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Galveston paid workers $800K for unused leave in 2016

GALVESTON

In the 2016 fiscal year, the city of Galveston paid departing employees $802,449 for unused sick and vacation leave, Human Resources Director Kent Etienne said.

Several city council members have used the number to argue for changes in the city’s vacation and sick leave policies, which are being reworked by the human resources department.

“It’s expensive for the city, as evidenced by what we’ve paid,” Councilman Mike Doherty, of District 4, said. “It seems to me that it just is an excessive amount of time that can be accumulated.”

The $802,449 was paid to civil service, non-civil service and police employees, but the city couldn’t immediately provide a breakdown, Etienne said.

Separation pay and accumulation of leave has been a hot issue as the city council has worked to approve new vacation and sick leave policies.

The city hasn’t suggested changes to its separation pay policies, but has asked the city council to approve a plan that allows employees to accumulate vacation days in shorter periods of time. In looking at those suggestions, however, several council members have found fault in the old and have disagreed with the payout process.

City employees can take a maximum of 40 days of vacation leave in one year if hours have been unused and rolled over from year to year, city documents show. If an employee leaves the city, all of that money in unused vacation would be paid out, Etienne said.

Employees can take up to 12 sick days a year, but can accrue to 120 days, according to city documents. That’s paid out on a sliding scale — the longer employees have worked for the city, the more they’ll be paid in unused sick leave, Etienne said.

Paying out vacation leave doesn’t seem like a problem, Councilwoman Amy Bly, of District 1, said.

“It’s time that they’ve earned,” Bly said. “It just seems fair.”

But sick leave shouldn’t be paid out, Bly said. Doherty agreed.

“I don’t mind people having sick leave,” Doherty said. “But if they’re healthy, I don’t see a reason to let that much carry over. It accumulates quickly.”

Vacation carry-over accumulates too fast as well, and people should be encouraged to take vacation, not save it, Doherty said.

“It certainly doesn’t sync with the business world,” he said.

Councilman Craig Brown, of District 2, said the city council needs to look at how the employees might be affected while still making policies competitive with other area entities.

“I’m still not sure exactly where the city needs to head,” Brown said. “But I think the vacation and sick leave issue needs to be looked at.”

As for the separation pay, Brown said “of course the money is an issue.”

Councilman Frank Maceo, of District 3, said he just wants the policies to be competitive while being fair to employees. Separation pay should be cut down, but it’s going to occur, he said.

“It is what it is,” Maceo said. “If that was our liability, we need to think about ways to trim it. That’s a liability.”


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Port starts expansion for much larger cruise liner

Carnival Cruise Line’s newest and largest ship will move to Galveston on Sept. 23, 2018, but before it arrives, the island port must complete about $5 million in improvements to accommodate the 1,055-foot vessel.

“The Vista is about 52 feet longer than the Carnival Breeze,” said Jeffrey Thomas, a junior engineer with the port. “It takes up the berth’s entire length. Adding mooring to the eastern side of the platform will slightly lengthen the berth so we can fit the additional feet.”

Carnival officials in January announced plans to move the Carnival Vista to Galveston, replacing the Carnival Breeze that docks at Cruise Terminal No. 1.

Carnival Vista, which debuted last year and has been stationed in Miami, weighs about 133,500 tons and is 1,055 feet long, with a capacity of about 4,000 passengers.

Vista features the first IMAX theater aboard a ship, a water park and a brewery, officials said.

The ship will offer two seven-day Caribbean trips, departing each Sunday. The first includes calls at Montego Bay, Grand Cayman and Cozumel. The other trip includes stops at Mahogany Bay, Belize and Cozumel.

The ship’s size has led port officials to develop a plan to accommodate the vessel by increasing the size of mooring devices on the east side of the berth to handle more weight, moving mooring bollards on the west side of the berth and building a new gate for a gangway farther east, interim Port Director Peter Simons said.

“Among other things, there is a water station that interferes with the cargo loading door for the Vista,” Simons said. “On the eastern end, we have to upgrade the mooring similar to the work we did with Cruise Terminal No. 2. We will also install new bollards there. The Vista is so much larger, it requires greater bollard strength alongside the terminal.”

The Port of Galveston’s governing board in October approved a final contract to complete a wharf expansion project at Cruise Terminal No. 2. That brought the total cost of the project to $3.59 million, up almost $1.4 million from an initial $2.2 million awarded to J.W. Kelso in May 2015, Thomas said in a previous interview with The Daily News.

Port officials said they hoped the second wharf expansion would be less expensive than initially projected.

“An engineer group is developing plan specifications right now and part of that is basically to get a better estimate of how much wharf work might cost,” Thomas said. “Right now, we don’t have a final quantity. The wharf work will be the lion’s share of the work of the $4 million to $5 million budget. In my opinion, that budget is conservative.”

The Wharves Board of Trustees, which governs the port, Monday approved a contract with PND Engineers for about $127,600 to produce design drawings that will be used to bid out the actual project in the early part of 2018, Thomas said.

Port officials are working to secure funding for the project, Simons said.

Documents for the project include a request to the Galveston Industrial Development Corp. for about $250,000 for the project, but Simons said that number was preliminary.

The IDC oversees spending of revenue collected through some of the sales taxes levied in the city.

Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough, who is also a wharves board trustee, said he thought it was a good idea to bring the request to the IDC in January.

“This is a good spot for that sort of request,” Yarbrough said. “I can’t speak for the whole board, but I’m confident that if it is well presented and we understand the purpose, it will be given favorable consideration.”

The rest of the funding could come via money left from a 2010 loan for waterfront structure improvements, Simons said.

Port officials received a $26 million loan in 2010 and have about $10.1 million left that can only be used for waterfront improvements, Simons said.

“We’ve delayed using that money because the intention of the previous administration was to use it for a slip-fill project,” Simons said. “But we need to use the money since we have been earning interest.”

Carnival Vista’s arrival in Galveston could be a financial windfall for the island port, Simons said.

The increased capacity of about 244 more passengers than the Breeze could result in 20,000 more passengers a year traveling to Galveston, Simons said.

If it had to, the terminal as it is could handle Vista, but port officials are hoping to fast-track the project to have it finished by the time Vista arrives in September, Simons said.

“It’s feasible, but it’s definitely going to be a fast-tracked project,” Thomas said. “We are working closely with the engineer to get the design out by the first part of next year and bid the project.”

The port depends heavily on revenues from cruise ships. The budget for the 2017 fiscal year anticipates about 62 percent of the port’s $38.6 million in revenues will be cruise-related.

The Port of Galveston ranks as the fourth-busiest cruise port in the United States.

The Port of Galveston is a landlord port, which generates much of its income from lease agreements with maritime tenants and fees related to ship calls.

The port is currently home to three year-round Carnival Cruise Line ships, one year-round Royal Caribbean ship, one seasonal Royal Caribbean ship and a seasonal Disney Cruise Lines ship.


Coming Monday

Ring levees? Highway barrier? What will a coastal barrier look like locally?


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Much has improved, but stigma remains for HIV positive

GALVESTON

Dozens of people gathered Friday night in Galveston to remember loved ones who have died from AIDS or are living with HIV — and mark medical advances that have made life with the disease more manageable.

Access Care of Coastal Texas, a Galveston nonprofit, organized a World AIDS Day memorial service Friday, an annual event celebrated since 1988 around the world on Dec. 1.

There’s not yet a cure or vaccine for HIV/AIDS, but advances in treatment and care for the disease have made it a remarkable example of success in public health, said Dr. Janak Patel, head of the Division of Infectious Disease-Pediatric at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

More drugs are available today than ever and have fewer side effects, compared to the early years of the disease, Patel said. A daily drug is available now for people who have a high-risk of acquiring the virus that acts as a preventive for contracting it.

“It’s a very manageable disease now as long as our patients want that,” Patel said.

In Galveston County, the rate of new cases has remained fairly consistent over the past decade, with some spikes and declines, according to state data. Although across the state, new diagnoses among the most affected population by race — African-Americans — is declining, according to the data.

The county ranked 12th in the state for highest rates of new HIV diagnoses, according to the state.

One of the biggest challenges for health providers and patients is making sure there’s continuity in care, stable access to drugs and continuity in taking them, Patel said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in October that people who have undetectable levels of the virus cannot transmit it to others, Patel said. Medical and public health professionals who treat patients with HIV have known this for years, but the CDC had not yet recognized it, he said.

The recognition, in part, could help with stigma against people who are infected with HIV, Patel said. People can be infected with HIV, but treatment can reduce the viral load in their bodies to undetectable levels.

Stigma is one of the biggest challenges for care providers, said Mark White, executive director of Access Care of Coastal Texas. The organization provides access to care for people with HIV, including testing, case management, pharmaceuticals, health insurance assistance and other services.

Things have improved since the 1980s, but many people are still uneducated about the disease and form stereotypes or prejudices against people who have it, White said. That can create a roadblock for people to get tested or continuing with treatment, he said.

“There’s still stigma against people with HIV,” White said. “Through prevention, treatment, care and education, we strive to achieve the goal of zero new infections, zero deaths and zero discrimination.”

Bryce Aaron, a client services specialist at the organization, has worked with HIV-related medical services providers since 2006. He’s seen many changes in that time, but diagnosing and telling people they have the disease doesn’t get easier, he said.

“It’s hard to hold that space when someone finds out they’re positive,” Aaron said. “You have to tell them, ‘This is the new normal. It’s a life-changing diagnosis.’”

HIV infection complicates relationships with romantic partners, family and friends, Aaron said. The organization offers support groups and other emotional support for people confronting life with the infection, Aaron said.

“Some people may drift away from your life, but others will come in,” Aaron said. “We want to give lots of reassurances.”

Aaron sees many people who have lived with the disease for decades and become models of hope for those newly diagnosed, he said.


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CCISD faces $19M in Harvey expenses

LEAGUE CITY

Clear Creek ISD trustees last week approved $1.8 million to pay for consultants, contractors and replacing synthetic turf at two high school football fields in Hurricane Harvey-related expenses. Altogether, Harvey recovery could cost the district about $19 million.

The board of trustees on Monday agreed to hire consultants to recover insurance money and secure Federal Emergency Management Agency money to pay for Harvey damage.

“You’re trying to do it as soon as possible, but you want to do it right,” Board President Page Rander said.

RECONCILING

The district’s board of trustees Monday approved a $300,000 contract with Houston-based Disaster Recovery and Risk Solutions to find the money from insurance and FEMA the district needs to cover the cost of repairs. The company also will reconcile what the insurance covers with what FEMA can pay.

FEMA money would also cover the company’s $300,000 fee as an administrative cost, district officials said.

The district already has begun requesting insurance money and has applied for FEMA Public Assistance Funding to cover out-of-pocket costs related to the storm, officials said.

HARVEY’S DAMAGE

Harvey displaced teachers and students and, in varying degrees, damaged every school in the Clear Creek Independent School District, officials said.

Harvey made landfall Aug. 25 in Rockport, about 200 miles south of Galveston County. It dumped more than 50 inches of rain in some parts of this county, swelling creeks and bayous and flooding an estimated 20,000 homes in the county and devastating some neighborhoods.

The damage to district facilities is between $18.9 million and $19.4 million, Superintendent Greg Smith said at a Nov. 6 state Senate Education Committee hearing in Houston.

“Harvey also left 2,700 students homeless,” Smith said. “That number will probably increase.”

Clear Creek has spent about $54,000 on substitute teachers while its employees try to rebuild, Smith said.

READY TO MOBILIZE

The board of trustees also on Monday renewed a $750,000 contract for disaster recovery services with Blackmon Mooring of Houston Inc. and Mooring Recovery Services Inc. that ends Nov. 30, 2018.

The companies will work on Harvey repairs and also will be able to mobilize if another natural disaster or emergency hits in the coming year, district officials said.

The district has already spent $110,709 in the contract that just ended, officials said.

FLOODED TURF

Among Harvey-related expenses the board approved Monday was replacing synthetic turf at Clear Springs High School and at Veterans Memorial Stadium at a total cost of $751,938. The board approved a contract to replace both turfs with FieldTurf, a company headquartered in Canada.

Floodwater damaged the synthetic turf at both Clear Springs High School and Veterans Memorial Stadium, causing it to move and stretch and the stone subgrade to move.

Insurance adjusters said repairing the turfs is covered, but the district is still waiting to learn what the deductible will be, officials said.

The estimated completion date for the Clear Springs High School field is January 2018 and the completion date for Veterans Memorial Stadium’s field is May 2018, district officials said.

ASSURING EMPLOYEES

The board also passed a policy at Monday’s meeting that would allow the superintendent to pay employees during an emergency up to 10 days.

Before Hurricane Harvey, the superintendent didn’t have that authority, district spokeswoman Elaina Polsen said. It was the board that had to approve pay for teachers who weren’t able to work because of a disaster.

“Trying to get a quorum during Harvey would have been difficult to do,” Polsen said.

The policy change won’t cost any money to implement, but will help employees during natural disasters and emergencies, officials said. It will make sure teachers and staff get paid.

“It’s one of the last things you want to worry about when you are already worried about your home,” Rander said. “You need to have that in place.”