $0.489/$100.
The $0.489 effective tax is equivalent to the $0.465 tax, taking the valuation loss into account.

• That tax increase supports
o Lifeguard Ambulance 25% subsidy annual payment of $67,500 in conjunction with the Houston County Hospital District Board for EMS service in the County. When ETMC EMS left, the burden of the operating costs was passed on to both the County and the Hospital District.
o Approximately $300,000 increase in Road and Bridge budget for rehabilitation of the county roads which were damaged by last winter's rains. You'll remember that we got over 60" of rain in a period where the equivalent rainfall averaged 32". This also includes lost revenue from the Federal Govt. on Timber Funds which were historically passed along.
o Courthouse roof replacement, totaling $210,000, of which Houston County is responsible for 50% under the Texas Historical Commission Matching Program.
o The county Medical Insurance Plan premiums increased 2.1% for 2016, under the Affordable Health Care Act, for a total of $25,000.
o A 3% COLA for county employees, totaling $130,000.
o The probable purchase of the former ETMC Communication Tower, which has been offered to the county for $400,000. This tower is critical for city/county emergency services communications. I am negotiating a better cost but it's uncertain at this point.
o Incidentally, the County only receives $5,900 annually from Wine and Beer Sales Tax collection.

In summary, my proposed 2016 Budget is $14,173,525.44, which includes $964,320.01 per annum for debt service on the Justice Center. Additionally, the budget continues to solicit Federal/State Grants which help reduce the operational burden to Houston County.

We continue to support external program, such as Kalin's Center, the Burke Center, Crime Stoppers, Child Welfare Board, Senior Citizens Centers, Houston County Search and Rescue, Home Delivered Meal Program for homebound citizens, Houston County Airport, and Emergency Management.

So, that's where I am with the proposed budget. It's a difficult time for the County with these proposed tax increases, but I feel that it is necessary to meet the statutory requirements for each office and elected official. As a taxpayer, I don't like tax increases any more than the next person. But I also recognize the need to provide the critical services to us all. Of course, this budget has to be formally presented to the public through hearings and then approved, if agreed to, by the Commissioners Court.

When you all hired me for this job as County Judge, I took it seriously. Each day, I look at what I can do for our County. We've made some positive steps, such as the agreement with Energy Transfer for the construction and operation of the $100 million Alamo Gas Plant on Hwy 7, and the work we're doing to provide an air ambulance service for the county, in conjunction with our Houston County EMS ground service. With your continued support, we can continue to move in a positive direction.

Erin Ford
Houston County Judge

Latexo ISD Board Reviews High Scores On Community And Parent Survey

By Teresa Holloway
Courier Reporter
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Latexo ISD Superintendent, on behalf of the LISD Board of Trustees, presented Houston County Courier Editor-in-Chief Lynda Jones with a Media Honor Roll Award Monday, June 22.  Jones said after the meeting that it is an honor and a privilege to report the district’s news.  “From announcing honor roll students and UIL champs to reporting school board activity, all of us at the Houston County Courier enjoy “covering” Latexo ISD’s news,” Jones said. (Photo by Teresa Holloway)Latexo ISD Superintendent, on behalf of the LISD Board of Trustees, presented Houston County Courier Editor-in-Chief Lynda Jones with a Media Honor Roll Award Monday, June 22. Jones said after the meeting that it is an honor and a privilege to report the district’s news. “From announcing honor roll students and UIL champs to reporting school board activity, all of us at the Houston County Courier enjoy “covering” Latexo ISD’s news,” Jones said. (Photo by Teresa Holloway)Latexo Independent Sch-ool District officials honored Houston County Courier's Editor-in-Chief, Lynda Jones, in an informal ceremony at the LISD Board of Trustees meeting Monday, June 22.
Jones received the "Media Honor Roll" award from Superintendent Don Elsom and the board members in recognition of the year's outstanding media work.

"Every year through the Texas Association of School Boards we have an opportunity to nominate local media for the 'Media Honor Roll'," Elsom said.

"This year, Lynda Jones of the Houston County Courier has been recognized for fair and balanced reporting, and providing valuable information to the community about public schools, their students, parents and patrons, by Latexo ISD and the school board," Elsom said as he presented the certificate to Jones.

In other business, the board reviewed results from the Community and Parent Survey. Elsom explained the grading scale as 0-2.99, unacceptable; 3-4.99, acceptable; 5-8.99, recognized and above 9 is exemplary.

Most of the scores for the district, elementary and high school fall into the "recognized" category, with several earning "exemplary" scores.

The overall scores for the district are: Fine Arts, 7.33; Wellness and Physical Education, 8.10; Community and Parent Involvement, 8.69; 21st Century Workforce Development, 8.52; Second Language Acquisition, 8.50; Digital Learning Environment, 9.36; Dropout Prevention, 8.96; Gifted and Talented Program, 8.55.

The elementary scores are Fine Arts, 6.92; Wellness and Physical Education is 8.21; Community and Parent Involvement is 9.27; 21st Century Workforce Development is 8.76; Second Language Acquistion is 8.95; Digital Learning Environment, 9.71; Dropout Prevention is 9.18 and Gifted and Talented was 8.38.

The high school ratings are Fine Arts, 8.04; Wellness and Physical Education, 7.91; Community and Parental Involvement is 8.02; 21st Century Workforce Development is 8.30; Second Language Acquistion 8.05; Digital Learning Environment is 8.98; Dropout Prevention is 8.68 and Gifted and Talented is at 8.64.

Action items approved by the board include the following:
Breakfast and lunch fees for students will remain the same for the upcoming school year, though the cost of adult meals will be raised slightly to bring the Latexo ISD into accord with the state mandated compensatory program. The adult (non-student) lunch prices will be $3.

Employees will see a 3 percent salary increase in their 2015-2016 paychecks. This is on the high end of the prudent expenditures acceptable within the Latexo ISD budget, according to Elsom.

The board also voted to hold its budget workshop for Thursday, July 2, at 6:30 p.m., in the Latexo High School Library. Workshops are held in preparation for development of the Fiscal Year 2016 budget and subsequent establishing of the FY 2016 tax rate.

In other action, to better utilize underused space, the board voted to approve the installment of astroturf in the batting cages and other athletic facilities.

These will be multi-use facilities, and will benefit elementary and high school students using the outdoor facilities for sports and recreation events.

The board also voted to use a construction manager with 'competitive bid' capacity to build the science/classroom wing onto the high school.

Elsom recommended the method based on analysis and discussion of the different types of construction management techniques, and the board approved the recommendation.

Elsom additionally updated the board on the status of the district's energy retrofit project.

The elementary school has new lights, and the high school lighting is 25 – 50 percent complete, Elsom reported.

As for summer project, Elsom said the high school gym is painted and the elementary gym is being repaired and painted.

"The floor refinishing in the classrooms is going extremely smoothly," Elsom said. "The HVAC system is going up in the elementary - I believe they are finished with the back two hallways," he added.

After meeting in an executive session, the board reconvened and voted to accept the hiring of Stephanie Willis as an elementary school teacher. The board then welcomed her to the staff.

Commissioners Ratify Selection Of Lifeguard Ambulance Service

By Lynda Jones

The Houston County Commissioners Court, with minimal discussion, unanimously voted on three agenda items pertaining to mobile emergency ambulance service during its regular meeting Tuesday, March 10.

The court voted to:
• Ratify the selection of and approving a contract (for period of five years) with Lifeguard Ambulance Service for ambulance services for Houston County residents;
• Approve an interlocal agreement with the Houston County Hospital District who will provide 75% of the ambulance service subsidy and provide the ambulance building space during the life of the contract (subsidy is expected to be $265,000 or less; county will pay 25%); and
• Amend the current contract with Champion Energy to include electricity at the ambulance building, which would be applied towards the subsidy payment.

In other business, the court approved granting $5,000 for the Crockett Lion's Club Rodeo from the County Hotel and Motel Occupancy Tax Fund. Approximately 3,500 spectators attend the rodeo each year, in additon to 300 contestants from around the world, according to James Waldrop, Lions Club Rodeo chairman. This year's rodeo will be May 7, 8 and 9 at the Porth Ag Arena.

The court also approved granting $5,000 to the Piney Woods Fine Arts Association for a spring music and arts festival that will include arts and crafts vendors, children's activities and live music on Camp Street Saturday, April 25.

There also will be a headliner concert at Bear Hall that night, according to PWFAA Associate Director Glen Barnhart.
Barnhart said spring festivals are a growing trend among small towns in the region, and that PWFAA hopes this one will grow into a large annual affair.

Also during this meeting, Houston County Auditor Melissa Mosley announced the State Comptroller of Public Accounts has "direct deposited" $134,555.96 into the county's bank account.

These are the only "timber" funds the county will receive this year. The Secure Rural Schools (SRS) program expired on Sept. 30, 2014 and Congress did not reauthorize the program.

Half the funds received will go to the county's school districts and the balance will benefit the public roads in the county.

Houston County Judge Erin Ford commented the county received about $570,000 SRS funds last year.

Latexo ISD Adopts Strategic Goals Drafted By Stakeholders Committee

By Lynda Jones
and Kelly McChesney

The Latexo ISD Board of Trustees board during its regular meeting Monday, Feb. 16, unanimously approved a new LISD vision statement, mission statement and five strategic goals, all developed by a community stakeholders committee.

The new vision statement is, "Inspiring and empowering students through perseverance with a passion for success."
The mission statement is, "Latexo Independent School District, in partnership with our community, provides an unparalleled education while honoring faith and families."

The five strategic goals accepted by the board are:
• Address the needs of at-risk students;
• Attract and retain quality employees;
• Meet the academic needs of all students;
• Actively involve families in the educational experience; and
• Provide facilities that will enhance a positive learning environment.

The board also voted to make repairs to the high school parking lot, with a cost limitation.

The approved motion authorizes Superintendent Don Elsom to go out for bids and spend no more than $30,000 to put gravel (crushed limestone) on the parking lot.

Before voting, the trustees discussed recent conditions in the parking lot that caused cars to sink in it. During ball games, the district has roped off the dirt lot to prevent cars from getting stuck. Elsom noted this is the first year anyone has gotten stuck there.

The funds will come from the fund balance, Elsom explained. If the cost exceeds $30,000, the matter will be brought back to the board for a decision.

In other business, the trustees discussed and debated Elsom's request to remove 44 trees donated and planted at the east end of the high school building in 1964.

Elsom said the trees originally were planted a long way from the high school building, but after the building was extended, the trees now are right up next to it.

Elsom explained that he wants to remove the trees because they make it difficult to get the buses in and out, and because of some drainage and plumbing problems that need to be fixed.

He also said local GirlScouts have agreed to replace any trees that are removed.

Elsom proposes to build a road of limestone base rock next to the trees, but that "there is not much need to put the road base down if the trees are still there."

The trustees walked to the outside of the east end of the high school building to view the trees and their location in relationship to the building and the driveway.

When LISD Board Vice President Jennifer Patton suggested raising the limbs to improve the pathway for buses, Elsom responded, "That's not going to solve the problem with the building and the drainage for the building."

Patton explained her concern saying, "I'm concerned that when you start cutting the trees and doing the grinding, your road is going to drop."

Elsom agreed that in 8 to 10 years there will be some dips in the road, but said that rock could be added when that happens.

Patton reiterated her concern. "You are going to be back in here in 10 years and you're going to have a major problem."

After more discussion, trustees agreed to find a tree expert to advise them about the trees and put the issue back on the agenda for the next board meeting.

The board also voted to change its March meeting date from March 16 to March 23 to avoid meeting the first day back at school after spring break.