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Galveston business owner demands city cease Mardi Gras closures

GALVESTON

The attorney representing a downtown business owner who opposes closure of streets during Mardi Gras filed a cease and desist letter with the city, a spokeswoman said.

The letter, from the attorney of Allen Flores, is in regards to street closures during Mardi Gras, a city spokeswoman said.

The letter comes after a January debate in which some downtown business owners, including Flores, vented frustration over the street closures associated with the pre-Lenten festival, which begins Friday.

Flores owns businesses such as Shark Shack Beach Bar & Grill, 2402 Strand, and Bliss Lounge, 2413 Strand, among others. He organized Mardi Gras in 2009 and 2010 when it was free entry, he said.

Yaga’s Entertainment, owned by Mike Dean, began organizing the festival in 2011 and charging the entry fee.

Attorney Mark Stevens, who represents Flores, declined to comment on the letter Monday.

Flores declined to comment about the letter specifically, but has vocally opposed charging for entry to the festival area downtown, saying the fee prevents customers from visiting businesses.

“Any contract to lock out the citizens from public streets unless they pay off a promoter is illegal,” Flores said. “I’m absolutely in favor of continuing Mardi Gras both on the seawall and downtown, but it’s time for the city to stop breaking Texas laws.”

A cease and desist letter is a document that asks the recipient to stop a purportedly illegal activity and not start the activity again.

The city has authority to close off streets, spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said in previous interviews.

Barnett confirmed the city’s receipt of Flores’ letter Monday.

“The city has a valid contract with Mr. Dean,” Barnett said. “Our city attorney will advise city council of the letter during an executive session duly posted in compliance with the open meetings act.”

The fee for Mardi Gras helps offset the costs the city would otherwise pay to host the celebration, Dean said in previous interviews.

Before 2011, the city spent $500,000 on Mardi Gras-related costs, but spent only $250,000 in 2018, according to city records.

“We have a contract with the city and Mardi Gras is full speed ahead,” Dean said Monday.

Mardi Gras runs through March 5. Some downtown streets will close Thursday at 5 p.m. to allow crews to set up and will reopen by noon Sunday, according to city reports.


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Hundreds still await Harvey assistance answers

DICKINSON

Jeff Elsey has moved around a lot over the past 18 months.

After spending about 24 hours in his attic when Hurricane Harvey flooded his home in August 2017, Elsey, 47, and his family spent some time at a friend’s house, then more time in a new RV camper, and then more time in a FEMA trailer parked in his back yard.

On Friday, he moved again, back into his home on Lobit Drive in Dickinson. His family — his wife, two sons, mother-in-law and four dogs — enjoyed a homecoming meal from Dickey’s Barbecue Pit and settled into their new old digs, which are now 15 feet higher off the ground.

It was a bittersweet feeling, he said. They were back in their house, but had lost most of their possessions to Harvey.

“The loss is so tremendous,” he said. “I can’t really put a dollar figure on it.”

Elevating the house alone cost $80,000, he said.

This is the state of things in Dickinson, 18 months after the storm. Homeowners are seeing incremental progress, most of it self-driven as the wait continues for government-run recovery programs to ramp up.

It leaves some people in limbo. The Elseys, for instance, can live in their home, but are still waiting for a set of steps to be built to lead to their new front door.

The family can enter the house only by a set of temporary steps leading to the back door, Elsey said.

Elsey was waiting for a state program to decide whether it would help pay for the the final stages of his repairs, he said.

“I’m a little frustrated with the programs,” Elsey said. “The front of the house is done, but we don’t have the back and the sides. The bricks are starting to fall off and we’ve borrowed steps from a church, just to get inside.”

The wheels have started turning on recovery programs, however, recovery officials said.

Two months ago, the Texas General Land Office opened up applications for its homeowner assistance program.

Since then, hundreds of people have completed applications to join the program, but actual construction work through the program has mostly yet to start, local officials said Monday.

In Galveston County, about 500 people have signed up for the land office’s program, said Lynda Perez, the director of disaster case management for the Galveston County Long Term Recovery Group.

The program will repair or rebuild qualifying homes that were damaged by Hurricane Harvey’s floods. The land office received $258 million to fund home rebuilding programs across Texas and expects to repair or rebuild about 2,000 homes in a six-county region that includes Galveston County by the time the program ends. The recovery group estimated there could be as many as 10,000 qualifying homes in Galveston County alone.

The program is still very much in early days, Perez said.

Most of the people that signed up for the program early are starting to enter the inspection phase of the assistance program, Perez said. The process will determine whether a person qualifies for extensive home repairs or an entire rebuild.

Other people are not even that far on in the process.

Dickinson resident Alison Johnson Galdamez, 57, lives with her 19-year-old daughter and 2-year-old grandson in a mobile home off of Kansas Avenue.

Although raised off the ground, the mobile home was flooded during the storm. Johnson Galdamez remembers seeing little fish swimming in the yard as she waded in to survey the damage in the days after the storm.

Her family moved back in to mobile home in March, but it still needs a lot of work, Johnson Galdamez said. The floor is still bare plywood, and the stairs to the front entrance are practically collapsing.

After applying for the homeowner assistance program in December, Johnson Galdamez has had to submit paperwork several times in attempt to meet the participation requirements, she said.

She’s awaiting a response about whether she qualifies at all because she owns the mobile home, but not the land under it, she said.

While acknowledging that she’s received guidance through a case manager, and from a church group that’s helped people with some repairs, she said recovery help seems threadbare.

“I haven’t seen anyone getting help from anyone,” she said. “I’ve almost rebuilt the darn thing myself.”

The personal recovery work is tiring, Johnson Galdamez said. She had expected to be fully rebuilt within a year of the storm, she said. Now, she doesn’t know when she’ll get to that point. Her fatigue and wet winter weather have prevented her from doing more repair work on her own home, she said.

So, for now, it’s down to doing paperwork, and waiting.

“You get to a point emotionally where you’re sunk and you’re done,” she said. “So for the last couple months, I’ve kind of been at a standstill.”

While the start of construction looms, the land office is still seeking people to sign up for the program. The agency will hold signup fairs in Bacliff on Feb. 25 and Hitchcock on March 1 and March 2.

People who think they might qualify for the program still have time to apply, said Perez, the case management coordinator.

“There’s still plenty of space available,” she said.


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Galveston County Head Start resolves closet claim with suspensions

An investigation into a claim that a 4-year-old was locked in a closet for punishment at the Mall of the Mainland Head Start Center has been resolved with two one-day suspensions without pay.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t find corroboration on either side as to what actually happened,” said Melvin Williams, executive director of Galveston County Community Action Council, the nonprofit agency that oversees Head Start operations in Galveston County. Melvin Williams stepped in to conduct the investigation in the absence of Head Start Director Gerald Williams, who has been on vacation.

The site manager and the teacher in question have both been suspended for one day without pay as a result of the investigation, Melvin Williams said.

“We felt that we had to do something because I was not completely satisfied with the answers I got from the site manager,” he said.

The mother of the pre-kindergarten student who said she had been put in the classroom closet told Melvin Williams she didn’t want any more punishment and that she felt satisfied by how quickly he and others responded to her concerns, Melvin Williams said.

“She wanted her child to go back to school tomorrow, and she said she felt good about how things were handled,” Melvin Williams said.

The center’s site manager and the accused teacher were put on administrative leave late last week as soon as the accusation became known to leadership at the school and at the community action council, Melvin Williams had previously said.

The center’s human resources director and Melvin Williams conducted interviews with staff members and parents on Friday.

“The children are the most important thing for us here and we’ll do everything possible to see that they get the pre-kindergarten education they need, and that they get it in a nurturing and non-threatening environment,” Melvin Williams said.

The Head Start Center at 10000 Emmett F. Lowry Expressway in Texas City serves 191 children, preparing them to enter elementary school with learning skills in place. It also offers a range of family services, according to the Head Start website.

Galveston County Community Action Council was established in 1965 to meet the needs of low-income families in the four-county area that includes Galveston, Fort Bend, Brazoria and Wharton counties.


Melvin Williams


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Cities object to state property tax reform draft

GALVESTON

Legislation that local leaders worry could hamper cities’ growth has made some headway among state lawmakers.

The proposal would cap annual growth of property tax revenue for some municipal governments at 2.5 percent, unless voters approved a greater increase.

Thursday, the plan moved out of Senate committee, lining up for a vote by the state Senate.

It’s a plan that has ignited debate among Texas cities, including those in Galveston County.

Voter rollback elections over 2.5 percent growth could prevent the city of Galveston from fulfilling resident and business services, spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said.

“City of Galveston governance is decided by and accountable to local taxpayers,” Barnett said. “Enacting more restrictive statewide property tax rate caps could undermine the city’s economic and financial health.”

The continued interest in the bill at the state level prompted a Galveston City Council conversation scheduled for Wednesday, District 6 Councilwoman Jackie Cole said.

Cole requested the discussion for the special workshop agenda.

“They now have written bills,” Cole said. “I want to be clear on what’s been written and I wanted to do it in a meeting that was public so everyone can hear it.”

Passing the bill could change the way municipal government works, if the city has to go to voters for a budget each year, Cole said.

“This is just government by direct vote?” Cole said. “There’s a campaign every year to sell a particular budget?”

In 2019, the city plans to collect about $559,600, 1.74 percent, more in property taxes than in 2018, according to city budget documents.

Voters now can petition for a rollback election if a taxing entity adopts a tax rate that causes an increase of more than 8 percent in maintenance and operations.

Gov. Greg Abbott proposed the current plan last year.

Different versions entered both house and senate committees on Jan. 31, according to legislative documents.

The state shouldn’t be interfering in local government on this level, Texas City Mayor Matthew Doyle said.

“I just don’t see why they have any reason or business to be even playing in that field,” Doyle said. “Any time you take management of your community away from your community it’s going to hamper growth and all of the above.”

In 2019, Texas City expects to collect $887,471, 3.4 percent, more than it did in 2018, according to city budgets.

State lawmakers have said the proposal will prevent rising property tax bills from getting out of control.

This legislative session adjourns May 27.