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League City rethinks economic development incentives

LEAGUE CITY

League City, which has relied — in some cases controversially so — on tax breaks to attract or keep retailers and other businesses, could soon dangle a modified carrot as it reworks its economic development policies.

For example, instead of offering tax abatements, a proposed policy would have the city offer tax rebates, officials said. A tax abatement is a reduction of taxes granted by a government to encourage economic development, and it’s usually an upfront arrangement.

A tax rebate, however, would be given sometime after a company has put down roots, hired people and made improvements to its property, officials said.

Other changes in the economic development policy appear to be semantic, moving to the use of the word “investment” instead of the word “incentive.” Another change involves a new list of requirements in deciding which projects the city wants to spend time wooing and which ones to let go.

“We want to minimize the investment of public funds, and we want to maximize the return on public investment,” Economic Development Director Scott Livingston said during a meeting Tuesday.

The policy would set minimum thresholds and maximum limits, and it would target specific industries that pay higher salaries and spend certain amounts of money on their developments, Livingston said.

This process would analyze property values and the number of new jobs, among other numbers, and show city officials whether a new project would add tax dollars or whether it would cost too much in city services.

“You can’t really boil it down to one number,” economist Paul Scheuren said. “The model lets you put some numbers behind projects so that you have information.”

Scheuren also is a principal owner at Austin-based Impact DataSource, an economic consulting firm creating a model for League City officials to consider using.

Homeowners account for 79 percent of the tax base in League City, the largest city in Galveston County with a population of almost 105,000. Commercial properties represented 21 percent of the tax base in 2016.

For every $1 of tax revenue, U.S. cities on average spend $1.20 on services for residential property, but only 44 cents for commercial property, Livingston said.

League City faces other challenges. About 85 percent of the population commutes, often through congested traffic, Livingston said.

The solution to all those problems is to create more value for residents and potential employers who pay good salaries and add to the tax base, he said.

An element of that is improving the quality of life, something the League City Chamber of Commerce has echoed.

The chamber created a Comprehensive Master Plan Task Force more than a year ago to look at the city’s planning and economic development practices and make suggestions from the business community’s perspective.

City officials are on the task force, too.

The proposed policy is a move away from controversial incentives in recent years, such as the ones retailer Cabela’s and petrochemical company Ineos got. Both were deals known as 380 arrangements.

To land Cabela’s, the city struck a 380 agreement with Pinnacle Fund Alliance, which is still developing the 100-acre Pinnacle Park.

Under the agreement, Pinnacle Fund Alliance was to develop another 110,000 square feet of new retail within three years of Cabela’s opening.

The 380 agreement stated the city will reimburse the developer up to $9.3 million over 15 years, or when the development commitment is met, whichever comes first. The reimbursement will be paid from the sales tax revenue generated by the Cabela’s store and the other new retail at Pinnacle Park.

In April 2015, the city, in another 380 agreement, agreed to give Ineos $450,000 over five years, or $90,000 a year, to stay in town after economic development officials learned the company wanted to leave.

The new proposed economic development policy is one result of combined efforts. After city council members made John Baumgartner city manager in early 2017, they made a list of things for him to get done. One item on the list was forging a new approach to economic development and incentives.

The chamber also had input at the task force meetings, and much of the policy draft is part of a larger body of work, Chamber President Steve Paterson said. The chamber, as a result, supports the new policy.

“We are getting out of the incentive business and into the investment business,” Paterson said.


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Car thefts on the rise as gangs move into county

Car thefts increased 15 percent in Galveston County in 2017 as an international criminal gang made its way into the area from Houston, according to law officers battling auto crimes.

There were about 730 vehicle thefts in Galveston County in 2017, up from about 635 in 2016, said Lt. Hal Barrow, commander of the Galveston County Auto Crimes Task Force.

The thefts were part of a consistent statewide increase in recent years after steady decreases during the 1990s and early 2000s, and despite a growing population.

“Stolen vehicles end up as the nexus of all forms of criminal activity,” said Lt. Tommy Hansen with the Galveston County Sheriff’s Department. “All major criminal activity requires some form of transportation — whether it’s a robbery or a break-in.”

NEW ARRIVALS

Task force officers have been particularly troubled by the arrival of the violent MS-13 gang, or Mara Salvatrucha.

“They’ll come down and case a dealership and then come back and steal a bunch of vehicles and leave,” Barrow said. “They’ve already hit three dealerships in this county.”

Often, the gang members identify the cars they want to steal ahead of time and advertise them on sites like Craigslist before they have actually stolen the car, said Kriss Garcia, an investigator with the task force.

“They’ll get fake titles and prey on people who pay for cars in cash,” said Gina Doolittle, an investigative analyst with the task force.

The gang’s arrival in Galveston County is new, but the group has already caused significant problems in neighboring Harris County.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in April 2017 announced a new operation to stop violent organized crime in the Houston area and provided $500,000 for anti-gang resources.

The move was meant to combat a 10 percent increase in Harris County’s violent crime rate in 2016, officials said.

During his announcement, Abbott highlighted issues caused by the MS-13 gang in particular, leading to the decision.

Harris County has the state’s highest gang membership, according to a Department of Public Safety report.

AUTO CRIMES

Members of the task force put some of the blame for the auto theft increase on the gang’s arrival, but said it was far from the only culprit.

“Auto crimes are a $1 billion per year business,” Hansen said. “And that number is relatively conservative — it doesn’t even include potential damage to a car.”

Vehicle thieves can run the gamut from criminal organizations like MS-13 to drug addicts looking to steal a car to buy drugs, officials said.

Galveston led the county with 276 auto thefts in 2017, while League City was a center for vehicle burglaries, officials said.

“That’s where the most people are,” Doolittle said. “There are also a lot of businesses along Interstate 45 in League City.”

Thieves look for unlocked doors and sometimes break windows while people are inside businesses shopping, Doolittle said.

While League City leads the county in car burglaries, there was actually a slight decline from about 650 in 2016 to 579 in 2017, data shows.

INVESTIGATING AUTO CRIMES

“Vehicle crime is absolutely on the rise,” Hansen said. “Every time someone brags about the state population growing, these people are all bringing cars. With the growth in Galveston County, it’s only common sense that vehicle crime would increase.”

The task force was created in 1991 as part of a statewide effort to combat the complicated and growing crime. More than 1,700 vehicles were reported stolen during its inaugural year; about 600 were reported in 2014.

But since about 2012, the number of cars stolen in Galveston County has steadily climbed, records show.

The task force investigates all aspects of auto crime in the county — from burglaries to stolen cars, Barrow said.

Despite the heavy workload, the county’s auto crimes task force is down to six investigators after losing two positions, Barrow said.

A big reason for that is because of the state’s funding mechanism for the project.

The Texas Automobile Theft Prevention Authority was created in 1991 to combat vehicle theft by issuing grants to police forces. Legislators later added auto burglaries to the authority’s responsibilities.

Today, auto crimes task forces funded by grants from the authority are responsible for investigating commercial auto thefts, stripping operations, carjacking and vehicle arsons.

The task force was created with a dedicated fund supplied by a $1 fee charged to automobile-owning Texans on their insurance payments. In 1997, however, legislators did away with the fund, meaning the authority was left to depend on general fund appropriations.

Despite the change, the state kept collecting the $1 fee, and even increased it to $2 in 2011.

More funding — half of every $2 collected — was promised to the authority when the state increased the fee, but the extra money never materialized, Hansen said.

Task force experts said they worry about affording new technology and pay increases if new funding isn’t added.


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Texans brace for delayed crawfish season

Residents eager to don plastic bibs and feast on pounds of spicy mudbugs might have to wait longer than usual as distributors and restaurant operators warn of a tardy crawfish season, thanks to the weather.

Flooding during Hurricane Harvey and atypically harsh winter temperatures have caused crawfish to stay buried in their mud flats along freshwater bayous, distributors said.

While crawfish have not always been a popular local item of food, Texans now eat large amounts of the mudbugs and providing them has become a profitable business, Robb Walsh, a Galveston food critic and author of several books on regional cuisine, said.

The Texas market pulls in about $12 million to $15 million in direct revenue each year from crawfish, economist Ray Perryman said, citing statistics from 2016.

January to August is generally considered prime crawfish season in Texas, Walsh said. And a string of warm winters in recent years had gotten seasons started early.

But this year, those hankering for the vibrantly red mudbugs likely will have to wait until March or April, said Christopher Glenn, general manager of Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant in Galveston.

“We haven’t even started to serve crawfish,” he said. “Our owner, Nick Gaido, will order a sack and he will decide if the size of the crawfish is to standard and if we purchase.”

Some food festival organizers are already planning alternative menus in preparation for a potentially sluggish crawfish season.

The Galveston Cajun Festival, scheduled for this summer, will focus more on Cajun food in general if the crawfish don’t get up to par, spokesman Robert Hockley said.

“We will focus on shrimp or crabs,” he said. “It’s an assortment of different food.”

This slow start doesn’t necessarily mean an unsuccessful season overall, said Ed Drew, owner of Cajun Gourmet Crawfish, which distributes products to area restaurants.

“It’s going to normalize soon,” he said. “When it’s that cold, the crawfish don’t move. Once it hits 60 degrees, the game is on.”

Likewise, the season should turn around within a couple of months and restaurants could see business as usual, said Gregg Vicknair, owner of Pook’s Crawfish Hole in Santa Fe.

As the weather warms up, crawfish sizes also will start to increase and normal sizes should return in the foreseeable future, Drew said.

“The size should come up pretty nice in the next 10 days,” he said. “It’s going to be a good season.”


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Coming Monday

League City soon could begin remodeling its outdated council chambers using money collected from cable TV fees.


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Roady, Dickens face off in GOP primary race for DA

In next month’s primary, Republican voters in Galveston County will decide whether to re-elect two-term district attorney Jack Roady, or choose first-time firebrand Tom Dickens to replace him.

While Dickens, a Galveston resident who has never run for or held public office, has tried to catch attention with a long campaign based on criticism of Roady and his office, it remains to be seen whether he has a real chance to unseat the incumbent.

Roady is a Santa Fe resident who unseated Democrat Kurt Sistrunk in 2010 as part of a wave of Republican wins in county politics. Before coming to Galveston County, he was an assistant district attorney in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

Roady last week said he was running on his record, and not responding to Dickens’ jabs on social media.

“They can look at how we have performed,” Roady said. “We have built a reputation across this state for excellence and integrity in the way we conduct our affairs.”

Roady points to being named the Prosecutor of the Year by the State Bar of Texas in 2016 as a sign of his reputation. The bar recognized Roady’s efforts leading a review of questionable DNA evidence uncovered by his office as a result of faulty testing procedures.

The review resulted in hundreds of cases needing to be reviewed, both in Galveston County and across the state. While it might have resulted in some guilty verdicts being overturned, Roady pushed for the wide-ranging review.

“A prosecutor’s duty is to see that justice is done,” Roady said. “That means you’ve got to make sure that the evidence you bring to court is reliable — that jurors and judges can trust that evidence.”

It’s not always an easy argument to make, particularly when his office faces increased attention during a criminal trial, only to see it end with a mistrial or not guilty verdict.

Just this week, a capital murder trial of a League City man accused of killing his 6-year-old stepdaughter ended in a mistrial after a jury could not agree on a verdict after three days of deliberation. Prosecutors have said they intend to retry to case.

Roady, however, said he doesn’t measure the success of the office entirely by its conviction rates.

“Our duty is to see that justice is done,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you only try the slam-dunk cases. The cases that go to trial are going to be the difficult ones to prove. Sometimes, those cases are going to end in a not guilty.”

Still, Roady said prosecutors in Galveston County have about an 89 percent conviction rate on felony cases.

Since beginning his campaign last March, Dickens has criticized Roady for not being tough enough on crime and for focusing too much on statistics in his office.

“I just think it’s about time to have a district attorney’s office that’s not concerned about statistics, that’s concerned about justice for all our citizens,” he said. “Whether you’re a victim, whether you’re accused, whether you’re someone who is falsely accused.”

Dickens has taken a wide range of positions on criminal justice, sometimes at seemingly contradictory angles. He criticizes the district attorney’s role in the overcrowded county jail, which he said comes from high bonds. He’s not committed to suggesting lower bond amounts if he’s elected, however.

“There is no magic pill,” he said.

Dickens, a retired civil attorney and police officer who has never worked as a prosecutor, said poor vetting was the reason why 48 percent of misdemeanor citations are dismissed by prosecutors. A 2017 report about the crowding problem at the jail names misdemeanor vetting as one of the reasons for the issue.

Dickens acknowledged that many misdemeanor citations are written by police officers without consulting with the DA’s office, and said he did not think, if he were elected, that the office needed to commit more resources to misdemeanor vetting to bring the number up.

“I don’t think you need more resources,” he said. “I think you need to take five minutes to question an accused and gather that information if they’re willing to provide it.”

He said that prosecutors needed to get on the same page as police officers, so fewer misdemeanors are dismissed.

Dickens’ campaign has been mostly self-financed, and the candidate has done much of his messaging through posts on his Facebook page. The posts are often long, and sometimes focus on specific trials or cases in which Dickens asserts Roady’s office has failed to deliver justice.

On Tuesday, for instance, Dickens wrote about the coming capital murder trial of Dominque Stokes, a Galveston man arrested in 2011 and charged in 2012 who still hasn’t gone to trial. Dickens’ post criticizes the length between Stokes’ arrest and a trial date, which is now set for April.

Dickens implied that the wait would have consequences on the trial.

“In February of 2018 a motion has been filed to exclude the death penalty because, due to delay, evidence has gone missing, important witnesses have died, and because mitigation evidence no longer is available,” Dickens wrote.

A review of documents in the case, however, shows Stokes’ lawyers don’t blame delays in prosecution for the missing evidence.

Rather the defense argues that medical records and character witnesses from Stokes’ youth are missing. Some of the information was lost during Hurricane Ike in 2008, three years before the killing even happened, they said.

The defense motion does not mention the district attorney’s office at all. Still, Dickens stood by his own criticism of the case.

Dickens has also claimed the District Attorney’s office does not send prosecutors to crime scenes, and that the office has stopped prosecuting “corner drug dealers”

Roady said both of those assertions are untrue — he called the claims “absolutely ridiculous” — but added that his campaign has mostly not tried to correct the record on Dickens’ statements.

“Whenever you have an opponent, there’s going to be things that they allege,” Roady said. “Sometimes they’re truthful, sometimes they’re not. We have always taken the high road in the term of our campaign.”

Dickens said his information came from police sources, who he declined to name in an interview with The Daily News.

The campaign has apparently rankled some in the district attorney’s office.

Dickens also acknowledged that some assistant district attorneys have publicly said they would quit if he were elected to be their boss. If elected, Dickens said he didn’t intend to fire those people.

“I don’t have any people,” he said. “I told them I respect that choice. I don’t have any plans. I understand keeping your job. But there are limits to what I can be called before it tests my patience.”

The winner of the primary race will probably be the next Galveston County Criminal District Attorney because no Democrats are running for the position. The district attorney serves a four-year term. In the last fiscal year, the district attorney earned $161,640.

Early voting starts Tuesday. Election Day is March 6.


Jack

Roady