When someone in La Marque needs a face mask to help stem the spread of COVID-19, they don’t need to go to the store or cut up an old T-shirt. They just need to drive over to city hall.
As part of its federally funded fight against COVID-19, the city has set up a drive-up face mask handout program. People who can show they live in the city can pull up to city hall and get masks at no cost.
The mask program is just one of many items that La Marque intends to pay for with the more than $900,000 it was allocated in federal COVID-19 relief through the CARES Act.
“We’ve had expenses on everything,” La Marque City Manager Charles “Tink” Jackson said. “From buying masks and stuff that we’re passing out to the public, overtime-related expenses. Every time we haul somebody in an ambulance right now, if they’re COVID positive, we have to disinfect that entire ambulance. There’s a whole bunch of stuff we didn’t budget for that we didn’t do.”
Municipal costs like La Marque’s are widespread in the county. Other cities have done different items with the millions of dollars in COVID aid they were distributed earlier this year.
But it’s partially the use of the funds, and whether they’re being spent quickly and efficiently, that’s at the center of a growing disagreement in the county. Galveston County Judge Mark Henry has asked cities to contribute 18 percent of their CARES Act funding to a county-wide testing program managed by the county and the University of Texas Medical Branch.
Last week, the League City council rejected that request and with the rejection lobbed a series of criticisms about Henry’s leadership through the pandemic.
But League City is not the only city to express skepticism about the program. In La Marque, the city council officially tabled discussion of funding the program last week. In Galveston, any mention of the testing program was left off the city council’s upcoming agenda. And in Dickinson, city officials said they were still reviewing their own spending plans before committing to the program.
“I really want to understand how to utilize some of the expenditures,” said Chris Heard, Dickinson’s city administrator. “I’m looking at what are eligible costs and how we can utilize those costs. I don’t want to say we’re going to spend it this way or that way.”
Heard said the city does have COVID-19-related expenses it needs to take care of, including potentially making improvements at city hall that would make social distancing and meeting virtually easier.
The CARES Act money carries a state-imposed requirement that at least 75 percent of the funds be used on things like medical expenses, direct public health expenses and payroll for frontline workers. The other 25 percent can be used for other programs, like grants for businesses affected by the pandemic.
Because of the number of direct costs it is incurring, La Marque has told county officials that the city could contribute some money to the program, if there was any funding left over at the end of the year, Jackson said.
“We have a lot of expenses that are COVID-related, and we don’t know how we’re sitting in our budget,” Jackson said. “There was a lot of questions, and they were asking for a big chunk of money.”
In a similar vein, Texas City Mayor Matt Doyle said he thought the test program was an important thing to help pay for — but had asked the county to provide information on how many Texas City residents were being treated.
He said he might potentially propose paying for the costs of uninsured Texas City residents who have been tested through the program, which, he acknowledged, could ultimately be more or less than the county’s 18 percent ask.
“I have a fiduciary duty to my citizens,” Doyle said. “I think testing is certainly something that funding needs to go to.”
Galveston City Manager Brian Maxwell said he had discussed the program with county officials and was unclear over whether the county would still seek money from Galveston following League City’s rejection of the program.
Still, Galveston has contributed to countywide efforts to respond to the pandemic, through its program to test service industry workers and through a payment it made to the Galveston County Health District to help pay for contact-tracing software, Maxwell said. People don’t have to be residents of Galveston to access the service industry worker testing as long as they work on the island.
“We were putting up other money anyway,” Maxwell said. “We’re still serving the same uninsured population. We’re already doing that.”
The county has told city leaders that its testing program costs about $50,000 per week and would cost about $3.5 million to fund during the last six months of 2020. Henry argues the county testing program, which has contributed to Galveston’s high per-capita testing rate, is something that should be supported by every local government.
The program is advertised as a free-test-for-all program, though the people who have insurance are covered through that means, instead of out of the program’s funds.
The county itself received $2.3 million in CARES Act funding and has received commitments for funding from Bayou Vista, Clear Lake Shores, Friendswood, Hitchcock, Kemah and Santa Fe. Of that amount, the county has sent $380,500 to the Galveston County Health District to hire additional nurses and epidemiologists to help respond to COVID-19 and committed $1.4 million to the testing program.
In League City, some leaders appear to have second thoughts about their opposition to the county program. The city council is scheduled to meet today in a special meeting to reconsider the county’s request to fund the testing program.
The county had requested that League City provide $1.04 million to the program, out of the total $5.7 million total that was allocated to the city. To date, League City has spent $873,430 on costs related to COVID-19, according to information included in the council’s agenda packet.
There is at least another $851,577 that League City expects to spend through the rest of the year, including proposed COVID-19 improvements to the League City library, testing programs for employees and businesses and upgrades to heating and air conditioning systems around the city, according to the packet.
As of Monday, League City had nearly $3 million in unallocated money from its COVID-19 funds, but many of the proposed programs also did not have an estimated cost.
Less than a week ago, congratulations were pouring in after Anthony Hera, a 27-year veteran of the League City Police Department, was named assistant chief.
But now, some residents are calling for department officials to explain Hera’s selection after learning about controversial posts he made on social media pages four years ago.
Screenshots of the since-deleted social media profiles show more than 30 images posted under Hera’s photo section, featuring everything from pretty pictures of nature to a cartoon picture of Texas and the rest of the United States, along with the caption across Texas, “I’m with stupid.”
The image that captured most of the public’s attention, however, depicts a cartoon image of a Jeep running over stick figures, along with the caption, “Nobody cares about your protest.”
The picture was posted in March 2016, when anti-Donald Trump protests broke out in the lead-up to the November presidential election. But some residents have taken the post in new light given the ongoing nationwide protests in support of racial justice that began after the death of George Floyd and others at the hands of police officers.
“I don’t know, it just doesn’t sit well with me,” said Jason Kumelski, a League City resident. “It bothers me for an assistant police chief put in that position to have that mindset.”
The posts are at a minimum embarrassing for League City, but residents should wait for all the facts before rushing to judgment, Mayor Pat Hallisey said Monday.
“I’ve said all along the optics are not positive,” Hallisey said. “But if anyone were in the same boat that Hera is in, they might appreciate my outlook.”
As residents took to emailing and calling the police department to voice their concern after learning about the posts, Hera and Chief Gary Ratliff released statements Saturday, apologizing and announcing an investigation.
“The department is currently investigating the nature of this content, and when and by whom it was posted, commented upon or shared in a feed,” Ratliff said. “Once the investigation is complete, the appropriate action will be taken.”
Hera, meanwhile, in his statement and in an interview with The Daily News, acknowledged that he understood why some residents were offended and added that the posts don’t convey who he is.
“Regardless of how the photographs arrived on my page, I found them offensive, but I am responsible for them remaining there and for that, I am sincerely sorry,” Hera said. “The last thing I would want to do is bring discredit to the fine men and women who work for the city of League City.
“More importantly, it grieves me that any person in our community would feel that I would not protect their constitutional rights with my last breath,” he said.
Hera said he helped coordinate security at two recent protests, which were organized following the death of George Floyd, as evidence of his passion for public service.
Resident comments on the statements were divided by those arguing Hera did nothing wrong and those that said it was inappropriate.
Kumelski, who filed a formal complaint with the city on Monday, planned to meet with Ratliff, City Manager John Baumgartner and assistant city managers Ogden “Bo” Bass and Michael Kramm on Tuesday to further discuss the matter, along with Kimberley Yancy, president of the NAACP Dickinson Bay Area Unit.
Yancy on Monday told The Daily News she wanted to wait until after that meeting before commenting on the matter but said she hoped to discuss several matters with city officials, including vetting of future candidates.
Kumelski agreed and said it wasn’t his place to tell the department what they should do with their employees.
“The outcome of this is owned completely by the department and the city of League City,” he said. “They have to do what is proper and what is right according to their policy.”
Two of Galveston County’s largest school districts each voted Monday to push back their originally scheduled back-to-school dates.
The Texas City Independent School District’s board of trustees voted unanimously to reschedule the first day of school from Aug. 12 to Aug. 24, a date change that was previously discussed at a school board meeting last week.
“It’s a good, solid start date,” Texas City ISD deputy superintendent Susan Myers said. “As you all know, it’s the date the state has as the official start date — the fourth Monday in August. So, we’re really returning to the date that the state prescribes. We changed it only because we’re a district of innovation.”
The first three weeks of school will be online only, with students having the option to choose between virtual learning from home and in-person instruction at schools beginning Sept. 14.
“I think this is going to be the year of flexibility,” Myers said. “We’re going to have to approach every day looking at the data that’s before us and looking at the guidelines before us and making the adjustments necessary because we just don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.”
Clear Creek ISD’s board of trustees voted 6-1 to move the start date for its new 2020-21 school year from Aug. 18 to Aug. 24.
Staff members will still return Aug. 18. All students will begin the school year learning online only, and students who choose in-person classes will return to campus in two stages. Pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners, sixth graders, ninth graders and special education students will go back to school Aug. 31, and all other students will return Sept. 8.
“This will give us an opportunity to really home in on our protocols necessary to ensure that we have the safety and well-being in place, that we’ve dotted all our i’s and crossed all of our t’s, and then train small groups of students transitioning into the schools,” Clear Creek ISD superintendent Greg Smith said.
The lone dissenting vote, board member Scott Bowen, felt the first stage of in-person classes should begin the week of Aug. 24 and not the following week as proposed.
In a separate vote, Texas City ISD decided that students who choose to learn remotely will still be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities, as long as they meet eligibility requirements and are in good standing with the program. Those students would have to provide their own transportation to practices, Myers said.
“If they’re following all the rules, if they’re coming to practice, then we would allow those kids to participate,” Myers said.
At the mail box and the post office, it’s taking longer for some islanders to get their mail.
Recent national reports have said the COVID-19 pandemic could cause mail delays for people across the country as postal workers fall sick or quarantine and as U.S. Postal Service leadership limits worker overtime to cut costs.
Either because of the pandemic or for other reasons, delays are becoming apparent in Galveston, some residents say.
Lafitte’s Cove resident Belinda Strickland has experienced delayed mail delivery for a few weeks, she said.
Strickland orders many of her essential goods online, so she doesn’t have to go the store, she said. After the Fourth of July weekend, she started noticing her regular packages were delayed by about a week, she said.
The post office also was sending notices that no one was home and that it was unable to deliver the packages. Strickland works from home, she said.
“Some packages, I just never got,” Strickland said.
Before July, Strickland had never had issues with her mail delivery, she said.
The local branch of the U.S. Postal Service is aware of the delays and wait time in Galveston, spokesman Albert Ruiz said.
“We are flexing our available resources to match the workload created by the impacts of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic,” Ruiz said.
On July 15, post office officials announced people across the United States might notice some delays as the service cut overtime and reduced or eliminated late trips as part of cost-cutting efforts, The Associated Press reported.
The Postal Service has seen revenue losses in the past decade, and the pandemic has only exacerbated those issues, The Associated Press reported.
About 12,000 postal workers have fallen ill with the coronavirus, according to The Associated Press.
Local Postal Service representatives didn’t immediately respond to specific questions about staffing levels or overtime hours, but said it is developing a plan that will focus on efficiency.
“We are also developing a business plan to ensure that we will be financially stable and able to continue to provide reliable, affordable, safe and secure delivery of mail, packages and other communications,” Ruiz said.
Strickland thinks her delayed deliveries are the result of low staffing levels locally related to the pandemic, which she understands, she said.
But residents also have been complaining about longer-than-usual waits when they go to the post office.
Galveston resident Pam Bass waited in line for two hours and seven minutes last week at the Bob Lyons Post Office, 5826 Broadway, she said.
“I was in disbelief,” Bass said.
She’d been at the post office earlier that week to pick up mail, so she knew the line was going to be long, Bass said. So she added a new tool to her pandemic preparedness kit.
“I took a stool, so I didn’t have to stand there,” she said.
Nearly 40 percent of the Galveston County residents who have succumbed to the COVID-19 virus have died since June 23, according to new information released by the Galveston County Health District.
The county’s death toll from the virus now stands at 66 people.
Between Saturday and Monday, the health district announced eight new deaths connected to the virus. The seven deaths announced Saturday marked the single highest one-day increase in the county since the county’s first COVID-19-related fatality was reported on April 4.
The most recent group of reported deaths occurred as early as June 28 and as recently as July 15.
The 26 deaths confirmed over the last 30 days is approaching the highest rate of daily fatalities in Galveston County since the first month of the pandemic. The highest number of deaths occurred between April 4 and May 4, when 31 people died after contracting the virus, according to health district reports.
Many of the county’s earlier deaths were attributed to long-term care facilities, but that has changed of late.
Since June 22, only five of 26 deaths have been attributed to long-term care facilities.
The eight recent deaths include four men and four women, ranging in age between 30 years old and 90 years old. All eight people had preexisting medical conditions.
To date, the health district has not provided more details about the medical conditions of people who died from the virus.
As of Monday, 7,354 people in Galveston County have tested positive for COVID-19. Of those, 4,955 cases remain active, 2,333 people have been deemed recovered and 66 have died, according to the district.