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Federal funds might end days of water, sewer breaks

HITCHCOCK

To put it mildly, Hitchcock’s water and sewer system has seen better days. Or, as some have said more bluntly, it’s a threat to human existence.

“Like many other small cities of our size, over the past decades our water and sewer systems have sorely degraded due to a lack of preventative maintenance, upgrades and improvements,” City Administrator Marie Gelles said. “Due to the lack of funding, the city is experiencing more customer service interruptions, stoppages and equipment failure.”

Writing about the city’s systems after Hurricane Harvey struck in 2017, officials with the Texas General Land Office used even starker terms.

“Heavy rainfall caused flooding within the city, resulting in excessive infiltration and inflow to the wastewater system,” officials said. “In addition, undersized culverts throughout the city prohibited stormwater from draining effectively. This resulted in a threat to public health, safety and welfare.”

City administrators are hopeful that federal grant funding might be the key to remedying the growing list of problems with the water and sewer system in the Galveston County community that only recently recovered from major financial problems.

Officials with the land office in December told city administrators they had been approved for more than $1.4 million in federal funds via its infrastructure program.

The land office allocated $413 million of housing and urban development funds for infrastructure projects to protect communities affected by the storm. These funds were assigned to regional councils of governments based on a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-approved needs assessment requiring that 70 percent of funds benefit low- to moderate-income residents.

Crews plan to use most of the extra funding to fix the varied parts of the city’s water and wastewater system, bringing it up to 21st-century standards, said Bill Garvin, the city’s wastewater treatment plant operator.

“It’s more working on the collection systems and the pipes in the ground, everything that brings wastewater to the plant,” Garvin said.

Hitchcock has about 15 lift stations around the city that pump to the wastewater plant. City administrators have been working for years to replace them, having completed 11 of the 15 already, Garvin said. But the stations cost about $30,000 apiece to replace, and the four remaining haven’t been worked on since the 1980s.

“Working with our city engineer over the past few months, the city has identified problems within our system that have failed or are near failure and need rehabilitation, replacement or expansion,” Gelles said.

Commissioners approved a 2020 budget that includes $100,000 for drainage projects, another $400,000 for storage tank maintenance and $120,000 for silt removal from the aeration basin at the wastewater treatment plant, Gelles said.

Using grant funding, city officials also will install newer sewer lines, rehabilitate existing manholes and replace some pavement, officials said.

“The system is just like replacing car parts,” Garvin said. “Things get rusty and corroded. We’re trying to switch from analog to digital.”

Just a little more than one year ago, the city of about 7,900 people was in financial trouble. In March 2018, the council voted to cut operating expenses by $860,000 to stay out of the red after more than a year of declining sales tax revenues.

But the city recently ended its 2019 fiscal year with about $4.96 million in revenues and about $3.4 in expenditures, for a total surplus of about $1.56 million, records show.


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Galveston's newest Coast Guard cutter dedicated

GALVESTON

A new cutter named for U.S. Coast Guard Chief Boatswain’s Mate Daniel Tarr was commissioned, dedicated and put into service in Galveston on Friday morning.

The 154-foot Fast Response Cutter Daniel Tarr will be based in Galveston and patrol the Gulf Coast. The crew of 25 will patrol more than 900 miles of coastline between Carrabelle, Florida, and Brownsville, Texas.

The Coast Guard is replacing its 110-foot patrol boats with the larger, more advanced cutters that have improved command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment, officials said.

The cutters are all being named for Coast Guard enlisted heroes.

The Coast Guard Cutter Daniel Tarr will be the only cutter based in Galveston until two more arrive in 2020. The Cutter Edgar Culbertson is scheduled to arrive in April, and the Cutter Harold Miller’s arrival date will be announced later in the year, Coast Guard officials said.

Chief Boatswain’s Mate Daniel Tarr Jr. joined the Coast Guard in 1936 when he was 18. He served on the East Coast until departing to the South Pacific during World War II.

On Aug. 7, 1942, Tarr, along with three coxswains, landed the first wave of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Raider Battalion on the beaches of Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. In the following three days, they delivered vitally needed equipment, ammunition and supplies.

Tarr and the three coxswains were the first enlisted Coast Guard members to receive Silver Stars, the nation’s third highest personal award for valor, for their service and success in the invasion during World War II.

Many of Tarr’s family, including his son, Daniel Tarr III, attended the ceremony Friday. His granddaughter, Charma Birch, sponsored the vessel for the Coast Guard.

“My dad would have probably been embarrassed by this,” Tarr III said. “But it is such an honor to see his name there.”

Many of Tarr’s relatives said he did not speak about his time in the Coast Guard and often stated that the real heroes were the ones that didn’t come home.

A crew of 25 Coast Guard members will man the vessel as it patrols, ensuring that people are safe and secure, natural resources and property are preserved and commerce flourishes, the Coast Guard said.


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New judge takes over federal court in Galveston

GALVESTON

The oldest federal court in Texas now has one of the state’s newest federal judges.

Judge Jeffrey Vincent Brown was invested Friday as judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas during a ceremony at the Hotel Galvez.

In front of two U.S. senators, the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and more than four dozen other federal judges from across Texas, Brown took an oath of office for a position that he could, potentially, serve in for the rest of his life.

Brown, 49, a former justice on the Texas Supreme Court, replaces Judge George C. Hanks in presiding over the federal bench in Galveston. Hanks came to Galveston in 2013 and was the first African American judge to preside over the court.

“I loved being a justice, but I look forward to being a trial judge again,” Brown told a crowd of more than 200 people who attended the ceremony. To the attorneys in attendance, Brown promised a “fair and efficient tribunal where the Constitution is revered, where the rights and guarantees are protected, where the law is upheld and where the dignity of each person is honored and respected.”

He also promised to remain committed to Galveston and announced he and his wife had already purchased a home on the island.

The federal court in Galveston was established in 1846, months after Texas officially joined the United States. The Galveston Division is now part of a district court system headquartered in Houston.

As a district judge, Brown will preside over federal criminal and civil proceedings.

Friday’s ceremony celebrated Brown’s career as a lawyer and judge, as well as his deep connections with some of Texas’ most powerful political figures.

Brown was born in Dallas, where his father was a police officer and his mother an author. After earning a law degree from the University of Houston, he served as a clerk on the Texas Supreme Court under former Justices Jack Hightower, a Democrat, and Greg Abbott, who would go on to become governor.

Brown’s time as a clerk also coincided with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s tenure as a justice. After he left his job with the Supreme Court, Brown joined the Houston law firm Baker Botts, where he worked alongside future U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

Cruz and Cornyn nominated Brown for the federal judge position last year. The Senate approved Brown’s appointment in a 50-40 vote in July. He was officially sworn in to his position in September, although it took until January to schedule the ceremonial investiture ceremony.

Brown is one of 187 federal judges President Donald Trump has appointed to the bench since he was elected in 2016, and one of 102 officials appointed in 2019 alone.

“Amid the gridlock and the combat, we’ve been able to keep our heads down and focus on nominating and confirming incredibly well-qualified judges, including Judge Brown,” Cornyn said.

The scale of Trump’s appointments, which need only to be approved by the Republican-controlled Senate, is perhaps one of the most understated, and ultimately consequential, legacies of his presidency.

“I’m convinced the most long-lasting, and perhaps most important legacy, of this president is going to be those 187 judges,” Cruz said.

Cruz lauded the appointment of “principled constitutionalists” to federal benches but said Brown was not appointed to be a partisan.

“The role every one of these judges up here is not to be a Republican judge or a Democratic judge but rather to have faith to one thing and one thing only: the Constitution and laws of the United States,” he said.


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Republican leaders split on Waters' primary effect

GALVESTON

Galveston County Republican Party Chairwoman Yolanda Waters transfixed local political junkies when she declined to resign in December over a text message containing a racial slur.

But what about the larger electorate? Did they notice?

Local party activist Dale Huls doesn’t think so.

“The local Republican electorate is pretty excited about Donald Trump running in the 2020 presidential election,” Huls, a Friendswood resident, said. “But by the time you get down to local races, like those for constable and tax collector, only the most active members of the party care.”

But more than a month after Waters’ text message went public and prompted calls for her resignation, other county Republicans argue the conflict will influence voters in the March primary elections.

“I’m not sure it’s going to turn Republican voters to the Democrat party, but it could definitely impact the turnout in the primary,” said Sandra Tetley, a Republican precinct chairwoman from Galveston. “There may be voters who understand the importance of addressing it and will turn out in droves to vote for that one race.”

While Waters’ comments might have some bearing on the primary, they will be especially important if she makes it to the general election, Tetley said.

Shawn Byars, a Republican precinct chairman from League City, agrees.

“You just look at the local group, you’ve got a couple of people who were really disgusted and have decided not to participate anymore,” Byars said “If that’s an indication, and middle-of-the-road voters are aware, then this might influence them.”

Huls is part of the Clear Lake Tea Party, which is organizing a Jan. 20 debate for candidates in all the contested races in the March primary, the purpose of which is to help enlighten Republican voters on the candidates, he said.

“We look at this not as advocacy but as education,” he said. “If you think you’re a conservative, come out and find out about the men and women who are putting themselves out there. Do you know the incumbent? Are you happy with them, or do you want to roll the dice on someone who might not have a history in politics?”

A majority of the candidates, such as U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, already have told organizers they plan to attend. But Waters has not yet confirmed her participation, said Geri Bentley, a former League City councilwoman and another member of the Clear Lake Tea Party.

Waters sent the controversial text to party secretary Alicia Youngblood in March 2019; it was revealed to county party members in November. In it, Waters complained about personal loans she and her husband had made to J.T. Edwards, a black man and the local representative to the State Republican Executive Committee, and then followed her complaint about the money by calling Edwards a “typical Nig.”

Waters said the slur was the result of a typo but didn’t say what she had intended to write. Despite her explanation, a group of Republican precinct chairs, as well as some of the state’s highest-profile Republicans, have called for her to resign.

Waters did not respond to a request for comment by deadline Friday.

Byars said he expected Waters’ opponent, Friendswood physician Patrick McGinnis, to win with about 60 percent or 70 percent of the vote but wasn’t ready to rule out that Waters could win reelection.

“I can’t see this being a positive,” he said. “But the way we tried to handle this, and get it out there, that might be seen as a positive.”