LOCAL JUDGES RECOGNIZED -- As part of its 50th anniversary, Deep East Texas Council of Governments officials recognized three former Polk County judges (L-R) Wayne Baker, Peyton Walters and John Thompson for their past service to the organization. The three were honored Thursday during the DETCOG board meeting hosted by the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas near Livingston. ( Valerie Reddell photo.)
INDIAN VILLAGE -- The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas welcomed the Deep East Texas Council of Governments on Thursday for a meeting that included updates on economic development, hurricane recovery and solid waste programs.
Executive Director Lonnie Hunt reviewed initial numbers for the Temporary Direct Housing Program for residents displaced by Hurricane Harvey. DETCOG will administer the program under an interlocal agreement with the General Land Office.
Recent numbers from FEMA that Hunt shared with DETCOG members indicate that 10 Polk County families have been declared eligible for the temporary direct housing program.
Five other counties in DETCOG also will be in the program — 20 families in Jasper; 32 in Newton; 44 in San Jacinto and six in Tyler County.
The program has a budget of just over $6 million, Hunt said. That includes nearly $200,000 for direct lease; $91,446 for lease or rent in multi-family housing; $1.7 million for RVs; $3.4 million for mobile home units, just over a half million for permanent housing and $200,000 for administering the program.
The amount allocated to permanent housing in this short-term program is to cover repairs that return structures to safe, sanitary conditions, Hunt said. Those funds do not return homes to their prior condition.
Hunt also advised that the program seems to be moving a bit faster than similar programs following Hurricane Ike.
Hunt pointed out that this is one of many FEMA programs that helps with disaster recovery.
To qualify for the temporary direct housing program, applicants needed to have $17,000 in damage. “Somewhere shy of 500 applicants said they have over $17,000,” Hunt said. “Already our region has received almost $18 million in direct aid to victims. Of those, 245 initial applicants have said they are taken care of. The rest are still in the process.”
Many of those people who are helping themselves will be back to apply for assistance in a long-range program.
“That money takes longer to come,” Hunt said. “This (temporary) program makes sure that people have a decent place to lay their head at time.
“We finished the last Ike house in February 2017, that’s eight and a half years,” Hunt said. “Texas is cracking the whip to move this program along.”
DETCOG praised the Alabama Coushatta Tribe for its financial assistance immediately after the storm.
In Jasper and Newton Counties, 191 families were helped
DETCOG also took a moment to recognize former Polk County officials who helped launch the organization 50 years ago.
DETCOG President Lynn Torres announced that DETCOG was honoring former Polk County Judge Peyton Walters with a Founders Award.
Walters was a member of the charter board of directors and continued to support DETCOG after leaving office and joining the staff of former Congressman Charlie Wilson. Walters and his wife now live in Maryland, Torres said.
She also recognized the late Mickey Reily, a former mayor of Corrigan, for his service with DETCOG. The DETCOG president also recognized John Thompson, the former Polk County Judge who served as DETCOG president while Mayor Pro Tem for the City of Livingston. Thompson was unable to attend due to recent knee replacement surgery, Torres said.
In other business, • Jo Ann Battise, Chairman of the Alabama Coushatta Tribal Council will serve as a DETCOG director, and that Groveton City Councilman Ralph Bennett would join Trinity County Attorney Joe Warner Bell to represent Trinity County. • The Emergency Preparedness Take force will allocate $20,000 in uncommitted fund to the Sabine County Sheriff’s Office, as the highest scoring grant that did not receive funding. • Lonnie Hunt reported that DETCOG has selected an architect to design the new building for DETCOG headquarters which will be owned by the nonprofit Forest Country Development Corporation and located in Lufkin. The proposed contract with the architect is currently under review by the U.S. Economic Development Corporation.
LIVINGSTON -- Former Goodrich Mayor Jeremy Wayne Harper pled guilty Monday in the 411th District Court of Polk County to the state-jail felony offense of tampering with a government record.
Harper was sentenced by Judge Tom Brown to serve two years in a Texas Department of Criminal Justice state jail facility. However, Harper’s sentence was suspended for a period of five years and Harper was placed on community supervision. Harper was also assessed a $2,000 fine and required to perform 120 hours of community service.
“I would have stayed and fought, but it takes money to take things to trial, and sometimes thousands of dollars,” Harper said. “If I had the money to fight it, I would have fought it and won. It’s an unfortunate situation, however, I accomplished the goal I set out to accomplish. That was to liberate the city of Goodrich from the handful of people that had run the city for more than a decade illegally. There was not a mayor, and that itself was illegal. I am very happy about the way things went, because I did accomplish that goal.”
According to Polk County Criminal District Attorney Lee Hon, the charge against Harper stemmed from a sworn representation that Harper made on his 2015 application for a place on the Goodrich Mayoral election ballot. On that application, Harper swore under oath he had never been convicted of a felony offense.
During a 2016 investigation by the Polk County Sheriff’s Department into a claim that Harper was using electricity from the Goodrich City Hall in conjunction with the construction of his own private residence, it was discovered that Harper had previously been convicted on felony charges of issuance of a worthless check in 1994 in Rapides Parish, Louisiana, and theft of greater than $500 in value in 1997 in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
“As far as transparency, the city is more transparent now than it ever has been,” Harper said. “We have signs on the building. Before I came, there wasn’t even a sign that marked city hall. That was because they didn’t want signs up and didn’t want you to know where city hall was. We had an open-door policy. I worked with the city council and we resolved a lot of issues the city had. One was the TCEQ issue with the pond. The other was street signs. We had stop signs that were not even up in the city and had two accidents right there near the school. We started resolving drainage issues. The city council did a tremendous job for the city and it’s evident. I really don’t have to say a lot about it, you can just drive through the city and see. We started the first Christmas festival in 2014 and this year will be the third annual (one was cancelled due to weather). We enacted garbage service and really tried to improve the quality of life.
“It was mentioned by the prosecutor’s office that there was theft of city services. I have never stolen anything from the city — and people know that. This is all politics. I have never considered myself a politician. But this is a good situation. The city will continue to be prosperous and will do well. My goal that I accomplished can never be undone.”
According to Hon, a subsequent investigation in December of last year also revealed that Harper had obtained City of Goodrich water and sewage services at his personal residence without paying a required installation fee. The sheriff’s department investigation also led to an allegation that Harper, in his official capacity as mayor, had caused road materials belonging to the City of Goodrich to be delivered to a private driveway.
“The takeaway from this unfortunate situation involving former Mayor Harper, is that we expect public servants to be transparent and accountable in their actions. The public has a right to expect honesty and integrity on the part of their elected officials. The citizens of Goodrich are certainly entitled to that,” Hon stated.
BLANCHARD – A rollover accident on FM 2457 early Sunday morning claimed the life of a 16-year-old Livingston High School student.
According to an initial report from Texas Highway Patrol, Mason Chandler Johnson, 16, of Livingston was driving west on FM 2457 in a red, older-model Chevy pickup truck shortly before 5 a.m. on Sunday.
The truck reportedly veered off-road to the right and struck a culvert near Blue XX West Road, sending it airborne and rolling over.
The driver was ejected from the vehicle during the rollover and was later pronounced dead at the scene by Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Sarah Arnett.
Troopers with the Texas Highway Patrol, along with deputies from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, were dispatched to the scene and blocked all traffic on FM 2457 during their investigation.
A first-call vehicle from Cochran Funeral Home later transported the victim from the scene.
As of press time, investigators were still waiting for an autopsy report.
The accident remains under the investigation of the Texas Highway Patrol.
A celebration of life service for Johnson is scheduled Saturday at 229 McBride Drive in Livingston.
Family and friends will gather at 11 a.m. and the service will be held at noon.
A candlelight vigil for the LHS student will follow at 5:30 p.m. at 432 Stevens Lane in Livingston.
LIVINGSTON -- The Polk County Animal Control Committee, established by the county commissioners court and the sheriff last year, has submitted a draft of a new ordinance intended to address the stray dog and cat problem in the county.
The ordinance, which will be formally presented to the commissioners court on Tuesday, Dec. 12, has been designed to formally address several issues identified by the committee, county commissioners, the sheriff’s office and from the general public’s input.
These new rules will not supersede any existing city ordinances or any existing HOA/POA rules within Polk County, but focus on the unincorporated areas, according to Committee Member Gary Ashmore. Some specific things in the proposed ordinance include:
1. Formally establishes an official County Rabies Control Authority and Animal Control Program led by Sheriff Kenneth Hammack and his staff. 2. Reinforces the existing state law requiring all dogs and cats to have a rabies vaccination. 3. Reduces the number of dogs that are left to freely roam the neighborhood streets. 4. Excludes public highways and parking lots as places to sell animals from parked vehicles. 5. Reduces the risk of animals causing injury to people and pets by other unrestrained pets. 6. Reinforces State law regarding cruelty to animals and establishes penalties for any occurrences. 7. Excludes all rural property owners of five or more acres from any restraint or leash requirements. 8. Organizes a county-wide registration of all animal shelters and breeders for improved health coordination and communications regarding animal population and pet adoption opportunities. 9. Establishes some formal processes for the county animal shelter regarding stray animal impoundment. 10. Reinforces the existing state law regarding the restraint of dogs and specifies what is allowed and not allowed. 11. Establishes fines and penalties for violations and serves as a deterrent to irresponsible dog and cat ownership and pet dumping.
Ashmore said the Animal Control Committee which is made up of volunteers from the public, has worked the past few months with Sheriff Hammack and Lt. Mark Jones from the sheriff’s office. Dr. Ray Luna, the county health officer, also has been supportive of the ordinance as it is written. The county commissioners from each of the precincts have also provided valuable input and detailed feedback into the new ordinance as well as County Judge Sydney Murphy.
Input also was received from several members of the SPCA of Polk County’s board of directors. The SPCA currently operates the only active animal shelter in the county.
The Polk County Criminal District Attorney Lee Hon’s office is currently reviewing the ordinance prior to its submission for possible commissioners court action.
Although the new ordinance will limit certain activities related to irresponsible pet ownership, Ashmore said it is also important for people to know that it does not prevent anyone from owning, sheltering, breeding or selling animals in the county. “It does not limit the number of animals a person can own. It does not prevent any specific breed of dog or cat from being owned as a pet. It does not require people to keep animals on a leash at all times. And most importantly, it does not direct law enforcement to go out and inspect people’s property for violations, rather allow them to respond to complaints and prevent further violations and injury to the public and to promote responsible and healthy animal ownership in Polk County,” he said. Ashmore added this ordinance is only a start in addressing the existing county stray dog and cat problem and will need to be modified as time goes by and the county learns what works and what will not. The next steps by the animal control committee will be in addressing the existing, non-operating county shelter facility and determining what it needs to adequately support the animal control needs of the county.
LIVINGSTON – Polk County’s October unemploy-ment rate fell to its lowest level in almost 17 years, according to figures released by the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC).
The agency posted a 4.9 percent jobless rate for the county during October, which is the first time in almost 17 years unemployment has dipped below the 5.0 percent mark. The last time this was reported was the 4.8 percent rate posted in December 2000.
TWC frequently revises the figures as it collects additional data so it is possible the latest 4.9 percent figure could go up or down slightly in the next 30 to 60 days.
The new rate is down significantly from the 5.6 percent September rate, the 6.2 percent August rate and the 5.8 percent July rate.
In addition to being the lowest jobless rate of the year, the 4.9 percent October rate is down 1.2 percentage point from the 6.1 percent rate recorded in October 2016.
The current 4.9 percent unemployment rate translates to mean that out of an estimated workforce of 17,199, there were 846 county residents looking for work during the month. One month earlier, TWC’s revised estimates put the local labor force at 17,307 with 975 people looking for jobs.
Statewide, October’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 3.9 percent was down from September’s 4.0 percent and down from the 4.8 percent jobless rate posted in October 2016.
The October seasonally adjusted U.S. rate of 4.1 percent was down slightly from September’s 4.2 percent and down from the 4.8 percent figure posted in October 2016.
According to TWC officials, the state added 71,500 seasonally adjusted nonfarm jobs in October. Annual employment growth for the state was 2.8 percent during the month, marking 90 consecutive months of annual growth.
“By adding an impressive 71,500 jobs over the past month and 316,100 jobs over the year, Texas employers have once again demonstrated their unmatched innovation and ability to achieve success in our country’s premier place to do business,” said
TWC Chairman Andres Alcantar. “This economy provides valuable opportunities for the highly skilled Texas workforce to also achieve success.”
Leisure and Hospitality employment rebounded by adding 34,700 jobs in October after experiencing its largest monthly decline in September due to hurricane-affected business closures. Over the year, this industry has gained 41,000 jobs. Trade, Transportation, and Utilities employment grew by 10,300 jobs, and Professional and Business Services expanded by 6,300 jobs.
“Private-sector employers added 64,100 jobs in October and have accounted for the addition of 279,300 positions in Texas over the past year as the state has continued to expand its employment,” said TWC Commissioner Representing Employers Ruth R. Hughs. “I invite Texas employers to participate in the We Hire Vets recognition program to recognize them for their commitment to hiring our nation’s heroes.”
“Several Goods Producing industries are showing strength in Texas, including Construction, which expanded by 4,500 jobs in October” said TWC Commissioner Representing Labor Julian Alvarez. “In recognition of Texas Apprenticeship Week this week, I encourage our labor force to tap into TWC’s apprenticeship training program that can help prepare them for a well-paying career.”
From among the 25 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) monitored by TWC, the Amarillo and Midland MSAs had the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 2.4 percent, followed the College Station-Bryan MSA at 2.5 percent and the Austin-Round Rock and Lubbock MSAs at 2.6 percent.
The MSAs with the highest jobless rate in September was the Beaumont-Port Arthur MSA at 6.3 percent followed by the McAllen–Edinburg–Mission MSA at 5.7 percent. The Brownsville-Harlingen MSA recorded a rate of 5.5 percent.
Unemployment rates posted for other East Texas counties include: OCT. % COUNTY RATE CHANGE Anderson 2.8 -0.4 Angelina 4.0 -0.5 Cherokee 3.7 -0.4 Grimes 4.1 -0.6 Hardin 5.4 -1.3 Harris 4.2 -0.7 Houston 3.7 -0.4 Jasper 6.3 -0.8 Jefferson 6.6 -1.9 Leon 5.2 -0.6 Liberty 5.7 -1.3 Madison 3.7 -0.6 Montgomery 3.5 -0.6 Nacogdoches 3.3 -0.5 Polk 4.9 -0.7 Sabine 6.7 -1.0 San Augustine 5.9 -1.1 San Jacinto 4.7 -0.8 Shelby 4.1 -0.5 Trinity 4.7 -0.7 Tyler 5.9 -1.4 Walker 3.7 -0.6
AUSTIN - Governor Greg Abbott has extended the State Disaster Declaration for Texas counties affected by Hurricane Harvey.
All Texas counties -- including Polk County -- declared disaster areas will continue to be eligible for assistance as they recover and rebuild after Hurricane Harvey. There are currently 60 counties included in the state disaster declaration.
“The most important message I want to send to the victims of this storm is that they are not alone as they continue to recover from this storm,” said Abbott. “While we still have a long way to go to return to a new normal, I have no doubt that Texas will eventually emerge from this disaster stronger than ever before.”
State Disaster Declarations must be renewed every 30 days for assistance to remain available. Governor Abbott will continue to renew them as they are needed throughout the recovery process.
Counties currently declared disaster areas include: Angelina, Aransas, Atascosa, Austin, Bastrop, Bee, Bexar, Brazoria, Brazos, Burleson, Caidwell, Calhoun, Cameron, Chambers, Colorado, Comal, DeWitt, Fayette, Fort Bend, Galveston, Goliad, Gonzales, Grimes, Guadalupe, Hardin, Harris, Jackson, Jasper, Jefferson, Jim Wells, Karnes, Kerr, Kleberg, Lavaca, Lee, Leon, Liberty, Live Oak, Madison, Matagorda, Milam, Montgomery, Newton, Nueces, Orange, Polk, Refugio, Sabine, San Patricio, San Augustine, San Jacinto, Trinity, Tyler, Victoria, Walker, Wailer, Washington, Wharton , Willacy, and Wilson.