Commissioners Okay Employee Policy Changes, Agree To Use Tax Abatement Consultant Service

By Lynda Jones, Editor-in-Chief

During its Dec. 23 meeting, the Houston County Commissioners Court readdressed the issue of returning to the Texas County and District Retirement System (TCDRS) employee-contributed retirement funds withdrawn due to a voided application when the employee was rehired less than 30 days later.

At the Dec. 9 meeting, commissioners unanimously approved changes to the county's employee policy to prevent such circumstances occurring again. They also voted not to return one particular employee's withdrawn funds to the TCDRS.

Since that time, however, the commissioners court learned it has to return those funds withdrawn by an employee who resigned, then was rehired.

Therefore, on Dec. 23 the commissioners unanimously voted to payment to the TCDRS in the amount of $5,798.39 and necessary budget amendments. The money will be taken from the county's contingency fund.
Related to this issue, the commissioners also unanimously voted to approve a contract with the employee for an installment repayment plan towards the voided withdrawal application under TCDRS. The agreement stipulates the employee will pay the county a lump sum to cover part of the $5,798.39 and payments to cover the balance owed will be withdrawn from the employee's pay check each month for two years. If the employee resigns again within the two-year period, the employee will have to repay the balance owed at that time within a certain amount of days.

Commissioners also addressed changes to policies in the Houston County Employment Handbook concerning Separations, Vacation and Holiday Pay.

While introducing the item, Houston County Judge Erin Ford first complimented the recently formed Human Resource Committee for its hard work.

The changes approved by the commissioners on Dec. 23 clarify that the terms "discharge", "termination" and "resignation" all mean the employee is no longer employed by the county. They additionally defined "termination" as an involuntary separation from employment. (A "terminated" employee is one who has been "fired".)

The policy changes also include clarifying that, regardless of type of separation of employment (terminated or resigned), employees will be paid for the holidays on which they worked.

Prior to the changes approved by the court on Dec. 23, if an employee resigned on Jan. 2, he/she received his/her full vacation time for the year. Now, if an employee is terminated or resigns, his/her vacation time will be prorated in accordance with the actual number of days worked during the year and the actual number of hours/days earned vacation time for the year.

In other business, the commissioners court heard a presentation from Greg Poole of Barbers Hill concerning services offered by Jigsaw School Finance Solutions, LLC. (Jigsaw). He explained his company provides guidance and assistance with negotiations for tax abatement applications.

Poole said he is superintendent of Barbers Hill ISD and has permission from his board of trustees to work part-time as a consultant. He said he and his partner have consulted with about 10 entities across the state.
"You want to be industry friendly but you don't want to get taken advantage of," Poole said about negotiating tax abatements with industry. "You don't want to leave money on the table."

The consulting services offered by Poole through Jigsaw would be of no cost to the county. He said his company is paid by the industry applying for the tax abatement.

Houston County's commissioners unanimously voted to contract with Jigsaw "to provide guidance and assist with negotiations for tax abatement application, policy and possible economic development expansion". At this time, Lone Star Energy Transfer is requesting tax abatements from Houston County and Crockett ISD and Jigsaw will negotiate for both the county and the school district.

"You don't have to negotiate together as a whole with CISD, but you can," Poole said.
In contrast with heated discussion four years ago about the provision of household garbage service in the rural areas of Houston County, the renewal of contracts with Progressive Waste Solutions and Buell Sanitation Service was approved without conflict on Dec. 23.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Willie Kitchen and Precinct 3 Commissioner Pat Perry both said they have received no complaints about Progressive or Buell. The court unanimously approved the contract renewals for four-year terms and no changes to the current contracts.

At the beginning of the Dec. 23 meeting, Prairie View A&M County Extension Agent Corey Hicks, and Texas A&M AgriLife County Extension Agents Mandy Patrick and Jo Smith presented highlights of their 2014 programs in Houston County.

Patrick reported on the success of the food handler program that teaches food safety and the Cottage Food Law to individuals. The 23 individuals who completed the program qualified for certification as food handlers and they can sell their home-produced products at the Houston County Farmers Market. Patrick also manages the Houston County Senior Citizens Center in Crockett.

Hicks reported he focused on gardening and small acreage crop production. He seeks to help small producers to expand their sustainable products. He said two common issues he found in 2014 were that small producers generally lacked knowledge to use the land they have available and that they need help with developing business plans.

In 2015, Hicks hopes to work one-on-one with producers and he hopes to have some field days in 2015.
Smith reported on beef and forage outcomes for Houston County. She said that, at one time, Houston County was the leading cattle producer in the state. The revenue for that industry in Houston County once exceeded $40 million per year, according to Smith. Last year, the industry here generated only $25.9 million in revenue.
She said her office hosted a mock cattle auction in 2014 and estimated a producer could save $26/head if he/she uses the practices taught. According to Smith, the economic impact of that program could be $95,000.
She also estimates the economic impact on the county from the beef and forage industry is about $464,000.
To teach the county's youth about farming, water and soil conservation and related topics, Smith said, her office helps to sponsor a youth Agriculture Science Day in the spring. Each year, third and fourth graders are bused to a site where there are educational exhibits teaching agriculture science topics. Usually it is held at Chuck and Kim Spellman's K-Hill Ranch. Last year, due to inclement weather, it was moved to the Porth Ag Arena. Smith said the county's youth are about three generations removed from the farm.

In other business, the commissioners received the county treasurer's monthly report. For the month of November 2014, the cash balance for all Houston County accounts was $4,671,931.49. The total for all invested accounts was $747,954.40 and the total debt owed in principal was $12,120,532.68, according to that report.