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Commissioners to consider firing facilities manager

GALVESTON

The county will hold a rare single-issue special meeting Monday to consider firing the man in charge of managing its facilities.

In an agenda posted on Thursday, the county announced a special meeting to consider terminating Michael Bell, the county’s director of facilities management.

Bell, whose salary is $91,352, has been the facilities director since 2012, according to the county.

County Judge Mark Henry had the item placed on the agenda, which included no additional information about the proposed firing.

Henry and other county commissioners The Daily News was able to reach on Thursday said they couldn’t comment on the agenda item before the meeting because it’s a personnel issue.

Bell oversees all county facilities on Galveston Island and the mainland. Among those facilities are the Galveston County Justice Center, the county courthouse, the San Luis Toll Bridge, county annex buildings, the medical examiners facility and a fire station on Bolivar Peninsula.

Bell on Thursday declined to comment about the agenda item.

The maintenance department’s mission statement is “to provide a safe and comfortable environment for all employees and visitors to the Galveston County facilities” and “to maximize the efficiency and life span of all equipment and building systems associated with the facilities,” according to the county’s website.

The county’s agenda doesn’t include a call for an executive session, meaning commissioners can’t go behind closed doors to discuss the matters.

But commissioners held an executive session Nov. 5 to discuss the performance of two county employees: the director of the county legal department and the director of facilities.

Executive session agenda items about employee reviews are a constant presence on the commissioners’ agenda. In 10 of the last 15 regular and special meetings, commissioners have had employee reviews as part of the agenda.

Monday’s meeting is the first instance of commissioners moving to fire a person after those reviews.

Henry on Thursday acknowledged the agenda item is unusual and different from the way commissioners had gone about firing county employees in the past.

But lawsuits against the county stemming from past firings prompted commissioners to publicly vote on the matter, Henry said.

“Unfortunately, we can’t have an adverse employee action without a public meeting,” Henry said.

The county still is fighting a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by Bonnie Quiroga, former director of the justice administration. The case is still pending before the Texas 14th Court of Appeals.

While Quiroga’s lawsuit centers on whether commissioners had the authority to fire the justice administrator, who works for the district court judges, county officials said there was no question that Bell reports to the commissioners court.

The special meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Monday at the county’s League City annex, 175 Calder Road.


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Historic fire station to undergo major renovation

GALVESTON

Galveston Historical Foundation plans to demolish and reconstruct three walls of a 115-year-old fire station at 29th and Market streets, which some groups have wanted restored for years.

The foundation originally hoped to rehabilitate the Star State Company No. 3 Firehouse, 2828 Market St., but tearing down three walls, held up now with braces, is the best option, foundation Executive Director Dwayne Jones said.

The city’s landmark commission gave the project the green light Monday, unanimously approving what staff called an “unusual” request because of the building’s advanced state of disrepair, commissioners said.

First, crews must stabilize the south-facing facade, which the foundation plans to keep standing, Jones said.

“It’s an important part of the community’s history and it’s rarely been really talked about,” Jones said.

The foundation is looking at several months and several hundred thousand dollars of work to bring the building to a safe and usable state, Jones said.

He hopes to have the building ready by the end of next summer and the foundation is working with its own money, he said.

The foundation gained ownership of the firehouse in early 2017, several years after the firehouse had fallen into disrepair, said island architect David Watson.

Watson has been working on the project for years and has worked on other historic buildings around Galveston, he said.

Once the front facade is stabilized, crews will construct a steel frame for the three new walls, Watson said.

“We want to get the backup building up as quickly as possible and we can put up a steel building in a couple days compared to a wood frame building,” Watson said.

The new walls need to go up fast to stabilize the front facade, he said. He hopes to finish the exterior walls within six months of starting the project, he said.

“It’s one of those projects that we’re more excited to be working on,” Watson said. “We’re working on it just out of passion.”

The building is significant because it was the first Galveston firehouse to integrate with African-American firemen in 1957, Watson said.

Founded in 1859, Star State No. 3 was the third firehouse in Galveston. The current building was built in 1903 after the 1900 Storm destroyed the original.

Reconstructing the No. 3 firehouse is a component of a larger effort to revitalize several historic buildings downtown and revamp the area north of Broadway, Mayor Jim Yarbrough said.

The firehouse is an important part of Galveston history, District 3 City Councilman David Collins said.

“This is a beautiful building and it’d be a shame if we lost it completely,” Collins said. “We came very close.”

Once restored, the foundation could keep the property or sell it to a private company for use as restaurant or retail space, Jones said.

Either way, he hopes the building will have some memorial to the building’s history, he said.

“One thing we’d like to do is recognize the firemen who worked there and had done fire work there in the community for a long time,” Jones said.


News
Board expected to approve order of new bond projects

After voters Tuesday approved a $162.5 million bond for new construction at College of the Mainland, President Warren Nichols will appear before the board of trustees Monday to begin moving three major construction projects forward.

“On the agenda is getting the board’s approval to move forward to hire a project manager,” Nichols said. “We’ll also create a recommendation for our architecture and engineering firm, PBK, to begin work on the new Student Success building, plus authority to continue work on the science and technology building.”

The Student Success building will replace the college’s existing administration building, a one-story structure that flooded in September and sustained major damage to floors and walls throughout.

“If you walked through the building, you’d see that all the carpeting has been ripped off,” Nichols said. “We’re literally walking on cardboard throughout this whole building. Part of the building is condemned. We’re in less than ideal working conditions.”

In the interim, while waiting for the new building to be completed, the college’s administrative offices will move to the newly remodeled Student Center on campus, but not until late February or March.

“We’ll be registering students in January and February and we want to get through that before we attempt moving,” said Ruth Rendon, communications officer and director of marketing and public relations at the college.

Before the bond passed, Nichols and the board discussed how much work they were going to do to the existing building to make it workable, but with the passing of the bond, moving up construction of the Student Success building, which will house all administrative offices, has been identified as a priority.

The plan, if approved, is to work simultaneously on the student success building and a Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics/Allied Health building — classrooms and offices for programs in science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics, plus an expanded nursing program and classes in other medical technologies.

If all goes as planned, those two buildings could be completed by January 2021. Construction on a third building, one to house industrial careers programs, will begin when the first two buildings are about half completed, officials said.

“People here, myself included, are anxious to break ground and watch the process develop,” Nichols said. “It’s kind of like waiting for Christmas Day; it feels like it’ll never get here.”

During the wait, however, there will be plenty of work developing new academic programs that will be housed in the new buildings, Nichols said.

“There’s nothing easy about it,” he said. “Even though the classroom space won’t be available until 2021, it literally will take a year-and-a-half to get those programs set up.”

All new programs have to be approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the college will have to secure licenses and accreditation by respective organizations for each area of study, facilities will have to be inspected to determine whether they meet licensing requirements, faculty will be developing curriculum to meet accreditation standards and new faculty will be recruited.

PBK architects and engineers will be on hand at Monday’s meeting with models, drawings and presentations about the entire three-building project and to answer questions. The Houston-based firm has worked with College of the Mainland trustees since 2016 on a facilities master plan and had a $1.5 million contract with the college to consult on the bond initiative.

There likely will be a special called board meeting on Nov. 19, to fulfill the formality of accepting official election results from the Galveston County Election Commission, Nichols said. The regular board meeting on Monday will be held at 1:30 p.m. in the college’s Conference Center.


News
Medical branch to hire about a third of 900 laid off

WEBSTER

In the months since Bay Area Regional Medical Center suddenly shuttered, Shannan Sillen managed to find other work, she said.

But, while life has moved on since she was laid off as an MRI technician in May, she misses her time at the Webster hospital, she said.

“I love this hospital,” Sillen said. “It was like a family. I really enjoyed working here.”

Which is what led Sillen and about 140 others, including former hospital employees, to a job fair Thursday in Webster held by the University of Texas Medical Branch, which will open a new operation in the building.

Thursday’s job fair was exclusively for people who lost their jobs when the medical center closed.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” Sillen said. “My husband and I both worked here.”

Kathleen Ingram, who also was among the 900 laid off when the hospital closed, is working in Baytown now, she said. But she’s hopeful of getting a job as a house supervisor with the medical branch, in part, because of good benefits, she said.

But others, like Josephine Chan, haven’t found new work.

Chan is a registered nurse who thought she would retire at the hospital, she said. She hasn’t found a job since the medical center closed in May.

The medical branch plans to hire about 300 employees for the hospital’s first day of operation sometime in spring 2019, said Katrina Lambrecht, vice president of health system operations and regional hospitals for the medical branch. But officials hope to grow from there, she said.

The University of Texas System Board of Regents in late October finalized a lease agreement with HC-200 Blossom Street LLC to rent the building formerly occupied by Bay Area Regional Medical Center through at least 2033. The building will be renamed the UTMB Health Clear Lake Campus, according to the medical branch.

The medical branch will pay $210 million in rent for the facility over the next 15 years, officials said. The lease includes an option to buy the building after five years, according to the agreement.

The medical branch plans to expand its cardiac and neuroscience services at the Webster hospital, in addition to using the space to further research and training opportunities, Lambrecht said.

The facility would be full-service community hospital, Lambrecht said.

Officials with Bay Area Regional Medical Center closed in May, saying at the time the hospital would file for bankruptcy. As of Thursday afternoon, there were no federal bankruptcy filings involving the hospital or its owners.

When it closed, 60 percent of the hospital was owned by Carter Validus Mission Critical REIT Inc., a real estate investment trust. The other 40 percent was owned by the property’s developer, an affiliate of Medistar Corp.

The connection between those companies and the limited liability corporation named in the lease was not immediately clear.

The nine-story, $160 million hospital opened in 2014 with aims of being a full-service hospital for people living south of Houston. The building has state-of-the-art operating rooms and upscale aesthetics, such as bistro-style eating areas.

It opened amid a boom of other hospital openings in the Clear Lake area, including at the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Victory Lakes campus in League City.

Medical branch officials were interested in leasing the Webster hospital because there’s demand for such services in the area, Lambrecht said.

The medical branch is the largest employer in Galveston County, with about 13,200 employees. It has an annual operating budget of about $2 billion.

The medical branch is planning other job fairs to fill the positions, officials said.


Coming Sunday

League City officials say they’ve done their research on the developers behind a proposed $450 million project that will include four hotels and a convention center.