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Bill to fix Galveston police pension inches through Austin

GALVESTON

The state House of Representatives committee heard public comment Thursday in support of a bill that aims to fix Galveston’s ailing police pension system, a goal that’s involved months of heated debate between the city and police.

As of May, Galveston’s police pension had $32.1 million in unfunded liabilities, according to actuarial reports.

Fully funding the pension and bringing it back into compliance is a state requirement.

The bill that the House Pensions, Investments & Financial Services Committee heard Thursday proposes the city of Galveston raise its contribution rate from 14.83 percent to 18 percent and that police contribute 12 percent of their salaries to the plan, according to legislative documents.

The bill also would raise the age — to 55 from 50 — at which new employees can draw their pension.

These terms are the culmination of months of discussion between the city and the police pension board.

“This is a problem that’s been kicking the can down the road for 30 years,” Mayor Jim Yarbrough said Thursday.

Raising the city’s contribution rate to 18 percent would cost the city between $400,000 and $500,000 more each year, city officials said. The city’s contribution now is about $1.77 million a year and the proposed increase would push that to more than $2 million, city officials have said.

“The city acknowledged a long time ago more money was needed,” Yarbrough said.

City Manager Brian Maxwell and other city representatives attended the public hearing Thursday.

Chairman Geoff Gainer spoke in favor of the bill Thursday.

“I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish,” Gainer said. “We all really got on the same page and we realized we were very close in mindset, closer than we thought we were.”

The House committee will vote on the bill as early as Thursday, said Jason Briggs, chief of staff for committee Chairman Jim Murphy.

In the next week, the committee will send the bill back to the city and the pension board to make sure both approve of the text, he said.

If the committee receives feedback from both parties by Thursday, the vote could occur then, Briggs said.

“We want to make sure the deal represents what they really want,” Briggs said.

This plan took many months of work to achieve, said Rep. Dan Flynn, who authored the bill.

“I was extremely excited that the city of Galveston and the police plan worked so hard with my office,” Flynn said.

The staff ultimately is moving the bill toward a vote in the House of Representatives and the Senate, he said.

“This is one of those days that we’ve all been working toward,” Flynn said.

The bill includes other changes to the pension system, including adding an additional city-appointed member to the current seven-member board structure, according to legislative documents.

As it stands, there are four police-appointed and three city-appointed members, a balance that the city has worried could tip benefits in the favor of the police.


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League City developers soon to pay higher fees for water, sewer

LEAGUE CITY

Developers working in the city soon will pay thousands of dollars more in building fees under changes meant to fund improvements to water and sewer systems.

But during a vote Tuesday to approve the fee changes, Mayor Pat Hallisey warned such increases might eventually dampen the city’s explosive growth.

“I support this,” Hallisey said. “But when you talk about your cost of a new home being $14,000 before the first nail is driven in, I worry that we might be close to pricing ourselves out of the market.”

The city for some years has charged developers one-time up-front fees, called capital recovery fees, meant to offset some of the cost of connecting new houses to the city’s water and sewer systems. But the fee structure hadn’t been updated since February 2013, city officials said.

The council, in a 7-0 vote with Councilman Nick Long absent, approved new fees that would increase fees on a new single-family house by about 36 percent to $7,668 for water and wastewater connection, up from $5,634, according to city records.

Specific fee developers would pay for commercial projects vary based on the type of structure and the size of the meter.

For instance, a 3- or 4-inch water meter on a commercial development could be as much as 87 percent or little as 71 percent more expensive, depending on the kind of connection, officials said. The new cost is $112,587, up from $60,097 or $65,731 under the previous fee structure, officials said.

The council approved the maximum allowed by state law, which governs such fees under Chapter 395 of the Texas Local Government Code, according to a report by Houston-based engineering firm Freese & Nichols.

Although Hallisey voiced concern about the rising rates, other council members said the fee inflation was just the price of doing business.

“I believe growth should pay for itself,” Councilman Larry Millican said. “If it’s costing the city $20,000 per home, then that’s how much we should be charging. It should not be borne by the citizens.”

As League City’s explosive growth continues for the foreseeable future, city officials have argued the higher fees are necessary to fund improvements. Only about 52 percent of League City is developed, most of it to the east of Interstate 45, officials said. Projections show that fully developed, the city’s population could rise to more than 200,000, officials said.

The city will have to work to keep its system capacity ahead of the growth, officials said.

To receive an additional supply of water from Houston, for instance, the city must expand part of the water line between the plant and League City — a project that could ultimately cost as much as $55 million, city officials said.

The updated fees come just months after the council took the final steps necessary to enact roadway impact fees meant to offset some of the costs of building roads, something the city hadn’t previously charged.

Unlike those roadway impact fees, water and wastewater fees are paid at time of connection, officials said.

Developers who submit preliminary plats before May 1, submit infrastructure improvement plans by June 1 and secure acceptance of those plans by Oct. 1 will still pay the old fees, said Chris Simms, the city’s director of engineering.

By state law, cities must review their capital recovery fees at least every five years, officials said.


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editor's pick centerpiece featured
Students work to clean up historic Galveston site

GALVESTON

A group of island college students could soon be bringing new life to a site of Galveston history.

Circle K club students at Texas A&M University at Galveston have been picking up trash at Fort San Jacinto for about a year, but club leaders want to take the effort to a higher level, Vice President Clare Shea said.

The fort is on the East End, just north of where Boddeker Road intersects with Seawall Boulevard, but it’s hard to see from the road because it’s overgrown, she said.

“We’re looking for areas to set up picnic tables and set it up for tourists to come fish and hang out and learn,” Shea said.

Shea, a junior, first heard about the fort’s disrepair from the Galveston Kiwanis Club, an international service organization, she said.

Circle K is the college level version of Kiwanis.

Over the past year, the club has picked up more than 20 bags of trash from the site, Shea said.

Built in 1898, Fort San Jacinto was the first headquarters for Galveston’s harbor defenses, according to the Texas State Historical Association. The fort was named in honor of the Texan victory over Mexican troops at San Jacinto and contained three gun batteries and a control station, according to the association.

Now, the land is U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property, spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Williford said.

The university club began cleaning trash last spring, but the area has so much more potential, Circle K President Rick Fuentes said.

“We would like to unveil this because right now it’s not seen,” Fuentes, a freshman, said. “You cannot see it from the road.”

The site is covered with graffiti, much of it lewd, and overgrown, he said.

While plans are still in the conceptual stage, the club wants to place some picnic tables, build walking trails, add a fishing pier and build a kayak launch at the fort, Fuentes said.

“Right now, we’re just working on cleaning it up,” Fuentes said.

But the club could develop a proposal within the next few weeks to find some money for the project, he said.

He estimates the project will cost about $50,000, but the students still have some more assessment to complete, he said.

It’s a great project to pursue with recent efforts to develop the nearby East End Lagoon, Frank Maceo said.

Maceo, a former Galveston city councilman, has been helping the students organize their project proposals.

“People hang out there already,” Maceo said. “We just need to make it safe. I’m pretty excited to see what they come up with.”

The site is an incredible wealth of history in Galveston, Williford said.

“It’s very important to let those students go out there and do that great public service that they’re doing and learn that history of Galveston,” Williford said.

The corps would be interested in hearing any proposals to update the site, but would need to make sure any projects comply with state and federal requirements, he said.

Shea hopes the project will bring out the important history of the fort, though she knows it might be several years before its completion, she said.

“We’d love to get it started and leave a legacy here at our school,” Shea said.

The Circle K students plan to clean more trash from the site 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Shea said.


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League City police say they've identified Calder Road victims

LEAGUE CITY

For four decades, police detectives have been vexed by a mystery about two bodies found in oil fields off Calder Road, one in 1986, another in 1991.

The women — two among four bodies found in the field over a seven-year period — have long been known as Jane and Janet Doe.

The League City Police Department said Thursday those pseudonyms no longer were needed — the Calder Road bodies had been identified.

Police, however, would not release the names of the women Thursday.

The department plans to hold a news conference Monday to reveal the identities and discuss the progress of the case.

The department is delaying release of the names so that national news organizations can learn about and attend the conference, police department spokesman Kelly Williamson said.

“As this is a story of national interest, we wanted to give those out-of-town media outlets time to muster and make the trip if they choose to do so,” Williamson said.

No arrests have been announced in connection to the latest developments in the investigations.

With the knowledge of who the women are, however, investigators can trace their histories and possibly connect their movements and contacts with suspects or persons of interest, an investigator not involved in the case said.

In December, the police department released digital composite images of the two women and asked for the public’s help in identifying them. The composites were created by a Virginia company that uses DNA phenotyping — the use of biological material to determine physical characteristics — to make the images.

The DNA testing found that one of the women was likely from Tennessee and the other from Louisiana. They were both likely white and in their 20s or 30s, police said.

In late December, investigators said the DNA testing had identified some distant relatives of the victims, and that they were working on narrowing down those family trees to identify the women.

The two women are part of a group of bodies found near Calder Road that have led the area to become known as the Texas Killing Fields.

No one has ever been convicted in connection with the bodies found in the Calder Road field.

Authorities in 2014 said they suspected a San Leon man was involved in the killings, however.

Clyde Hedrick was convicted of manslaughter in the death of Ellen Rae Beason. Before Hedrick went to trial, prosecutors said they could seek to link him to the deaths of two other women found dead in the fields, Heide Fye and Laura Miller.

That connection was never made in Hedrick’s trial, and Hedrick has not been charged with additional crimes since he was convicted, according to Galveston County court records.