October 2013

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County transportation and infrastructure discussed

Crazy Ant infestation a major annoyance

Council approves new Building and Standards Commission

AISD receives national recognition

AISD Board members remark on bond election

Manvel students learn value of recycling

 

County transportation and infrastructure discussed

October 2, 2013

 

The Alvin Manvel Chamber of Commerce, along with other county Chambers, sponsored a transportation and infrastructure summit last week at Brazosport College in Lake Jackson. The conference began with a welcoming from Brazoria County Judge Joe King who characterized the county as the “best county in the State of Texas, which is the best state of the United States, which is the best country in the world. So you couldn’t be in a better place anywhere in the world than where you are at today.”

Perhaps of greatest interest to communities in the northern part of the county was the discussion of the planned toll lanes on State Highway 288 and the Grand Parkway’s “segment B” construction that is planned to cross 288 approximately 1.5 miles north of FM 1462 and run through Alvin along the current Hwy 35 bypass. Brazoria County Commissioner Matt Sebesta said highway 288 is seeing tremendous growth and today hosts 21,000 more vehicles each day than it did in 2001. Those numbers will continue to grow as local economies expand along with Houston generally and the Texas Medical Center (TMC) specifically. The TMC currently employs more than 100,000 people and plans call for the complex to perhaps double its footprint in coming years. Data show more TMC employees originate from the Pearland zip codes than any other area. There are also many commuters originating south of Pearland. Pearland has seen significant growth since 2000 and as development reaches its limits, Manvel and Alvin will likely assume that expansion in coming years.

The Brazoria County Toll Road Authority was established in 2003. In 2008 the Authority conducted a preliminary feasibility report and began the necessary environmental studies for the toll project. Sebesta explained an early challenge with the project that 288 comprises a significant area of Harris County and it did not rate high enough on their priority list to warrant attention. Last year though, Harris County relinquished their control of the project to TxDOT which will allow the plans to move forward. The scope of the project envisions eventually four toll lanes in the median of 288 from US 59 in Houston to a future interchange with the Grand Parkway at County Road 60. It will total 29 miles with 10.5 in Harris County and 18.5 in Brazoria County. The estimated cost of the entire project was about $1.45 billion in 2009 dollars.

The current project contemplated will run just north of Hwy 6, near CR 58, up to approximately McGregor in Houston, feeding into the TMC. Brazoria County’s portion would consist of 5.2 miles. Sebesta said the county can afford the project and would not need to add staff in any significant way while maintaining local control. TxDOT is set to select a contractor for the Harris County portion next summer. A project agreement is currently under negotiation with TxDOT and Sebesta hopes to have a final agreement in place by the end of the year so that construction schedules can be coordinated and the project can move forward.

The four lanes will comprise two southbound and two northbound inside the grassy median that currently exists and will have access from the general purpose lanes north of CR 58, an elevated structure north of 518, and an elevated structure at Hughes Ranch Road/Discovery Bay. The currently existing lanes will remain general purpose without requiring a toll. Some general purpose reconstruction will be required to accommodate the additional managed lanes and shoulders. Overall project costs for this part of the project are estimated at $161 million. Sebesta expects construction to begin in the first quarter of 2015 with completion in mid-2017.

The Grand Parkway concept was proposed originally in 1961 as a circumferential scenic highway traversing seven counties and encircling the Greater Houston region. The overall project will consist of 184 miles and is separated into 11 unique segments based on the radial freeway network. The first 19.5 miles of the project was completed in 1994 and connected Hwy 59 to I-10 in west Houston. A segment linking I-10 to Hwy 290 is scheduled to be complete by the end of this year. There also is an 8.8 mile segment running north of I-10 on the east side of Houston into Chambers County. Segments B and C will ultimately serve Brazoria County and are in various stages of review. The general plan calls for the route to run through mostly undeveloped land from Galveston County, connecting to the 35 bypass in Alvin, taking a south-southwest tack down Hwy 35, crossing Chocolate Bayou and then heading back to the west-northwest where it will cross 288 north of FM 1462 at CR 60. It will continue to the west curving up to the north of the Darrington Prison Farm and Brazos Bend State Park and then curving northward past the George Ranch complex where it will ultimately tie into the existing segment at Hwy 59 in Sugarland.

Section B consists of 28 miles and will run from 288 to I-45. The consent process began in 2002 and it is hoped final record of decision will be issued in late 2014 or early 2015. Section C consists of 26 miles and will run from 288 to Hwy 59. Its consent process began in 1998 and received a record of decision in March of this year. A portion of Segment C in Fort Bend County is currently in the early stages of commencement. A challenge for the remaining portion of Segment C and all of Segment B is getting it paid for. Most of the areas contemplated for the route are sparsely populated offering few paying customers. So construction estimates are non-existent presently and will likely remain so until the county sees increased development that would support the cost of the road.

A long time interest of residents in the south and west parts of the county is Hwy 36. The Highway 36A Coalition promotes public and private investment in a regional free-flowing transportation corridor originating in and around the Freeport area of the Gulf Coast, through southern Brazoria, western Fort Bend, and Waller Counties connecting to SH 6 north of Hempstead. The road would provide opportunities for economic growth, hurricane evacuation, and an improved quality of life. The group proposes the highway to be a high-speed facility with grade separations allowing unimpeded traffic flow on the main lanes. The area north of Rosenberg at Hwy 59 would consist of new rights-of-way while the area south of Rosenberg would see improvements on the currently existing SH 36 or possibly a new location highway so that free flowing traffic occurs along the entire corridor.

The Highway 36A Coalition is a collection of citizens and concerned government officials with a common purpose of improving the quality of life throughout the 36A Corridor. No formal plan as espoused by the group has been approved or included in area thoroughfare plans. The group seeks to inform the public, businesses and civic leaders, policymakers, and elected officials of the idea and the transportation crisis facing the entire region.

The summit also included a speaker from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) who addressed transportations impact on air quality. The gist of her comments were that the air in Texas is safe to breathe and that there has been steady improvements in Houston area air quality over past years. While the Houston area remains high on prescribed ozone levels, each of the other five measured pollutants are within attained levels in the Houston area. Statewide from 2000 to 2012 ozone levels decreased by 23% while the nationwide average was about 11%. Ozone levels show steady declines even as the population continues to grow. In fact, annual averages for all chemicals and metals were below their acceptable level for three consecutive years and no long-term health, or vegetation, effects would be expected.

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Crazy Ant infestation a major annoyance

October 16, 2013

 

Stanton’s Hardware Store in Alvin recently sponsored a presentation on the so called Crazy Ants that have become a nuisance to many homeowners and businesses along the upper Gulf Coast of Texas. Brazoria County Extension Agent John Gordy, Brazoria County Commissioner Stacy Adams, and State Representative Ed Thompson were in attendance indicating the level of concern many have on the infestation of these ants. The Crazy Ant, also known as a Tawny or Rasberry Ant, is a relatively new invasive pest to Texas. It was first found around Harris County in 2002 and has spread largely through human assistance. Tom Rasberry is an Associate Certified Entomologist from Pearland and was the first to identify the ant in 2002.
Crazy ants cause great annoyance to residents and businesses. People are sometimes uncomfortable and unable to enjoy time in their yards. Pets tend to avoid the outdoors and birds and wildlife can be affected too. The ants are capable of biting and cause a minor discomfort. Large numbers of ants can accumulate in electrical equipment causing many dollars in damage. There is concern for effects on agriculture as the ants are likely to be transported through movement of garbage, yard debris, compost, potted plants, and bales of hay. Masses of crazy ants covering the ground and trees likely affect birds and small animals and cause wildlife to move out of the area. The ants are even displacing fire ants and in areas of heavy infestation and a testament to their annoyance is that many residents would actually prefer the fire ant.
The Center for Urban and Structural Entomology at Texas A&M University has investigated the biology of the ant along with numerous management strategies, and diet preferences. The featured speaker was Dr. Paul Nester, an entomologist at Texas A&M. He promotes a program called Integrated Pest Management. He told the crowd that he receives more calls every day about the ants and admits it is not yet possible to exterminate the ants; “we just don’t have the silver bullet,” he said. He went on to say that “we do have a lot of pellets we can shoot at them” to help manage their omnipresence.

He described a similar life cycle that most all ants share though each has unique characteristics. It is critical to have a proper identification of what type of ant is infesting so that a proper treatment can be administered. “Just don’t go reach for that can of Raid,” he said. The last thing he suggests is to use a pesticide. Considered the “big gun” he feels pesticides should only be used cautiously and correctly; “If we shoot our big guns first, we haven’t got any big guns left.” He lamented that many good pesticide products have been lost to use due to “fear and anxiety from people who do not understand how pesticides really work.”

The goal of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is to maintain pest level populations at a level that can be tolerated by humans in terms of their economy, health, and their quality of life. It is not focused on eradication or pesticides but rather the long term suppression of the pests. He says being proactive and planning ahead is critical to control the problem. A combination of tactics is generally prudent as it is desirable to minimize the environmental impact that is felt with the use of pesticides.

Food, water and harborage are the key ingredients that promote a pest problem. Eliminating just one of those will work to reduce the population. The pests will either move away or they will not be able to survive as readily. Sanitizing the yard is a good start. Removing landscape timbers and placing potted plants on stands are suggestions. Getting rid of anything sitting on the ground that isn't absolutely necessary is advisable. Nester says the crazy ants will live under anything that retains moisture so taking that away will help to reduce the population. Reducing the amount of irrigation, repairing leaks, and improving drainage would all help manage the infestation. He said they love trees and shrubs. Water sources should be minimized too and Nester says a good start on controlling the problem will be realized just by making the property less attractive, even before any other plan is implemented.

Many of the typical control tactics for other ants do not provide adequate control of the crazy ant. Because colonies predominantly nest outdoors, reliance on indoor treatments is not effective. Workers are not attracted to most bait products and the ones that do get their attention do not offer enough control as a standalone treatment so should be used in conjunction with contact insecticides.

Nester also explained that getting neighbors involved in the process is important as well. A common problem in controlling the ants is that they tend to just move next door when their present environment is disrupted. An effective treatment must attack the entire infestation or the population will rebound from nearby untreated sites within a month. A professional exterminator with experience in dealing with crazy ants should be called in to consult on an effective plan and program. They also will have access to various products that most consumers would be unable to locate or acquire.

The crazy ant is a reddish-brown color and the queens, males, and workers are all similar in size at about 1/8 inch. They are social insects that live in large colonies that can contain many queen ants. They derive their name by the erratic foraging trails they follow. They seek shelter anyplace that provides some moisture and live primarily outdoors, though worker ants do forage indoors. The ants eat almost anything but tend toward insects that secrete a sugary liquid called “honeydew” and the sweet parts of plants like fruits. In the cooler winter months activity is depressed but come spring millions of workers will be produced and numbers increase dramatically during the summer months.

Considerable information on the crazy ant can be found on the Texas A&M website: http://urbanentomology.tamu.edu/ants/rasberry.html.

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Council approves new Building and Standards Commission

October 23, 2013

 

Manvel City Council approved the first of two required readings for a new ordinance that would create a Building and Standards Commission. The new commission would provide additional options in enforcing the city’s building codes. City attorney Bobby Gervais explained that currently two remedies exist for dealing with code violations. Minor violations are dealt with through the Municipal Courts and may take several months to work through the system that ultimately results in no more than a fine as remedy. Major violations require litigation which is expensive and time consuming. Gervais described the new ordinance as providing something in-between those two remedies and that is short of full scale litigation.

The commission would be a separate board of the city that would have the authority to fine violators up to $1000 per day in the form of a civil penalty and could issue writs to sheriffs to evict people from premises that are unsafe or unfit for human habitation. Appeals would be taken to civil court so that city council would be taken out of the process. The current ordinance call for council to act as a code enforcement body in addition to its usual duties. Gervais describes that arrangement as “antiquated” as it does not make for the best use of members time.

After formal approval of the commission’s adoption, five members would need to be appointed by council. They would serve two-year terms and up to eight alternate members could be named. Commission members would require training in order to properly and adequately consider the cases. There will be prescribed procedures to follow and thorough notices will be required for delivery to appropriate respondents. Gervais describes the commission as “powerful with a big hammer” that will cease the requirement of having to litigate everything.

City Manager Kyle Jung suggested council members start thinking about people that have building and/or code related knowledge or experience that could serve as commission members. He said appointees “probably should not go into this totally unexposed to building standards or nuisance violations, and perhaps some law exposure would be good as well.”

In other city news, council approved a lease-purchase agreement for the acquisition of three Chevrolet Tahoe police vehicles. The payout terms would be spread over four years at $30,392.03 per year. Council tabled a motion for a finance agreement with Ford Credit Municipal Finance at 7.95% for a two year lease purchase arrangement for the acquisition of a 2014 Ford F-250 4x4 for the public works department. Members directed city staff to inquire of a more favorable interest rate on the transaction.

Council adopted a revised Capital Improvement Program (CIP) that includes one project to be funded from reserves, three from the current budget which provides for $100,000 for CIP projects, and one from impact fees. Kyle Jung told council that he does not expect an HR staffing plan or the equipment replacement plan to require the $25,000 as budgeted. A city hall parking lot improvement is included that will provide a second access from the front parking lot on Hwy 6. There is also a provision of up to $75,000 for the city to acquire the two parcels of land that are immediately adjacent to city hall. Jung suggested that if council does authorize those land acquisitions that he would expect that $75,000 would need to be increased. The Charlotte water line loop will be funded from impact fees. Also planned are improvements to the city’s two lift stations that will be funded from Texas Water Development Board money that has already been earmarked to the city.

Approval was granted for the final plat for Section Two of the Lakeland subdivision. According to the developer’s engineer, Stephanie Canady, the new section consists of 116 lots with a variety of sizes, all at least 80 feet in width. Construction on the dirt work portion is expected to begin in early November.

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AISD receives national recognition

October 23, 2013

 

The Alvin Independent School District (AISD) earned the Meritorious Budget Award (MBA) based on its 2013-2014 budget. For over 15 years, the award has recognized school districts that demonstrate excellence in school budget presentation. The award program sets high standards in budget development as more school districts and their communities value a well-structured, user-friendly budget. This award garners distinction from accounting professionals, bond counsel, underwriters, securities analysts, and bond rating agencies.

AISD Superintendent Dr. Fred Brent emphasized that the staff works for the citizens and students of the district explaining that it is “their schools and their money and we need to be transparent in that process.” The 512-page document that serves as the basis for the earned award provides a glimpse of the business operations of the district. Dr. Brent explained: “Each aspect of the District is driven by our vision statement: Alvin ISD is a dynamic learning organization committed to excellence for all students and every program.” Brent went on to say that district staff spent “considerable time in the preparation of the document to express equity and accuracy of funding. With the dollars that AISD receives it is our desire that we use the resources wisely and effectively and that we allow financial decisions to be made in support of the educational goal of the district.”

District officials felt the award process worth the time invested as it should gain credibility for the district’s fiscal responsibility, should increase the school board’s confidence in the budget, and should save the district money. The process helped district budget staff present clear budget guidelines, promote communication between departments and the community, encourage short- and long-range budget goals, and supported effective use of educational resources.

The award is approved by the Association of School Business Officials International with sponsorship from ING, a premier retirement, investment and insurance company serving the financial needs of approximately 13 million individual and institutional customers in the United States. Achieving the award encourages budget presentation excellence. Describing the benefits of the award, the group explains: “In today's demanding world of school business management, more has to be done with less. It's critical that an annual budget clearly communicates how funds are being allocated to meet the goals of the district’s strategic plan. Participating in the MBA process helps build trust among colleagues, the superintendent, and the community; strengthens investor confidence by developing a budget that will pass a professional review team’s assessment; demonstrates the district’s commitment to sound fiscal management practices; and verifies a technical competence and adherence to nationally recognized standards in school business management.”

A representative from the ING Connecticut office responsible for the company’s relationship with the Association of School Business Officials International presented the award to the district’s Director of Business Services, Susan Wilson. He said the budget process is often overlooked when recognizing school district performance and believes “unless the fabric of getting the money right and making sure the resources are allocated appropriately, you can never get down and be successful at the children’s level.” He explained that there are about 14,000 school districts around the country and “only about one hundred are recipients of this award on an annual basis.” He said about 10% of those are first-time recipients, as is AISD. “The commitment to excellence and the growth that you all are experiencing is phenomenal and to be accountable and transparent is just remarkable.”

Wilson responded: “In preparing the budget in the format required by ASBO, the vision was primarily to have a tool to help us with being transparent about the financial decisions consistently made with the student in mind. We want to make sure that every dollar is used wisely, as the Alvin ISD Budget Motto states, we are conservative where we can be, so we can be progressive where we should be.”

Tommy King, deputy superintendent for Business and Support Services said, “this award demonstrates the diligence and perseverance that the Business Services Department takes to communicate the Alvin ISD budget to our community, and we are thrilled for the recognition. Receiving this award after the first submission, when out of the nation’s 14,000 school districts, only 10 have accomplished this, is further evidence of Susan Wilson and budget analyst Sonya Hockin’s dedication to excellence in their work for the District.”

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AISD Board members remark on bond election

October 30, 2013

 

Residents of the Alvin Independent School District (AISD) will decide the fate of a $212,445,000 bond election on Tuesday, November 5. Total bond project costs are estimated at $252,600,000. The difference in the amounts is due to a combination of other funding sources: previously approved and unused bond funds, district fund balance, and the current operations budget.

Bond funds remain from previous issues due to favorable pricing of projects during the economic downturn experienced in the few years subsequent to 2008. Fund balance represents essentially a reserve account, the largest portion of which provides up to three months of available operating expenses in case of an economic hardship of some kind. Other recent uses of fund balance includes $14 million for the construction of Elementary #15 which is slated to open in August, 2014. Nearly $4.5 million for pre-construction costs for a proposed new high school to serve west Pearland and a junior high school planned for Manvel. District officials claim the pre-construction expenditures are required if the timetable for completion of the two schools is to be met; 2016 for the high school and 2015 for the junior high. The smallest portion of these other funding sources will come from the current operations budget.

The projects and amounts included in the bond package were recommended to the District’s Board of Trustees by a Citizens Advisory Committee comprising a varied group of stakeholders. AISD’s growth for the period 2007 through 2012 averaged 712 students each year for a total increase of 3,560 students. Between 2012 and 2017, AISD is projecting an average increase of 891 students each year, resulting in a total enrollment of more than 23,000 by the start of the 2017 school year. Most agree the need for additional facilities is clear though the Board was not unanimous in approving the election. Trustees Mike Lansford and Sue Stringer voted against. In recent postings Ms. Stringer explained her position as not against the needs in the bond but rather against the wants of the bond. She also did not favor the “all or nothing vote” which was committed to when the Board decided against a consideration of offering multiple bond packages for citizens to decide. She wants voters to be aware that approval of this package ensures subsequent bond elections to fund a district natatorium, stadium, and transportation facility as this bond will fund only $8.6 million for the land acquisition and design of those facilities.

Board of Trustees President Tiffany Wennerstron counters that “a great deal of thought and discussion” resulted in the “recommendation that one large natatorium becomes a cost savings to the district while providing students with the type of pool they need for practice and competition.” She went on to say that demographic data projects the district to one day have 5 or 6 high schools in its 252 square mile area: “The cost of building and maintaining a pool at each school would be a tremendous burden on the tax-payers.” She elaborated on the need for a stadium saying, “we have no plans to discontinue the use of Alvin’s Memorial Stadium as a district facility but it cannot be renovated to hold the crowds that come with some of the large 5A events. It is simply not cost effective to build a varsity football stadium at each district high school. In addition, having 2 stadiums reduces the need to play games on Thursday nights, which puts a real strain on our students.”

Stringer feels a proposed Agriculture facility to serve Alvin High School (AHS) at $4.5 million is unnecessary. She says the current facility has been allowed to deteriorate and is in disrepair and suggests it could be renovated and upgraded using money from fund balance rather than adding to taxpayer debt. Wennerstrom disagrees, writing “The city of Alvin and the surrounding area has its roots in agriculture; many in our community are still involved in agribusiness. The Ag program and FFA program continue to thrive and grow in Alvin attracting 400 plus kids a year! The Godwin Ag Facility cannot hold the number of animals and projects that our children need it to hold and many families do not have the land to raise these show animals, causing the need to keep the current ag farm for herd animals. The proposed land and facility are not a replacement; they are an expansion to the Godwin Ag Center. The facilities at Godwin would still be used for pasture animals and hay production. The additional facility will allow us to have one large show arena for our students to have district wide shows and expand the number of programs offered. This is not about keeping up with Manvel HS it is about growing the Alvin HS program as well as the District program.”

Stringer also takes exception to the amount of debt that will be borne by taxpayers if this election is successful. While admitting the need for safety and security projects ($3.1 million), additional buses ($5 million), technology ($8.4 million), and infrastructure improvements ($5.5 million), she believes each of these items would be better paid for through the operating budget. She says much of the technology will be “almost obsolete when purchased” and buses and most infrastructure improvements do not have sufficient useful life to warrant taxpayers paying for them long after they are retired. Wennerstrom again disagrees: “The campus and security upgrades are too large and too urgently needed to be handled in our current year’s budget. Times and society are changing and a greater emphasis is now being placed on school security and this will require substantial facility modifications to our older campuses. These modifications will be too expensive to handle as part of the regular budget.” She continued, “Nearly all school districts incorporate buses and technology in bond issues based on the current school-funding model. We do our best to provide some buses out of the budget, but with a growing district and an ever aging fleet we cannot afford to pull all of what we need out of the budget. We are, however, using $2.16 million from fund balance and the current budget to purchase some of our busses. The remaining $2.84 million will be coming from bond money.” Regarding the need for technology upgrades, Wennerstron explains the bond program “includes not only the purchase of computers but also upgrades to our infrastructure.” She states “all $8.4 million will be coming from the District’s fund balance and current maintenance and operations budget.”

Stringer says her biggest concern and the complaint she receives most from constituents is the so-called rolling voter locations. The Board of Trustees agreed to allow votes be accepted at the various campuses on certain dates throughout the early voting period. Stringer explains her opinion that the taxpayers are essentially funding the district’s effort to skew the vote in their favor by providing voter sites at neighborhood campuses in conjunction with an open house, a movie night, or some other event designed to draw in more people. Stringer does not disfavor efforts to encourage voting, but she does disfavor its selected use as regular AISD votes do not offer the rolling voter opportunity. She asks, “If you have a strong bond, why would we want to put a cloud over it by doing this?” She expounded’ “if the real goal was to increase the number of voters, then why not have a voting location at the Senior Center or Walmart?”

While disagreements persist, there is unanimity in encouraging voters to become well informed and most importantly to vote. Considerable detailed information regarding the bond election can be found on the AISD website, www.alvinisd.net. Early voting ends on November 1 with the election to be determined on Tuesday, November 5.

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Manvel students learn value of recycling

October 30, 2013

 

Fashion Design students at Manvel High School participated in a recycled newspaper prom dress/suit activity last week. Students had three days to construct a “prom ready” garment that would be suitable for a High School event. Newspaper, masking tape, and scotch tape is all the students had to work with. The garment was created on a dress form and then removed to wear and model. Students were judged by office staff using a specific rubric as they walked down a hallway.

Deborah Grigg is the Fashion Design Teacher at Manvel HS and said the students “really had a good time with the activity; it teaches them things that they can keep and recycle and that can be used for more than one thing.” She promotes the idea of recycling not just newspapers but clothing, glasses, shoes, and whatever they can find.

Grigg is a former NASA employee who took up teaching eight years ago. She explained that many of her NASA colleagues derided her decision but she claims to love teaching and has no regrets on her career change. Grigg describes her fashion program as working to put the students on a path that they are interested in and that prepares them for college. The fashion class she teaches sets the students up for the retail industry in fields such as buying, selling, or marketing. There are 60 young adults in her class.

Shown in the photo left to right are Deorso Brown II, Anna Popoca, Teacher Deborah Grigg, Gloria Baeza, Adriana Alaniz, and Jayla Sharp.

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