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Galveston police, city reach agreement for officer pay, conditions

GALVESTON

After three weeks of bargaining, the city and the Galveston Municipal Police Association have reached an agreement on a contract for officer pay and other workplace conditions.

Teams from the two entities wrapped up details Thursday, agreeing to an average 5.8 percent pay raise for police officers, depending upon rank and longevity within the department. The raise will be effective Jan. 1, if approved by the Galveston City Council.

Salaries range from $50,504 for officers just sworn in to nearly $100,000 for a lieutenant who’s been on the force six years or longer. Mid-ranking officers with seven to 10 years or more on the force will see the highest bump in pay with raises of 7.84 percent and 7.66 percent respectively, according to agreed-upon numbers.

Negotiators referred to an agreed-upon list of comparable departments, including Texas City and League City, to guide proposed pay raises.

In the third year of the four-year deal, police and the city will take a new look at the list of comparable departments and adjust Galveston officers’ pay to fit within a market range, they said.

Officers will receive a minimum 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment in the second and fourth years.

Final negotiations Thursday involved business leave days for training, overtime pay and the length of the contract.

Police negotiators wanted a system to collect and share a pool of hours to send officers to trainings, so they didn’t have to use vacation hours for police business. The city agreed to terms but didn’t anticipate having to use it much and recommended putting a limit on use of leave time for such purposes.

Earlier in the negotiations, the city denied a police union request for elevated pay for officers working holidays.

Both parties agreed on strategies for limiting overtime pay.

The length of the agreed-upon contract is four years, a point central to negotiations. Police representatives preferred revisiting employment contracts more frequently or a two-year contract while the city consistently argued for a four-year contract.

These were the first negotiations between police and the city since the state mandated changes to the police pension. The Texas Legislature in May approved a deal restructuring the police pension plan that committed the city of Galveston to increasing its contribution by $385,000 per year.

The contract will have to receive approval of the city council to be finalized and put into effect.


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League City residents give mixed reviews of AmeriWaste service

LEAGUE CITY

More than a year after the city switched trash haulers in a bid to save money, some residents say they still aren’t satisfied with the quality of service they receive.

“I’m retired from the Army, but I’ve lived all over the world,” David Smith said. “And anywhere I’ve lived — and I’ve lived in a small town in Ohio with about 12,000 people — the sanitation workers were 150 percent better than what I see here.”

Smith, and several other residents living near his home on Brookdale Drive, said AmeriWaste employees are careless when they pick up trash and recycling and often place the bins right in front of mailboxes, creating problems for mail carriers.

But city administrators argue that, despite Smith’s issues, the number of complaints they receive about trash pickup has declined, and that the workers are following protocol and placing the bins within 2 feet of where they picked them up.

“Most of the calls and comments we receive focus on educating our residents on what can and cannot be recycled and what can and cannot be picked up, such as televisions and refrigerators,” said Sarah Greer Osborne, spokeswoman for the city.

“When we do receive a complaint or concern directly from a resident, city staff members work closely with AmeriWaste to quickly address and make all efforts to resolve the issue within 24 hours.”

Representatives of AmeriWaste didn’t respond to multiple phone calls requesting comment Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

While Smith had conversations online with several members of his neighborhood who had similar issues with garbage bins left in front of mailboxes, no one would speak on the record to The Daily News.

But other League City residents told similar stories about issues with service.

Barbara Meeks, for instance, lives on the far east side of town and has had issues with them from the start, she said.

“It’s things like handles being cracked on the trash cans,” she said. “But what really upset me is that I’d set out a package for American Veterans, or AMVETS, when they asked for donations.

“I had a bright neon yellow card on the package, it was all bundled up and had about $500 in small appliances in there. It was in the grass on the opposite side of where the trash and recycle bins were, and AmeriWaste took it. I was livid.”

AmeriWaste League City, a subsidiary of Alvin-based AmeriWaste Inc., took over as the city’s waste collector in May 2018, several months after the city council approved a five-year solid waste collection contract with the company.

Residential rates for garbage pickup increased from $13 a month to $16.05 under the new deal with AmeriWaste, but the rates would have gone up to $17.92 if the city stayed with Republic Services, city staff said.

AmeriWaste won the contract because of its qualifications and because it offered a deal that could save the city more than $7 million over five years, officials said.

The new trash provider gives poor customer service and regularly dumps recycling and trash bins wherever they please, in contrast to the city’s previous provider, Smith said.

“Republic was not the best in the world, but I had only a couple of issues in the eight years I lived here with them, and I would contact them and they were always really responsive. They always seemed to handle themselves in a professional manner.”

But not all League City residents are criticizing AmeriWaste’s service.

“I haven’t had any problems,” Byram Lass said. “It’s probably a combination of individual crews, as some will be better than others.”

And some residents don’t have reasonable expectations, Lass said.

Chris John Mallios, another League City resident, said he has had issues with the company in the past, but that employees currently seem to do a good job in his neighborhood.

Residents should try to place bins somewhere where they might not fall, Greer Osborne said.

“We ask that our residents assist by placing their trash cans and bags out of the path of mailboxes and driveways and to assist their neighbors when wind, rain or other conditions cause a can to fall over and/or roll into the path of traffic or block a driveway or mailbox,” she said.

But it goes beyond cans falling over, Smith argues. He’s frequently had to call supervisors for the company and have them make workers move the bins from where they originally placed them.

Meeks plans to write a letter to company representatives, but hasn’t yet because she’s still so angry about it, she said. She has, however, called the company’s customer service line.

“They were polite on the telephone, but the proof is in the pudding, as they say,” she said. “It’s easy to be polite on the telephone when you’re removed from the scenario.”

For all of the resident criticism of AmeriWaste, however, the city’s previous contractor, Republic Services, has also drawn complaints in recent weeks about erratic garbage pickup in Dickinson.

Dickinson this month will seek bids for a new-trash hauling contract, city officials said.


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Texas City commissioners approve expanded reinvestment zone for ammonia plant

TEXAS CITY

Plans for Gulf Coast Ammonia’s plant in Texas City are moving forward, including approval of an expanded Texas City Gulf Coast Reinvestment Zone No. 1 and a commercial-industrial tax abatement for 10 years.

The plant will process anhydrous ammonia, a compressed gas form of ammonia from which all water has been removed.

Texas City Commissioners at their regular Wednesday meeting voted unanimously to approve enlargement of the initial acreage of the zone, including a location for a remote dock to be built by Gulf Coast Ammonia in the Texas City Ship Channel.

The Reinvestment Zone was first adopted by the city of Texas City in May 2017 and was later amended and expanded by city ordinance adopted in December 2017.

The city created the zone for commercial-industrial tax abatement purposes to stimulate investment and promote economic growth.

Gulf Coast Ammonia in 2017 signed an agreement with Eastman Chemical Co. to lease space within Eastman’s Texas City facility, 201 Bay St., to build an anhydrous ammonia shipping and processing plant. Language in that agreement called for $800 million or more in development at the Eastman facility.

Approval of the expanded reinvestment zone means Gulf Coast Ammonia will avoid paying taxes on the property but will pay an amount somewhere between $750,000 and $1 million to the city each year, so long as the property is worth $450 million, said Texas City Mayor Matt Doyle.

If the property’s value were higher, the payment to the city would be the higher amount, Doyle said. The abatement represents a savings of about 60 percent of what the company would otherwise pay in property taxes.

Gulf Coast Ammonia submitted applications for property tax abatement and supplement on May 23 and July 1, according to documents from the company’s attorney, Christopher L. Nichols of Houston, and a legal notice announcing Wednesday’s public hearing was published on July 30.

No one spoke against the proposed plant or the expanded reinvestment zone at Wednesday’s meeting.

“I think they’re very close to getting started on construction,” Doyle said. “We’re hoping they’ll break ground by the end of the year.”

Initial plans indicated construction of the plant would be completed by the end of 2020. Company representatives could not be reached to comment on the new projected completion date.

Gulf Coast Ammonia in 2018 moved through a permitting process with the Army Corps of Engineers showing five alternative plans that, in each iteration, changed the size, location and configuration of the proposed off-shore dock structure in the Texas City Ship Channel.

“They’re very close to getting all the permits in place, but they’re not completely there yet,” Doyle said.

Concerns from the Port of Texas City, the Coast Guard and the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association were expressed during the public hearing period of the corps’ permitting process.

An earlier proposal placed the dock on the turn of the channel, making it difficult for tugs and barges to navigate at normal speeds. The location is now on the straightaway part of the Channel, away from the turn and offset of centerline by a distance of 526 linear feet, according to corps’ analysis.

The Port of Texas City dropped its objections, said Jason Hayley, director of waterfront operations.

“We came to the conclusion that the proposed plan was OK after the brown water community, a tug and barge group, ran simulations and were able to make maneuvers in and out of the harbor,” Hayley said.

The Galveston County Canal Association and some of its members were involved as well and reported to the port that they’d signed off on approval of the new location, Hayley said.

“Our concern was if it posed a risk and hadn’t been vetted,” Hayley said. “After the trials had been performed, the port had no more objections.”

The offshore dock will be connected to the plant by a pipeline buried beneath the channel. The port had no concerns about the safety of the proposed pipeline, Hayley said.

Anhydrous ammonia is a colorless gas with pungent, suffocating fumes used as an agricultural fertilizer and industrial refrigerant, among other applications, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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Galveston proposes tax rate 2 cents higher next year

GALVESTON

The property tax rate might increase as much as 2 cents in the next fiscal year as city leaders work to avoid service cuts against a headwind of increased expenses and a looming, state-imposed revenue cap.

The Galveston City Council this week proposed a maximum property tax rate at 0.58 cents per $100 of taxable value, 2 cents higher than the 0.561 cents residents pay now.

That was the highest the council could set the tax rate without triggering a state law calling for a rollback election. The actual 2020 tax rate will be decided next month when the city adopts a final 2020 budget, Finance Director Mike Loftin said.

The council probably won’t set the property tax rate at the 0.58 cent maximum, however, Mayor Jim Yarbrough said.

“It just gives you flexibility,” Yarbrough said. “Things can change quickly.”

City administrators also proposed a leaner budget for next year. This week, Loftin proposed a $235.1 million budget, down about 5.4 percent from this year’s $248.4 million.

The city has had some challenges with enterprise fund revenues, Loftin said.

“As of June, we were 14 percent down from last fiscal year on total water purchases,” Loftin said. “Our revenue is down because we’ve sold less water.

“Separating out how much of that is due to conservation and how much of that is due to rainfall is something for a more detailed study.”

The city expects to collect $35.8 million in water and sewer charges this year, according to budget documents.

“It is a tight budget,” City Manager Brian Maxwell said. “I think it accomplishes our mission.”

The city will have to pay about $2.4 million more in mandatory general fund costs this year, including costs incurred to raise contributions to the police pension, to pay for additional employee health claims and for transfers to an infrastructure fund, Loftin said.

The city has countered by cutting department budgets and reducing budgeted employee positions from 882 to 869, according to city records.

The cuts were accomplished without cutting any employees, officials said.

“We’ve done everything we can to not impact services,” Maxwell said.

The city’s tight budget comes as it prepares for a state-imposed cap on property tax revenue growth next year. Starting in the next fiscal year, the city won’t be able to increase property tax revenue by more than 3.5 percent without triggering a rollback referendum during which voters could opt to lower the tax rate.

The cap applies to revenue from increases in appraised market value of property and increased value from property improvements. Revenue from new construction, of which Galveston has relatively little, does not fall under the cap.

City officials worry the cap might hamper their ability to raise revenue enough to keep pace with increasing expenses.

The city council will hold public hearings on the tax rate Aug. 22 and Sept. 12 and plans to adopt next year’s budget in September.