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Commissioners hear budget proposals in special session

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 "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.

Presentations for budget increases were also made by Kennedy, District Attorney Bennie Schiro and Sheriff Woody Wallace, 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.

Trinity Co. Commissioners approve patrol vehicles’ purchase

By Chris Edwards

GROVETON – The purchase of new vehicles for the Sheriff’s Department and a lengthy discussion about several properties reported for environmental concerns were among the issues brought before last Monday morning’s meeting of the Trinity County Commissioners Court.

Sheriff Woody Wallace presented information and bids from three separate dealerships for the two new patrol vehicles. Precinct 1 Constable Tommy Park helped explain some of the figures and the schedule of vehicle acquisition and trades by the Sheriff’s Department. 

Sheriff Wallace explained that the two vehicles, both Ford Explorer SUVs, would come equipped with the implements necessary for patrol work from the dealer. He answered questions about the necessity of acquiring new vehicles, and spoke about the wear and tear that patrol vehicles endure in relatively short periods of time.  

The purchase of the vehicles, from Silsbee Ford, for a total of $85,905.18 was approved after a motion was made by Precinct 3 Commissioner Neal Smith, and seconded by Precinct 1 Commissioner Grover “Tiger” Worsham, who said that he would put the motion on the table provided the purchasing process is monitored by the county auditor. Sheriff Wallace said that of the three bids presented to his department, Silsbee Ford’s was the most economical and said that a representative had stated that they would stand by their bid.

When it came time to discuss and act on financing for the vehicles, County Auditor Bonnie Kennedy suggested buying one of the vehicles outright, and financing the other. Kennedy’s recommendation was to finance through Bancorp South, due to the bank’s low interest rate. This item was approved following a motion made by Commissioner Worsham, and seconded by Precinct 4 Commisioner Jimmy Brown.

Environmental Management Complaints

A long-simmering issue that has been a point of contention among both residents and officials is the number of properties within Trinity County harboring various types of nuisance, or environmental hazards. As County Environmental Officer, Carl O. Dyer has been working hard to ameliorate this issue, but the process to clean up a property is a long and costly one, Dyer explained to the court. According to Dyer, the average cost to get rid of a place that has fallen into complete disrepair and harbors nuisance(s) is $4,500.

Part of the problem with several properties within older subdivisions that have been the subject of complaints has to do with legalities, and steering through them in order to work. “Subdivisions have no teeth,” Dyer said. “In order to get teeth, they have to hire a lawyer...they don’t have the money.” 

Dyer cited success in cleaning up many properties in the past, including 22 pieces of property in Westwood Shores, and said that with the county’s cooperation, all of the properties that have been the subject of complaints would be seen to.  Dyer mentioned the possibility of obtaining a solid waste grant from DETCOG, as well as using possible grant monies for surveillance equipment to curb illegal dumping. 

In other agenda items, the commissioners and County Judge Doug Page received monthly reports from the auditor’s office, the reports from the treasurer’s office, and an update on the remodeling of the tax office in Trinity. 

• Tabled the action to keep membership active in the Association of Rural Counties. The fee for the county’s membership in this organization is $395 annually. Commissioner Worsham asked what benefits the county sees from membership, and the item was tabled pending further information.

• Approved a maximum speed limit of 25 miles per hour on Martin Thompson Road and Evans Lane in Precinct 3.

• Set a hearing for the date of April 10 for a hearing to determine a maximum reasonable and prudent speed limit of 25 miles per hour for Helmic Road, Apple Springs-Helmic Road, and Dominy Road.

With no further business items for discussion and/or action on the regular agenda, the court went into a closed session, pursuant to the Texas Open Meetings Act, Texas Government Cofe Section 551.074, to discuss personnel matters, particularly a 911 addressing coordinator.

 

Commissioners discuss possible county park project

By Chris Edwards

Trinity County Commissioners agreed to act upon a letter to the Trinity River Authority regarding a tract of land for a possible county park at its recent meeting on Monday, February 13.

County Judge Doug Page referred to the site as the “White Rock Creek Park Project,” and said the land has been sitting idle for 20 years. Judge Page said that recently he has discussed the desire to create a recreation area with TRA. The project, if brought to fruition, will include hiking trails and public access to the lake, according to Judge Page.

County environmental officer Carl O. Dyer spoke on behalf of the project and said it would be a step in the right direction of “making Trinity County a recreation destination.” Dyer added, “The county would be remiss in not grabbing [the property].” 

Judge Page said that the goal of entering into an interlocal agreement with TRA to develop the property would keep any overhead down.

Dyer said that the water along the tract of land, which amounts to nearly a mile, was too shallow to use for launching boats, but that it would be a good idea to allow TRA to put in canoes and kayaks, so that visitors to the park could explore White Rock Creek.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Neal Smith said the project sounded like “a good idea,” and put forth a motion for the county to pursue it. 

Internet Service for Sheriff’s Office

Sheriff Woody Wallace approached Commissioners to acquire separate internet service for his office. Currently, the Sheriff’s Department shares internet service with the courthouse, and issues with available connection speed (as well as frequent needs of tech support from Windstream) have been “problematic for a couple of years,” Sheriff Wallace said. 

The cost for the service is $4,550 for the months of March through September, plus part of February (if installed during the month), according to a report put together by county auditor Bonnie Kennedy, and read by assistant auditor Dan Fuller during the meeting. Fuller said the funds were available for the service from the contingency or reserve funds.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Grover “Tiger” Worsham provided a motion for the Sheriff’s Dept. to purchase a separate 12 mps account for its office, provided the county is not tied into a long contract. Commissioner Smith seconded the motion and asked for a report to be made within 90 days. 

In another item on Monday morning’s agenda, Commissioner Smith asked the court how it wanted to proceed with repairs to the tax office located inside the sub-courthouse in Trinity. Commissioner Smith asked if the court wanted the maintenance department to handle the project, or for him to oversee it. Judge Page said it would make sense for Commissioner Smith to handle the project, given his residency in the city. Commissioner Smith also expressed concern about communication between the judge and commissioners in regard to hiring and termination decisions for county employees. Commissioner Smith spoke of an incident that occurred soon after he first took office, of when a former employee approached him in public and told him she had been terminated, which he knew nothing about. He urged Judge Page and the other commissioners to better communicate with one another regarding such matters. 

Commissioners also heard from J.E. Anderson on the topic of building fences near the county fairgrounds. Anderson spoke during the public forum portion of the meeting, and said that the grass also needed to be mowed. On an agenda item, Commissioners heard from Anderson about a fence row that needed clearing behind the show barn at the “Y.” The area in question belongs to James Williamson, who gave Bill Wagner permission to clear the trees along the fence. Williamson had told Carl Dyer that he didn’t want a mess on his land, and Wagner had relayed the message to Commissioner Smith. Commissioner Smith stressed the need to get Williamson’s allowance of the job in writing. 

Commissioner Worsham made a motion to allow the work to be done provided that allowance to do so is provided in writing.

In other items, Commissioners voted to:

• Approve e-grant applications for the county attorney’s office for the Victim Assistance Program.

• Approve the interlocal cooperation act between UTMB Health and Trinity County for indigent healthcare.

• Approve a proclamation declaring February as Black History Month in Trinity County. Judge Page read the proclamation to the court, and added that the region recently lost a “great black leader” with the passing of longtime Groveton community leader Glen Ward. 

•Approve county sponsorship and the request for partial closure of FM 3154 for the upcoming Davy Crockett Bear Chase Marathon in April.

Memorandum of support for potential regional growth approved

By Chris Edwards

Commissioners approved a memorandum of support for the Texas Forest Country Stronger Economies Together (SET) team’s regional economic development plan at their regular meeting on Monday morning at the Trinity County Courthouse in Groveton.

The plan, which was drafted after a group of East Texas counties in the Texas Forest Country region were selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development to participate in the SET program, which is designed to help multi-county teams strengthen skills and resources for collaborating on economic development goals, according to a press release issued by Texas A&M’s AgriLife extension. Trinity County Judge Doug Page said that if the program’s goals could see fruition, the region could possibly earn recognition similar to what the Texas Hill Country region enjoys. 

Prior to the discussion on the item, Precinct 1 Commissioner Grover “Tiger” Worsham inquired about another project that, although promising, had not been discussed for some time. The project in question was the planned bio-fuels plant, which was proposed by Oklahoma-based firm SR20 Holdings. County Treasurer Bob Dockens gave an update, and said that the project is currently on hold due to the price of oil making such a venture not profitable. Dockens also said that the company’s option on purchasing land in the county has exceeded its two-year window.

Another agenda item saw approval for the County Attorney’s office to apply, via e-grant, for grant funds to go toward the Victims Assistance Program. County Attorney Joe W. Bell said that the “odds are good that we’ll get it,” and that the amount his office wished to pursue is $40,000. The grant Bell’s office is looking at is issued through the office of Governor Greg Abbott. Precinct 3 Commissioner Neal Smith put a motion on the table to approve the County Attorney’s office to apply for the grant, and Commissioner Worsham provided a second.

In other agenda items, Commissioners also voted to:

• Change the previously scheduled date of a public hearing from February 27 to March 17. The hearing, which is planned to extend Texas Transportation Code laws to all roads included in the Westwood Shores subdivision, conflicted in its original slated date with a meeting of the Westwood Shores POA. 

• Approved a proclamation to recognize January 23 – 28, 2017 as “School Choice Week” in Trinity County. Judge Page read the proclamation, which stressed the critical importance of education in the area. Judge Page said that the observation of School Choice Week hasn’t happened in Trinity County heretofore, but it was brought to his attention by several educators in the county.

• Approved the compliance of SB546 for Trinity County Tax Assessor-Collector Lindy Madden-Warren. SB546 requires for county tax assessor-collectors to successfully complete 20 hours of continuing education annually. According to the transcript provided for Warren, she has completed 28.50 hours of continuing education credits for 2016.

 

Trinity City Council votes to add stop signs

At their last meeting, the Trinity City Council listened to Building Inspector and Code Enforcement specialist, Ken Newton, present a resident’s concern to the council – that vehicles between Lakeview and Calvin Street travel too quickly and are a danger to the neighborhood’s children. The proposed solution was to erect stop signs running North and South on Calvin St. in an attempt to slow the vehicles.

 Newton said that a driver attempting to avoid getting blocked by a train may choose to speed down Calvin St. without being interrupted by stop signs since there aren’t any there.

 “Because they’re speeding, there’s a danger to the children that might get out in the street,” Newton said. “So they’re trying to get the City to help control that traffic a little bit.”

 Mayor Pro-Tem Wayne Huffman said the speeding problem is a police issue, and that the council agreeing to put up a stop sign could set a precedent that would result in the city having to put up numerous other signs in Trinity. Remembering his experience as a parent, Huffman also stated that streets are for automobiles, and not for children.

 “Times have changed, the city has changed, people have changed – everything is happening now,” said Councilman Chris Dennis, shortly after Huffman spoke. “I firmly believe that we need another officer, especially at night… I’m quite sure people could stand a nickel or so and wouldn’t mind in taxes for us to get another police officer. [Trinity Police Department Chief] Steve [Jones] is doing a good job, I think. I think we’ve got a good P.D. I just don’t think we’ve got enough P.D.”

 Councilman DeWalt made a motion to erect two stop signs.

 “I have the greatest respect for Mr. Huffman and I agree with what he said, but if tomorrow two of those little children got run over, it would be on my conscience,” DeWalt said.

 Councilman Dennis seconded the motion, and in a 50/50 vote, Mayor Pro-Tem Huffman and Councilman Philip Morrison voted against the motion, while Councilman DeWalt and Councilman Dennis voted in favor of it. To break the tie, Mayor Billy Joe Slaughter voted, ultimately deciding the addition of the two stop signs would be best.

 In other businesses, the council discussed grant-related work.

 The Trinity City Council meets the second Thursday of every month at 7 p.m. in the Council Chambers of Trinity City Hall.

Commissioners hear presentation on body cams

By Chris Edwards

A nascent technology, which Sheriff Woody Wallace referred to as a “new craze”, might be coming to Trinity County soon.

Body cams, which are high-quality video-capture devices worn on the body by law enforcement personnel, might be required gear for LEOs in the near future, according to Sheriff Wallace; a possible future requirement for agencies to secure state funding.

Sheriff Wallace and Susie Hammond were on hand during Monday morning’s meeting of the Trinity County Commissioners’ Court to ask for approval for the application of an e-grant for the body cams. Sheriff Wallace said that if the grant is approved and the cameras are purchased, they will be provided to the Sheriff’s Department and the four county constables. 

Hammond, who is working with the sheriff to research and secure the grant funds, answered some questions about the method of data storage and maintenance for the equipment. She said that after being purchased and set up, the cameras would have enough storage capacity for three years worth of footage. She said that the grant that TCSO is looking to apply for is a matched funding grant, with a 20% match to the county, which would come to a total of $7,500.  Hammond drew from her previous experience in securing a similar grant for Houston County to explain how the grant works.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Grover “Tiger” Worsham asked questions about technical issues with the cameras, and said that the topic was something that previously had been addressed at the state level, but had yet to become a requirement for law enforcement agencies. Sheriff Wallace said that although he wasn’t the biggest fan of body cams, he has seen instances where they could be of help. They are especially helpful, as Precinct 2 Commissioner Rich Chamberlin noted, for maintaining transparency among departments. 

The grant application was approved by the court by way of a motion from Commissioner Worsham and a second by Commissioner Smith.

In other items of business on the agenda:

•Commissioners voted to restore the funds to the office of new Precinct 1 Constable Tommy Park. Park, who was elected to the office in the last election, replaced Rusty Barrett. The monies for that office’s budget had been redacted due to inactivity.

•Susanne Waller of the Trinity County Historical Commission spoke to the court about the appointment of officers and members for TCHC’s 2017-18 term. The appointments were approved by the commissioners. Waller also spoke about a few historical markers that TCHC is working on securing for sites such as the site of a CCC camp near Trinity, the Glendale Congregational Methodist Church, and the boyhood home in Trinity of the late, long-serving congressman Charlie Wilson.

•The approval of a service provider agreement between the Centerville Water Supply Corporation and Trinity County. Documents outlining each party’s responsibilities in a 2017-18 Texas Community Development Block Grant program grant were given to commissioners for review. The grand funds, which can be secured for up to $275,000 would be used to construct water system improvements, if awarded. The designation of Trinity County Judge Doug Page as authorized signatory for the grant process was also approved.

•A public hearing was scheduled for February 27 to extend the Texas Transportation Code laws to all roads within the Westwood Shores subdivision. 

•A public hearing for February 13 was scheduled to determine a reasonable maximum speed for vehicles traveling Martin Thompson Road and Evans Road. Commissioner Smith noted that complaints had recently arisen about 18-wheeler traffic along the roads, due to recent drilling activity.

•Commissioners also approved bonds of $5,000 apiece for Commissioners Worsham and Smith, who were recently sworn-in to begin their newly elected terms.