Commissioners hear budget proposals in special session

By Chris Edwards

In a special session on Monday morning, Trinity County Commissioners heard presentations and requests from several department heads in preparation for the fiscal year 2018 budget.

The proposal that drew the most discussion was County Treasurer Bob Dockens', which called attention to a disparity between the salaries of certain elected officials and non-elected county personnel. Dockens proposed a raise in salary that he said would enact "some kind of equity" among salaries. He made it clear that he wasn't "taking shots at anyone's salary," but noted that "over time the disparity in salaries seems a little off-kilter to me."

Part of the existing disparity that Dockens noted is the lack of perks for certain officials (e.g. vehicle allowances and state supplemental funds) as well as limited personnel in his own office versus the average number of workers in other departments.

Dockens' proposal would raise the salaries of the four commissioners and himself at least $6k more than the highest-paid non-elected or non-appointed county personnel. He also proposed that County Auditor Bonnie Kennedy receive a raise of $7k, due to her duties. "All of this can be accomplished for $40,000 or less," Dockens said. He noted that the money is within the county's coffers for such raises, and said it was important to give certain elected officials compensation in line with what others are making.

Dockens said there are funds left in the current budget earmarked for merit raises as well as money in the reserve fund, both of which will roll over into the next budget cycle, and can be applied to the raises.

The proposal drew some questions from other officials who were present. Trinity County Tax Assessor-Collector Lindy Madden Warren asked Dockens why he only included certain officials in his proposal, and noted an apparent gender bias. Dockens replied that his ideas had nothing to do with gender or race; that he wanted to address what he saw as a disparity in the salaries, and was only speaking of his own office as well as the commissioners.

Kennedy made a presentation for her department before Dockens addressed the commissioners, and explained the changes in her departmental budget, as well as the duties of her assistants. She explained that although she had adjusted items within her budget, overall there would only be an increase of one dollar for the coming fiscal year. Kennedy also noted a coming public hearing scheduled for Thursday morning to hear feedback about her department's spending and other issues the public might want to address.

District Attorney Bennie Schiro and Sheriff Woody Wallace also made presentations to the court, and each asked for 5% salary increases for their respective personnel. Schiro said that if the court approves his request, he would be able to switch some of the state supplemental money his office receives to put into an ongoing project of imaging old records.

Sheriff Wallace noted that his department has been running smoothly throughout the year in regard to its budget, especially with the management of the jail.

He stressed that the commissioners should only award the raise to his department if the county is able to afford it. He said he wished to distribute the raise among his personnel in the form of merit raises.

Sheriff Wallace also addressed the commissioners on the topic of inmate housing costs and pending legislation that could affect local law enforcement. He urged the officials to talk to state and federal representatives on behalf of the county.

Commissioners and County Judge Doug Page also heard presentations from Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Danny Martin and Constable Tommy Park; Elections Administrator Priscilla Rasbeary, and Precinct 3 Constable Carl Casey. These officials asked for small increases to their respective departments, and Constable Park asked that all four constables receive an equal salary. Fairness and conservative spending was stressed by more than one official present. County Clerk Shasta Bergman asked all the commissioners to "be fair across the board for all offices" when making their decisions.

After hearing the scheduled presentations, the commissioners and Judge Page discussed the preliminary budget in its current form. Precinct 1 Commissioner Grover "Tiger" Worsham expressed concern over funding for the road and bridge department, and said that he wasn't in favor of adding to certain departments' budgets at the expense of the county's infrastructure. Commissioner Worsham also spoke on behalf of constituents in his precinct whose main concerns and needs include the state of the roads. He questioned the necessity of the environmental officer position, should budget cuts to departments need to be made. Precinct 2 Commissioner Rich Chamberlin told the court that the environmental officer position, currently held by Carl O. Dyer, is a necessary office in the county. He cited Dyer's professionalism and work ethic as benefits to the county. He also noted that Dyer, who also serves as Emergency Management Coordinator, receives no income for these tasks aside from grant funding.

Other Business
In other items addressed during its special session, the Commissioners' Court also:
•Approved the list of 2017-18 Election Judges for Trinity County.
•Approved the resolution regarding the 2017 tax roll.
•Heard a presentation from Tax Assessor-Collector Lindy Madden Warren regarding the effective and roll back tax calculations for the 2017 tax year.

Commissioners pass burn ban, discuss proposed budget

By Chris Edwards

Trinity County commissioners unanimously passed a burn ban at the regular meeting of the Commissioners' Court on Monday, August 10. The ban, which prohibits all outdoor burning within the county, will last for 90 days, however if conditions change, Judge Doug Page will change the order.

The decision comes in the midst of a lengthy drought the region has experienced this summer, along with consistent triple-digit temperatures. While discussing the conditions before approving the order, Precinct Three Commissioner Neal Smith made note of a recent fire on Sawmill Road near Groveton. The out-of-control brushfire took firefighters from several area fire departments to contain, as well as assistance from the Forest Service.

In other business, the commissioners heard a presentation from county treasurer Bob Dockens concerning the possible appointment of a dedicated personnel director for Trinity County. Although the topic of Dockens' presentation was not explicitly stated on the court agenda (instead the item of approving a procedures outline for county personnel was listed) the officials agreed that having a personnel or human resources director was something that needed to be looked into.

Dockens made reference to other counties which employ staff members who handle personnel matters.

He said that he was able to crunch the numbers to figure out a budget for a personnel director's salary of $40,700 annually, give or take $100. Dockens said there was also available office space in the courthouse. While the commissioners agreed to discuss it during budget talks, County Attorney Joe Bell reminded the county officials that topics brought up for discussion and/or action in commissioners' court need to be explicitly referred to on the agenda, which the matter of Dockens' presentation was not.

The budget workshop to begin preparing for fiscal year 2016 during last Monday's meeting took place with some tension. Judge Page announced a proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, at the current tax rate, for $424,508 as the base amount, an increase of $81,073 from last year's budget of $343,435. Although Judge Page was confident that the proposed budget would serve the county's needs, Commissioner Smith expressed concern over not having seen the budget. "I think it's only right that the commissioners get to hear what the department heads want, where they want it and why they want it," Smith said.

Judge Page clarified the protocol of putting budgets together with the commissioners and those in attendance; that as chief budget officer, he is responsible for putting the budget proposals together to bring to the court for discussion. Smith cited a previous issue with money from insurance reimbursement going toward a telephone system in the sub-courthouse in Trinity, repairs to the sub-courthouse and the construction of a courtroom for Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace Rod Blair.

Smith expressed concern and confusion that although bids were brought to the court for the first two projects, construction on Judge Blair's courtroom had recently begun without acknowledgement or approval from the commissioners' court. Judge Page said that approval had already been given when the monies were accepted to go toward the projects.

An addendum to the Monday meeting agenda that was addressed right before adjourning was the approval of a resolution stating the county's opposition to a residential treatment facility that would locate itself in Groveton at the old Headstart building.

The proposed facility, which would be operated by a for-profit group calling itself Hands of Faith based out of Huntsville, would house 13 emotionally unstable girls ranging in age from six to 17 years of age. The facility has proven controversial among county officials and community leaders in Groveton, none of whom support the possibility of it opening in the city limits. Judge Page referred to it being "burdensome" to local and county resources, while Sheriff Woody Wallace called it "a very bad idea."

Other items on the agenda, which were approved by the commissioners' court included:
A contract with DSHS for reducing potentially preventable adult hospitalizations. Trinity County Environmental Officer Carl O. Dyer presented on this issue and gave a handout detailing such conditions that fall under the classification, including COPD, diabetes and congestive heart failure. The goal of the program is preventative care and education to avoid hospitalizations. Precinct 2 Commissioner Richard Chamberlin called the initiative a "very positive" thing. It was agreed that the county would enter in to an additional two years for the next phase of its contract with DSHS.
The approval of $10,000 in funds from TDA for Texans Feeding Texans for home-delivered meals courtesy of the senior citizens' centers within Trinity County was made. The funds will be divided between the three centers.

An update was given on the remaining work done with CETRZ and Ike 2.2 funds to county roads and other projects. Commissioner Smith reported that there are two remaining roads to rock in his precinct, and estimated them to be done next week.

Commissioners discuss delinquent payments, radio tower

By Chris Edwards

Trinity County Commissioners discussed making good on an outstanding bill with electrical contractors Ludco Inc. at their regularly scheduled meeting on Monday, July 27 at the county courthouse in Groveton.

Raymond Vann, Jr. from Raymond K. Vann and Associates was present to inform county officials of the situation involving communication between the county and the GLO to reimburse Ludco for work, which was done last year. Vann said Ludco had been "extremely patient" while he has communicated with the GLO in Austin, during which he said "endless emails" have been exchanged, as well as phone calls and face-to-face meetings. Vann acknowledged Ludco vice president Phil Mahar, who was present at the meeting, and said he'd referenced Mahar as someone who would contact state agencies and heads of agencies in order to expedite payment for his firm.

After some discussion, it was suggested that Ludco be paid its outstanding monies owed from the county general fund and that the county would deal with GLO in getting its reimbursement. This was approved with a motion from Commissioner Grover "Tiger" Worsham of Precinct 1 and followed by a second from Precinct 3 Commissioner Neal Smith.

In other business, the commissioners approved a bond of $5,000 for Jeanette Vasquez, an employee of the county clerk's office.

County officials heard a presentation from Jennifer Woychesin of the county attorney's office to apply for a Victim Coordinator grant application amendment from the VA Victims of Crime Act Formula Governor Grand Program for Trinity County. If granted, the funding would be an amount of $40,000 from the state to be matched at a sum of $10,000 by the county. Woychesin stated a need for the funds to help victims of crime, that the county attorney's office didn't have the funds to help them as much as needed. The application for the grant was approved by the commissioners.

The commissioners decided to move forward with gathering information concerning the ETMC communications tower. Earlier, in June, the commissioners were approached by a representative of ETMC about the possibility of the county purchasing the radio tower, which was erected in 2010. The amount quoted at the June 11 meeting was $400,000. The funds were determined to be unavailable for the amount ETMC quoted and the officials discussed other possibilities, such as seeking DETCOG funds and negotiating a lower figure (after researching the value of the tower). The decision to move forward to gather more information was initiated by a motion from commissioner Worsham. Judge Doug Page provided a second, voting in place of Precinct 2 Commissioner Richard Chamberlin, who was absent. Commissioner Smith objected to the decision, but the motion carried.

A hearing was conducted to discuss the re-opening of the Old Sulfur School Road, a stretch of about two-fifths of a mile. No one was present to speak during the hearing and it was closed to move to the next item on the agenda, which was to discuss and act on re-opening the road. Commissioner Worsham, who had spoken about the road before, had said he had no recollection of the road ever being a county-maintained road. He motioned to re-open the road with Commissioner Smith providing a second to approve the action.

The county also approved an extension of contract number 70268.30 with Bancorp South, which would also authorize the county auditor to execute the document.

With no further business on its agenda, the court adjourned after Commissioner Worsham made a motion to adjourn with Commissioner Smith providing a second.

City Council hears property owner’s utilities concerns

By Chris Edwards

The Groveton City Council heard concerns about a piece of property and fielded questions regarding the city's responsibilities pertaining to the property at its meeting on Monday, July 27.
Susie Hammonds was on hand to ask the councilmembers and Mayor Byron Richards about the possibility of the city providing water and sewer to her property, which is located at the corner of Fifth and Pecan streets. Hammond provided city officials with documents that included a map of the property, which she and her husband Glenn, purchased from a tax sale. Hammond said a prospective buyer for the property had spoken to an employee of Severn-Trent Services about the matter. The person interested in the property was told that sewer would not be provided to the property and that an aerobic sewage treatment system would have to be installed. "My deal fell through," Hammond said.

She told the council that a city worker should not be making decisions without consulting councilmembers beforehand.

Mayor Richards responded to Hammond's remarks by stating that no one had approached the city about the issue prior to the meeting. Hammond said that she had gone through the routine procedure of applying for the utilities on the property, but the frustration came from the Severn-Trent employee's recommendation. Allen Jenkins of Severn-Trent told Hammond that his employee "just did his job". Mayor Richards cited an ordinance, which states that the city is obligated to provide a line to hook up water and sewage to, but the property owner must procure any equipment needed to connect to the lines. "We can handle running a line, but it is up to the property owner to provide a pump," Mayor Richard said.

Hammond then asked the councilmembers for their opinions on the issue. Councilmen Ralph Bennett and Tommy Walton both agreed that more time was needed to look into the matter before coming to a decision. Councilman Steve Casper said "If people are going to move in there, then we're under obligation to provide services," however Casper later said that if the property were to remain undeveloped, it would be superfluous to provide utilities.

Councilman Glen Ward said that the best thing to do when considering the issue would be to see what the property is worth. After a lengthy discussion later in the meeting, Mayor Richards said he would investigate options and see how feasible Hammond's request was.

In other business, the council reviewed Groveton Police Chief John Raiford's monthly report in his absence. Mayor Richards said the department is down on its number of stops.

Jenkins gave his report from Severn-Trent's invoice to the city. The company billed the city for $4,631.70 for the month of June. Jenkins said there was "not a whole lot going on" during the month except for a water leak on Victory that he noted. He said the well is finished and tests have revealed the system is working fine and pending TCEQ approval, the well will be turned on. Councilman Walton motioned to pay the bill to Severn-Trent and Councilman Casper seconded his motion.

Also on the agenda was a resolution for council to consider a Block Grant Disaster Relief Program to the Texas Department of Agriculture. Mayor Richards said that the amount of available funds from the grant will be $350,000, which are to be applied toward road, bridge and/or drainage improvement projects. A motion was made by Councilman Bennett to approve the resolution, and Councilman Casper seconded the motion, which went approved.

The renewal for the city employees' health insurance was addressed. Currently, the city provides its employees coverage through Blue Cross, Blue Shield. Mayor Richards said that the premium had risen 10.3%. Council voted to approve the renewal of the policy, but Councilman Joe Kennedy suggested it would be wise to look around for other providers who offer better rates.

An item was brought before council as an amendment to the budget. Mayor Richards said that a booster pump at the water plant needs to be replaced at a cost of $8,189.65. A motion was made to approve the amendment by Councilman Bennett and seconded by Councilman Casper.

Mayor Richards entertained a motion to adjourn the meeting, which Councilman Walton motioned to do with a second from Councilman Ward.

GISD Board discusses scholarship estate

By Martha Mericle

Members of the Groveton School Board of Trustees meet in regular session beginning at 7 p.m. President Dean Due called the meeting to order. Members present were President Dean Due, Vice President Benny McClain, Secretary WH Holcombe and members Benny Abshier, Mark Folds, Randy Hughes and Anthony Lowery. Faculty present was Superintendent Don Hamilton, Assistant Superintendent Todd Moore and High School Principal Bryan Finch. Board Member Anthony Lowery led the group in prayer.

A motion was made by Anthony Lowery and seconded by Benny Abshier to accept the minutes of the June 15, 2015 meeting. Voted and Carried.

A motion was made by Randy Hughes and seconded by Anthony Lowery to approve bills, payroll and budgeted expenditures. VP McClain abstained. Voted and Carried.

The Board entered closed session concerning a student discipline appeal and personally identifiable information of a student. The Executive decision was 'No Action Taken'.

The Board discussed the Bradley-Miles Memorial Scholarship Estate. It was decided as outlined to publish the sale in the Groveton News and the Houston County Courier. Sealed bids of two tracks of land (no mineral rights) near US 287 in Houston County and the home within the city limits of Crockett will be published in the fall. These decisions are guided by the terms of the will.

A motion was made by Anthony Lowery and seconded by Randy Hughes to approve TASB Local Policy Update 102. Voted and Carried.

A motion was made by Anthony Lowery and seconded by Benny Abshier to approve the Quarterly Investment Report. Voted and Carried.

A motion was made by Anthony Lowery and seconded by Randy Hughes to hold the pubic hearing of the 2015-2016 budget and the proposed tax rate for August 17th and to set the tax rate on August 22. Voted and Carried

A motion by Anthony Lowery and seconded by Randy Hughes to approve the proposed non-professional and teacher salary schedule pending adequate funding. (The projected budged and proposed tax rate will be a deciding factor.) Voted and Carried.

In accordance to the Texas Open Meeting Act, the board went into closed session to discussion of professional teaching personnel and other personnel matters. Upon returning, the following business was settled.

A motion was made by Anthony Lowery and seconded by Benny Abshier to accept the resignation of Coach Jeff Jones and Marina Doss. Voted and Carried.

A motion was made by Mark Folds and seconded by Randy Hughes to hire Tabitha Donley as Assistant Band Director and John Bickham III as Science teacher/Coach. Voted and Carried.

There being no further business a motion to adjourn was made by Benny Abshier and seconded by Mark Folds to adjourn. Voted and Carried.

Council addresses residential facility, water bill payment plan concerns

By Chris Edwards

When the Groveton City Council met for its monthly meeting on Monday, June 22 at the Groveton City Hall, Mayor Byron Richards had a couple of items on the agenda that he admitted might cause controversy but needed to be discussed and brought to the citizens' attention.

One item, which Mayor Richards had previously brought to the public's attention through the press, was the discussion and action to approve an ordinance to define the use of property within the Groveton city limits as institutional transitional housing. With the support of other community leaders, Mayor Richards had encouraged Groveton residents to write letters to local officials in order to speak out against the opening of such a facility, which would house several teenagers in a facility previously occupied by the Head Start Program. According to Mayor Richards' report, published in the June 18 edition of the Groveton News, the facility would house children with emotional disorders, such as mood disorders, psychotic disorders or dissociative disorders. Mayor Richards said that it was needed to "get something in place...limiting the number of residents" that the facility could hold, if it were to operate within the city limits. According to Mayor Richards, if the number of residents is limited per city ordinance, it would discourage the facility's opening. Mayor Richards suggested the cap on residents of such a facility be placed at five, in the ordinance, which was approved.

Groveton EMS owner David Robison was on hand for an agenda item which was tabled from last month's meeting: a possible agreement between the city and the ambulance service. Robison gave a detailed update of the volume of business the ambulance service has done since his arrival in January and expressed his love for the area and its people, but emphasized that he needed some help to offset operating costs. Mayor Richards thanked Robison for all he has done so far with the service and said "we'll see what we can do to support you." He said it would be more pertinent to look deeper into the matter in July and August when the budget is being figured out. Some discussion ensued between the mayor and council members and one possibility that was suggested was to add a dollar to water bills.

Another item that spawned a good deal of discussion was the water bill adjustment policy for customers. The policy, which was adopted in 2011, allows for water customers to get help from the city when faced with a high water bill due to leaks or equipment malfunctions. Mayor Richards stressed the impact the policy has had on the city's funds and expressed a desire to discontinue it. Councilman Tommy Walton agreed: "I'd like to see us do away with this completely...and have customers with a high bill pay it in installments," he suggested.

The council voted to discontinue the policy effective July 1 and put an amended policy in place.
The council voted to amend the current budget for the Trinity River Authority Service and mid-year adjustment payment schedule. According to Mayor Richards, a budget deficit currently exists due to the Westwood Shores subdivision consuming far less water than they are budgeted for. Mayor Richards said that Westwood Shores has used 36,000 gallons a day, on average, but was budgeted for 168,000 gallons daily use. Mayor Richards said that with the deficit, other districts have had to pick up the slack.

In other business, the council heard a report by Allen Jenkins of Severn-Trent Services, who reported an invoice of $4,677.12 for water and sewage services. He also addressed an amendment to Severn-Trent's service schedule with the city, which will distribute the number of hours through five weekdays (four hours per day). The invoice and service contract agreement were approved.

Groveton Chief of Police John Raiford was absent due to injury, but was able to send his monthly report. Mayor Richards distributed the report and said that 24 stops were made in May by Groveton Police Department and the municipal court had accumulated $2,656.

Discussion was also had on an increase of the number of hours for the city street maintenance department. The increase would have the employees working a day and a half longer to get caught up from the weather damage due to the recent storms and flooding. The increase was approved.

Council also approved an ordinance to decline the change in rates requested in Entergy Texas, Inc.'s statement of intent.

Without further business to address, the council adjourned for the night.