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Federal grants, TIRZ to fund major airport renovations

GALVESTON

The Galveston airport is planning more than $4.6 million in projects funded largely by federal grants to improve safety and security at the facility this year.

The Galveston City Council approved an agreement to pay for part of repaving projects at Scholes International Airport through Tax Reinvestment Zone 14. The airport initially got a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration, which covers about 90 percent of the $4 million project to rehab all the taxiways and runway, airport Director Mike Shahan said.

The municipal airport has a weathered runway and taxiways, which could create some safety concerns for the airport’s more than 35 tenants, Shahan said.

“The environment is pretty harsh so we have areas where the concrete is crumbling,” Shahan said. “If concrete or a loose rock gets in an engine, it can take one of the engines out. During takeoff, that could be critical.”

The airport will start the work in late fall once the aviation administration releases the grant, Shahan said. The administration will likely fund the grant in June, he said.

It’s one of several projects planned for the airport to improve safety, he said.

Earlier this month, crews started repairing and replacing four miles of fencing around the airport, Shahan said. The airport got 10 percent of the money for the $400,000 project from TIRZ 14 and the rest from the Federal Aviation Administration, he said.

There are plans to build new an eight-unit hangar at the airport later this year, Shahan said. TIRZ 14 will fund about half of the $800,000 project, he said.


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First woman to be selected for Texas City SWAT team

TEXAS CITY

If there’s one thing Officer Manda Serenil would never do, it’s back down from a challenge, she said.

Serenil, 27, is a Texas City police officer and the first woman to be selected for the SWAT team in Texas City in the 16 years of the team.

At least two other women have served on SWAT teams in Galveston County. Carmen Parker, now a sergeant with the Port of Galveston Police Department, joined the Galveston Police Department SWAT team in 1984, Robert Pierce, former of GPD chief, said. She also was the first woman to pass Houston Police Department's Basic SWAT Course, Pierce said.   

Stephanie Santanello served on League City’s tactical team in the early ‘90s.

“I was aware that I was going to be the first female in Texas City, but I did not think of it as a big deal at all,” Serenil said.

Galveston and League City are the only other cities in Galveston County that have a SWAT department. Texas City’s SWAT has been active since 2002.

Less populated cities do not have a need for SWAT, because situations don’t often escalate to a point beyond police control, officials said.

SWAT departments are called out to a scene when there seems to be a larger threat or patrol needs backup. They are trained to take on the toughest and most physical problems, officials said.

Serenil, a Texas City native, has always been interested in a field that gets her adrenaline pumping and challenges her. Pregnancy halted her original pursuit in joining the military, but it did not stop her from reaching her goals, she said.

Serenil’s decision to pursue a position on the SWAT team happened quickly after she became an officer in June 2015.

To be selected for SWAT, officers must undergo rigorous physical agility tests, weapons proficiency qualification, an interview with commanders and then the entire SWAT team votes and makes the final decision.

“It was an intense process,” Serenil said. “I was more worried about the push-ups than anything else.”

Serenil began taking CrossFit and working out every day when she began pursuing a position on SWAT. She can now do 55 to 60 push-ups in a minute, she said.

Although physical ability is important, it is not the only thing necessary in being selected for SWAT. If officers truly want to be selected for SWAT, they must begin proving themselves in the field from Day 1, Cpl. Tim Herd said.

“Serenil had to prove herself as a police officer first and she did that every single day,” Herd said. “Everyone knew that Serenil was an officer that truly put in the work.”

“SWAT works with every department, so people need to see you work in order to build trust and know that I will be there for them,” Serenil said. “You can’t be a slacker in the beginning and expect to get somewhere in the future.”

Serenil was never discouraged in her pursuit of being selected as a SWAT member, because she didn’t talk about it, she said. She challenged herself and tried out because she wanted it, she said.

“I want to be known as a SWAT member, not the first female SWAT member,” Serenil said. “I want to prove to the biggest guy on my team that I will back him and give him 100 percent every day.”

But Serenil thinks being selected and eventually certified as a SWAT member will encourage other departments in the police force to be more welcoming of women, she said.

Serenil will officially become certified as a SWAT member after completing a probationary period, which includes training, going to call-outs and completing SWAT school. Qualified members must successfully complete SWAT school a year after they are selected.

SWAT school is a weeklong physical challenge you must pass to be certified for SWAT. Some of the tests are simulations, which test strength and decision-making. Once completed, SWAT members finally “earn their wings.”

“My next goal is completing SWAT school and to show the team I’m worthy of the position,” Serenil said.

Once Serenil earns her wings, the work doesn’t stop.

“This is not a position they want to give up,” Herd said. “They have to work hard to maintain their level of proficiency. Just because you’re there doesn’t mean you get to stay there.”

Serenil will have to keep up with monthly training, high intensity workouts and weapons proficiency even as a certified SWAT member. All members must continue to perform at a certain level to stay on the team, Herd said.

Although Serenil achieves goals for herself, she also is showing her daughter the rewards of working hard and never quitting, she said.

“I want to be a role model for her and teach her that if she wants something, she has to go for it and never quit,” Serenil said. “Missing holidays is difficult, but she’s old enough to look up to me and realize what I’m working for.”

If all goes as planned, Serenil will join 17 teammates in the Texas City SWAT within the year. She is most looking forward to the camaraderie of the team, she said.

When the team members aren’t working or training, they like to casually challenge each other.

Serenil and one of her sergeants plan to compete against each other by seeing who can complete 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups in three minutes.

“Like I said, I love challenges,” Serenil said.


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Filling of Rollover Pass could begin this summer

GALVESTON

Construction work for the closure of Rollover Pass could begin as soon as this summer, if the final legal challenges are disposed of in coming months, officials said.

Movement on the long-proposed project has picked up steam lately, with the Texas General Land Office starting the process of choosing a company to do the work of filling the pass.

Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said he “absolutely” believed that filling of the pass would begin this year.

The county and the land office plan to close the manmade pass, which connects the Gulf of Mexico with the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, and turn it into a public park with a public fishing pier.

“We look forward to it becoming a tourist attraction,” Henry said of the planned park.

Commissioners today are scheduled to consider renewing a contract with the land office for coordinating closure of the pass and maintenance of the park and recreational facilities planned there.

If approved, the new contract will be in place until 2023, according to documents included in the court’s regular meeting agenda.

The contract had to be amended because of the long time it has taken to get the project underway, officials said. State officials first proposed closing the pass in 2009, but legal challenges have delayed the project for years.

One legal challenge to the work, being made by the Gilchrist Community Association, remains. The group, which is challenging the county’s right to take land around the pass by eminent domain, has lost in court hearings so far. The association has appealed its most recent loss.

County lawyers have until mid-April to respond to the latest appeal.

Earlier this month, the land office published a request for proposals soliciting bids from companies that could perform demolition work and fill the pass with sand and other material.

The county was scheduled to hold a pre-proposal meeting with potential bidders this week. The proposal period closes on April 18.

A contractor will be selected by April 25, and a decision to proceed with the work will be done by June 4, according to a schedule included in the request for proposals.

The land office’s request is only for the work to fill the pass, an agency spokeswoman said. It is not for the construction of the proposed park or pier.

The land office is seeking to close the pass because it causes erosion on the peninsula and silting in the intracoastal waterway, which costs about $650,000 a year to correct, officials have said.

Many of the opponents of the proposal are recreational anglers, who argue the state’s view of the pass and its effects on the surrounding area are based on flawed science.


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Hitchcock officials contemplate more cuts in future

HITCHCOCK

After last week’s vote by city council to cut $860,000 in operating costs, Hitchcock Mayor Dorothy Childress said there were more cuts to come to reduce the city’s expenditures.

“Hitchcock did not get into this challenging position in a single year and it will take more than one budget year to address these challenges,” Childress said. “The cuts approved by the city commission Monday are just the first round, unfortunately.”

The cuts were needed because the city is in a bad financial position, in part because officials have been drawing out of fund balance at the same time that sales tax revenues have declined substantially, two consultants said in February.

Although last week’s cuts positioned the city to end the 2018 fiscal year with a surplus of about $14,500, more changes are needed because property values could decline after post-Hurricane Harvey reappraisals and sales taxes are much lower than initially projected, consultants warned commissioners Monday.

“Fiscal year ‘19 will have less revenues than this revised budget,” C.B. “Bix” Rathburn, one of the consultants, told commissioners at their March 19 meeting. “You’re going to have to go back to your core costs. About $1.25 million is needed to totally fix this.”

Consultants have said the city should eventually maintain expenses of about $3.5 million to $3.6 million in a given fiscal year. Commissioners on Aug. 21, 2017, approved a general budget of about $4.58 million in both total revenues and expenditures, according to documents.

Childress on Friday said she was cautiously optimistic that the $860,000 cuts were a step in the right direction.

But other commissioners have said more action is needed.

“Basically, I feel that until commissioners have a chance to sit down and review the budget line item by line item and department by department, an accurate budget can never be made,” Commissioner Monica Cantrell said.

City officials didn’t spend enough time preparing the 2018 fiscal budget and more specific attention needs to be paid to finances, Cantrell said.

“When I came on the board in May, I started asking questions about revenues and sales taxes and bookkeeping, but the answers were never clear,” Cantrell said. “Maybe it was clear to others, but the system was never clear to me.”

Hitchcock ended the 2014 fiscal year with more than $2 million in its fund balance, but that number had declined to about $399,000 before the start of the current fiscal year, according to records.

The city in 2015 received about $2.38 million in sales tax revenue from the state comptroller’s office, records show. That number declined to $1.53 million in 2016 and down to $1.19 million in 2017, records show. That was about a 50 percent decline in two years.

To pass a balanced 2018 budget, city officials planned to cover about $690,000 in operating expenses with fund balance money, but had only $399,000 remaining, records show.

Hitchcock was saved from an even more dangerous financial position after the consultants found a duplicate payment to a tax increment reinvestment zone and suggested changing an administrative fee. Together the two changes accounted for about $920,000 in savings, consultants said.

“How is that possible?” Cantrell said. “We’ve got to keep an accurate system where we know what is coming in and going out.”

Childress on Friday said she didn’t want to speculate on previous administrations, but said that she hoped to complete a line item expense budget assessment for the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years soon.

“I am holding the line on any non-required expenses and the hiring freeze remains in place for the rest of this budget year,” Childress said.

Monday’s cuts slashed department budgets by an average of 19 percent and included eliminating two positions in the street department and four in the police department, among others.

Commissioners also received more bad news when a consultant gave a new prediction for sales tax revenues in 2018 of $857,400, or down $229,732 from the approved $1.09 million.