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Mayor: Police pension plan could go before voters

GALVESTON

Voters could have the final say in resolving police pension issues if the city and police pension board can’t come to an agreement on fixes to the plan, Mayor Jim Yarbrough said this week.

In a campaign forum Wednesday, the mayor said it was “not only a possibility but a probability” that a ballot initiative to resolve issues with the plan will be put to voters in November.

The city is waiting on an analysis of the plan from an independent actuary before making any real decisions, Yarbrough said in an interview Thursday. City officials will begin discussions with the board of the Galveston Employee’s Retirement Plan for Police once they have the analysis.

If the two can’t reach a good-faith agreement, voters would be asked to decide, Yarbrough said.

“Ultimately if we can’t reach some kind of agreement, we’ll ask the voters if they want to raise taxes to pay for an increase,” Yarbrough said. “Ultimately it’s the people’s money.”

The board overseeing Galveston’s police pension plan was anxious to hear about what the city’s actuary had drafted and what the city has in mind for negotiations, board Chairman Geoff Gainer said. The city and board have not had contact since the city manager sent a response to the police pension board in early March, Gainer said.

Gainer had heard about the possible proposal to put something before voters, but didn’t know the details to comment on it specifically, he said. Gainer and a city representative will meet with an actuary committee of the state’s Pension Review Board in Austin on April 24, Gainer said.

“I’m hoping we get to this meeting and the state gives us clarity and direction on how to proceed with this legal issue,” Gainer said, adding that there’s still a difference between the city and board trustees over how the pension requirements are interpreted.

Gainer is one of four police union members on the seven-member police pension board.

Galveston’s police pension plan faces $29 million in unfunded liabilities, with an estimated payoff period of 48.7 years. That period is one of the highest in Texas, according to the state’s actuarial report of the plan.

The city is required to get the plan to a payoff period of 40 years or less, City Manager Brian Maxwell has said. The Texas Pension Review Board has urged a payoff period closer to 30 years, Maxwell said. The police pension board wants that figure closer to 25 years, he said.

City officials and the police pension board have at times been at odds over what is required of the city and who has the authority to make major changes to the plan that might affect taxpayer contributions.

Gainer has argued state law lays out the requirements for the police pension. Under the board actuary’s interpretation of state law, the city would need to inject more money into the fund initially to get it to solvency, but those contributions would likely decrease over time, he said.

The city has hired a lawyer and an actuary to conduct an independent review of the statutory requirements and to present different models for the plan, Maxwell has said. The city’s hired legal staff and actuary have not yet made a presentation to the board, but were analyzing the law and the city’s position, Maxwell said.

The city cannot consider adopting the board’s proposal without deliberating it because the additional funding has wide-reaching consequences for residents, Maxwell has said.

As it is, employees for the Galveston Police Department pay 12 percent of each paycheck to their retirement pension plan. City taxpayers pay an amount equal to 14.83 percent of each police officer’s salary into the plan every pay period.

The city council increased the city’s pay-in by 2 percent in February.

Yarbrough is unopposed in this year’s municipal election, and will serve a final two-year term. He wants the pension plan resolved by the time his last term ends, he said.

The pension issues stem in part from previous plan board trustees and city administrations kicking the can down the road on the issue, Yarbrough said.

“I only have two years left and we’re going to solve problems and get things done one way or another,” Yarbrough said. “I’m not going to dance around the issues.

I’m hopeful we’ll have good faith negotiations before we get to that point,” Yarbrough said. “If not, we’ll do it in November.”


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Dickinson church reopens after Harvey repairs

The green carpets at the Shrine of the True Cross are gone, and the Rev. Larry Wilson doesn’t exactly miss them.

The carpets, which once covered the floor of the sanctuary, were a longtime feature of the church before Hurricane Harvey. They were ripped up before the storm, as part of a long-planned renovation, which became considerably more complicated after the storm pushed more than 3 feet of water into the sanctuary.

The carpets were replaced with shining marble floors that reflect sunlight coming in through the church’s massive stained-glass windows.

Nearly seven months after Hurricane Harvey flooded Dickinson, the sanctuary is finally open again.

“I love it. I really do,” said Wilson, the parish’s priest since 2013. The new floors and the sanctuary’s new sound system make the worship area seem like new, he said.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the Archbishop of Roman Catholic Diocese of Galveston-Houston, reconsecrated True Cross’ sanctuary in a service last week. The first funerals and weddings in the rebuilt sanctuary were scheduled to begin Thursday.

The sanctuary was already undergoing renovations when Harvey came, and the building bears few signs now of the storm’s damage, except for a water line on one brick wall. There are new floors and a new altar, which DiNardo blessed.

The archbishop has been supportive of the church since the storm, even while the city was being flooded, Wilson said.

DiNardo called Wilson as he was waiting to be rescued from the second story of a church office building during the flood.

“It’s a strange feeling to get a call from the cardinal while you’re waiting on a boat,” Wilson said. “I’ve received many calls from him directly since then. He’s been very supportive and he loves this parish.”

The church officially serves 2,500 families, Wilson said. Many of them come from Dickinson but others have been displaced from other communities flooded by the storm.

Since the storm, some True Cross members have been attending services at the local Knights of Columbus hall. That space is much smaller than the church’s spacious sanctuary, but Wilson said he didn’t think the change disturbed anyone’s faith.

“People were faithful,” he said. “They would cram into that building and have Mass every week. Many of them still are displaced or have moved out of Dickinson. It’s been rough on them. Most of them are not finished with their housing problems.”

Dickinson Mayor Julie Masters is a member of True Cross and said its reopening service was like coming home.

“It’s gorgeous,” she said. “I can’t wait to go back.”

The Shrine of the True Cross is a pilgrimage site for many people, Wilson said. As the name suggests, the church is home to an artifact that believers say is a piece of the cross that Jesus Christ died on.

There is still work to be done at True Cross, Wilson said. The rectory he occupied before the storm is still uninhabitable. He’s staying in an apartment in League City.

“I’m in exile,” he said.

The administration and school buildings still need extensive repairs as well, he said.

Still, True Cross’ reopening was like a reward after a test of faith, he said.

“This is a family, like any church,” Wilson said. “We stick together and we pray for each other and try to help each other out.”


News
Some residents angered by debris pile warnings

DICKINSON

Some residents whose homes flooded during Hurricane Harvey said the city has added insult to injury by issuing more then 60 warnings about debris piles still lingering seven months after the late August storm.

City officials, however, said they weren’t trying to increase post-Harvey misery, but had received complaints and had public health concerns about the piles, which can be havens for vermin.

While the citations are just warnings, residents could face fines if the piles of construction and flood debris aren’t removed within 30 days, city officials said.

Torrential rains from Hurricane Harvey badly flooded more than 5,000 homes in Dickinson and many residents are still recovering from the storm. City officials estimated in March they’ll need $301 million in federal disaster aid to improve drainage, roads and housing.

By October 2017, crews had collected 135,875 cubic yards of debris throughout the city, officials said. The city continued its collection of debris through February, officials said.

Once the city’s free collection ended, homeowners were responsible for getting debris disposal, city officials said.

The decision to start issuing warning citations was made a month ago, police Chief Ron Morales said.

“What the officers are looking for is debris stacked in roadside ditches,” he said. “We are getting a lot of complaints from residents. After a while, we felt we had to do something.”

The debris piles are a public health hazard, Morales said.

“We’ve got people complaining about rats running out of debris,” he said. “It’s also our job to see that it gets cleaned up.”

Bayou Chantilly resident Larry Lewis said city officials aren’t being compassionate toward residents.

“So many have been kicked in the teeth already,” he said. “It’s adding insult to injury. The city should still pick it up.”

The city does not have cruel intentions in issuing warnings, said Zach Meadows, director of community development.

Residents must be more careful disposing of debris near open ditches because it causes a greater potential for flooding, Meadows said.

“Most of our stress are open ditches,” he said. “When you have that, you have a situation where they are putting debris close to the street. It could end up in the ditches. I don’t think they are purposely doing it, I just think it’s happening.”

The city is giving residents more than enough time with warnings, Meadows said.

“It’s typically 10 days notice,” he said. “Because we are dealing with a unique situation with Harvey, we are giving more extra time than we actually have to give.”

Dickinson resident Gloria Marion, who recently started renovating her home, doesn’t feel like the city is sympathetic to people’s situations, she said.

“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “We just started remodeling three weeks ago. I think they ought to give people more time.”

The city recently identified more than $281 million for roadway and drainage improvements in eight areas of Dickinson, including the Bayou Chantilly neighborhood, officials said. The remaining $20 million would go toward housing rehabilitation, city officials said.


Jim Yarbrough


Coming Saturday

Don’t miss the 2018 edition of Profiles, highlighting Hurricane Harvey response, recovery and resilience.


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Coastal Health & Wellness clinic to reopen Monday

TEXAS CITY

A dental clinic closed in February because of concerns with infection and sanitation controls will reopen Monday, the Galveston County Health District said Thursday.

The governing board of the Coastal Health & Wellness Clinic voted to reopen its Texas City clinic during a special meeting Thursday. But the clinic will not yet offer full services, according to the health district.

The clinic was one of two closed in February after an accreditation inspection identified 11 threat-to-life issues related to sanitation of dental instruments and decontamination training.

The clinic’s location in Galveston will remain closed, the health district said. The district did not give a timeline on when that location may reopen.

Kathy Barroso, the interim director of the Coastal Health & Wellness clinic and the CEO of the health district, said significant improvements have been made at the Texas City clinic.

“The dental staff have been working diligently to correct the deficiencies that were noted from the Joint Commission survey report,” Barroso said. “Staff have received additional training and competencies have been noted. New procedures and processes are also in place and have been documented.”

The Joint Commission is the private accreditation organization that first flagged problems at the clinic Feb. 12.

The Coastal Health & Wellness clinic will not do medical procedures that require tools to be sterilized, the health district said.

The dental clinic will focus on patients that are waiting to be fitted for dentures, the health district said in a press release.

On March 23, the health district announced it would reach out to 9,500 former clinic patients who they feared may have been exposed to infectious diseases, including hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV, because of the lapses in infection control.

The warnings were sent to people who had been treated at the dental clinic during the last three years.

The health district has not announced if any infections have been directly connected to the issues at the clinic. The district will continue to offer testing to people that may have been exposed through Saturday.


Coming Sunday

Intriguing hearsay swirls in isle’s downtown and a big land deal comes undone. Read about those items and more in Laura Elder’s Biz Buzz.