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Longview approves $157M budget with raises in pay, utility rates

Longview City Council members unanimously approved a $157 million budget Thursday for 2019-20.

The plan is a $3.3 million, or 2.1%, spending increase compared with the current budget, which ends Sept. 30.

Included in the budget is $1.4 million in salary adjustments for municipal employees, which is an overall increase of an average of 11%.

City officials have said the salary increases will move municipal employees’ wages more in line with Longview’s competitors in the state job market. Those competitors include Tyler, Lufkin, College Station and Grapevine.

To afford general fund expenses of $73 million and to pay down debt, property tax rate of 55.89 cents per $100 valuation has been proposed.

The rate represents an increase of 4.9 cents, so the owner of a home with a taxable value of $100,000 will see their city tax bill increase $49 — from $509.90 to $558.90 — though property values increased in the city by 3.5% in the past year, City Manager Keith Bonds said.

Within the total rate, 38.42 cents is dedicated to operations and management, while 17.47 cents will be used to pay down debt, which includes the first payments on a $104 million bond package approved by voters in November.

Council members ratified a $3.5 million property tax revenue increase Thursday, and they will vote to adopt the tax rate Sept. 12.

Also, water and sewer customers will see their monthly bills increase by an average of 92 cents a month under the city’s first utility rate hike in five years, Bonds said. No increase is proposed in sanitation rates.

Mayor Andy Mack conducted public hearings on the budget and proposed tax rate Thursday, but no one from the public spoke. The entire meeting lasted 13 minutes.

The council also established city fees and charges for next year, and it approved Longview Economic Development Corp.’s $6.148 million spending plan for the 2019-20 budget year.

Fees and charges compensate the city for its costs in providing facilities, services and materials, Director of Financial Services Angela Coen said.

The fees and charges also reflect the city’s cost of administering the regulations associated with permits and applications.

LEDCO directors proposed the agency’s budget last week. It represents a 10.8% spending increase compared with this year’s budget.

LEDCO is funded through sales tax revenue and money market interest. While its budget is not included in the city’s budget, the LEDCO budget must have approval from the Longview City Council.

New state laws taking effect Sunday raise tobacco sale age to 21, require boat kill switch, allow brass knuckles

Editor's note: A previous version of this story included inaccurate information about a new law pertaining to the sale of dextromethorphan. This version has been corrected. 

New state laws kicking in on Sunday will follow Texans right out onto the lake this Labor Day weekend.

“If your boat is 26 feet in length, it applies,” Game Warden Todd Long said, describing a new requirement that boats have a working ignition kill switch — if the craft is new enough to have come with the feature.

Kali’s Law, named for Kali Gorzell, a 16-year-old who was fatally injured by a boat propeller in 2012, is one of more than 100 new laws that go into effect Sunday. It does not require owners of older-model boats to add the kill switch, which usually is a physical link from the ignition to the driver’s waist.

“Only if it came from the factory with this thing, it needs to be attached,” said Long, the Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden assigned to Gregg County. “It includes personal water craft. The first year, we are trying to educate the public. This thing is going to save your life.”

Game wardens will be out this weekend, adding kill switch checks to their menu of monitoring for life vests, working lights and other gear required on Texas lakes. Capt. Mike Hanson of Rusk County added that officers will not be focused on tickets in most kill-switch inspections.

“It’ll be verbal and written warnings,” Hanson said. “There would have to be extenuating circumstances (to draw a ticket).”

Texans will be allowed to carry or possess handguns in more situations under several laws that fire off Sunday.

They no longer are subject to a criminal charge when carrying handguns while evacuating disaster areas, for one. Apartment dwellers no longer can be forbidden by landlords from keeping firearms of any type, and foster parents will be allowed to own guns but must store them separately from ammunition.

An attorney general’s opinion previously said the state’s concealed carry law includes churches, but the Legislature put that opinion into a law that also takes effect Sunday.

“The language was kind of confusing, and a lot of people were misinterpreting it,” the aid to the bill’s author, New Braunfels Republican Sen. Donna Campbell said Thursday.

Both the Revs. Dennis Bragdon of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church and Donnie Barron of Calvary Baptist Church in Longview, said no one had been confused or asked them about carrying handguns to worship. Both churches continue to let congregants come to services armed.

“No question like that has been addressed to me,” Bragdon said.

On the personal protection front, items such as brass knuckles become legal on Sunday. Personal defense coaches up till now have advised unarmed people to walk to their vehicle with their keys protruding from between their fingers in case of attack.

“This will hurt your hand,” Longview resident Angel Fields said, demonstrating the keys-through-fist defense technique. “At least, the brass knuckles will keep your hand steady. I’m not strong, but if I had some metal in my hand ...”

Victims of sexual assault should see swifter justice and get a better sense of control under laws aimed at speeding up Texas Department of Public Safety analysis of rape kits, which yield DNA and other evidence prosecutors need. There are 2,138 untested rape kits dating to August 2017, according to the Dallas Morning News.

New laws put $50 million toward hiring personnel and processing rape kits. One that starts Sunday allows survivors to track their rape kit as it is processed.

“It’s kind of a restorative remedy, hopefully, where the survivor has some sort of information/input/control,” Women’s Center of East Texas Executive Director Shannon Trest said. “Whereas, they had no input over the assault.”

Another new law expands the type of documentation people living with an abuser must present to legally break a lease as they seek to escape an abuser’s dwelling.

Those survivors of domestic violence now have to produce a protective order to get out of the lease, but on Sunday they can produce police reports, hospital bills and even a confirming statement from someone like Trest to escape the lease.

“It was just real strict before,” Trest said, crediting Gregg County for being liberal with protective orders. “In some counties across the state, it takes an act of God to get a protective order.”

Just in time for dove season, which opens Sunday, hunters can show game wardens a digital photo, an emailed receipt or an online purchase record of their hunting permit. They still must have the hard-copy permit for deer and other game that requires tagging the animal, Hanson said.

“If you are required to have a tag for that animal, you have to have that permit in your possession,” he said. “(Tags) are attached to it.”

Landowners and others plagued by feral hogs won’t need a permit to kill the destructive invasive animals come Sunday.

“It started out that you had to have a license,” Rusk County feral hog hunter Ken Hale said. “Then, they changed it to, if it’s your property or your lease (no permit was required). For the past few years, about the only thing that was illegal is you couldn’t hunt from the road. That’s still illegal.”

Starting Sunday, drug store clerks and pharmacists will begin making sure anyone buying cough medicine with dextromethorphan — the capital, DM, seen on many bottles of cough syrup — is at least 18 years old.

“We are ready,” Louis Morgan Drugs No. 4 pharmacy co-owner Shawn Sams said. “We have taken steps with our software, so when people come in and purchase dextromethorphan or dextromethorphan-containing products, our register will require our clerks to ask them for an ID. ... People will be upset and wondering what’s going on.”

Sams said employees underwent training on the software. The program tracks purchases and prevent people from going store to store buying dextromethorphan, which can cause hallucinations and has become a dangerous recreational drug that young people call “tussing,” after a leading brand, Robitussin.

Some retailers, including Walmart, already have been restricting the purchase of dextromethorphan.

Also on Sunday, most Texans will have to be 21 years or older to buy cigarettes, snuff, e-cigarettes or any tobacco product.

Krupal Patel, owner of two Scotties convenience stores in Longview and others across the state, said tobacco company representatives trained his clerks in the coming law a few weeks ago.

“It’s going to be confusing for the employees, because individuals that are already 19, 20 years old, they get grandfathered in,” he said, but added, “We card, anyway.”

Austin Arceneaux, an aid to Senate Bill 21 author Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, outlined the grandfather aspect of the tobacco bill.

“If they are 18 by (Saturday), they’ll be able to buy tobacco products,” he said.

Zippies store manager Hope Olivares and clerk Lisa Valero said they are prepared to ID anyone asking for smokes or other tobacco products on Sunday.

“If they were born before September 1st and they are 18, then we can still sell to them,” Olivares said. “If they’re not, then we don’t sell them any tobacco products. That’s all tobacco products — cigarettes, Juul (e-cigarette) pods, everything.”

Joe Jarvis, 17, and classmate Haley Beasley were gassing up a car at the Zippies pumps Thursday. Neither teen was disappointed by news they won’t be able to buy cigarettes on their 18th birthdays.

“No, I wasn’t planning on it,” Jarvis said of taking up the habit. “It’s really bad for your health.”

About 1.4 million Texans trapped by the financial burden of surcharges on tickets based on their driving record will get a reprieve come Sunday — on the surcharges, not the tickets. Lawmakers earlier this year repealed the Driver Responsibility Program, which proved burdensome for the poorest Texans and subjected them to jail — and the additional expenses that brought.

Sunday will bring celebration to a growing Texas microbrewery community. Smaller brew pubs, such as Oil Horse Brewing Co. in Longview and Gilmer Brewing Co. — where patrons already can walk out the door with a 64-ounce “growler” of homemade brew — won’t be affected by the new law.

But larger producers, known as production breweries, have been foaming at the mouth for Texas to allow them to sell six packs and cases of their homemade product.

“This does a lot of things for us,” said Jared Chacon, marketing director for True Vine Brewing Co. on Earl Campbell Parkway in Tyler. “It puts Texas breweries on even footing with the rest of the breweries in the country. We’re ready to show the country what we’re doing down here.”

That’s reason to celebrate, and at noon Sunday, a party will break out at the 5-year-old Rose City brewery.

“On Sunday, we are having a pretty big celebration party,” Chacon said. “We’re opening at noon — we usually close on Sundays. We’re actually working together with (Tyler brew pub) ETX Brewing here. They are bringing their food truck.”

Thirsty Texans who’d rather stay home than venture out for beer and wine will be able to have it delivered. A new law that starts Sunday will allow any licensed beer and wine retailer that has obtained a separate permit from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to deliver the beverages or contract with a digital delivery service to do so.

Don’t start dialing at noon Sunday, though. At least one service that regularly delivers meals in Longview isn’t ready just yet to commit to including alcohol.

Waitr Media Relations Director Dean Turcol said the company is leaning toward including beer and wine in its protocol, but no decision has been made.

“Waitr is excited about alcohol delivery, but needs to examine the specifics of the legislation passed in order to better assess when it can operationalize this practice,” Turcol said. “We see alcohol delivery as a potential step forward in consumer choice, and it would also be an excellent way for our restaurant partners to further grow their businesses. While we explore opportunities to participate in the future, we are currently unable to provide specific dates on when you might see alcohol delivered by Waitr.”

And under the better-late-than-never category, as of Sunday the state’s youngest industrialists can put up a lemonade in their yard without getting a commercial license or permit. In 2015, two sisters in Overton had the lemonade stand they put up to raise money for their dad’s Father’s Day present shut down.

Jolynn Crane, owner of Brian & Scott’s Sno-Balls stand in the Chaparral Plaza on Judson Road, didn’t think life was handing her a lemon when told of the potential competition for her pink lemonade.

“All of my employees are high school or college kids,” she said. “Some of them, this is their first job. Kids that want to have (a lemonade stand) get to have it. That could be a future assistant manager, if they had some lemonade stand experience.”

Gregg County approves budget, requests bids for courthouse vestibule plan

Gregg County’s share for providing health benefits to its employees is increasing $1.7 million this year.

The expense was part of a $52 million budget that the Gregg County Commissioners Court approved Monday. The budget includes a possible capital expense to add at least one and as many as four vestibules to Gregg County Courthouse entryways.

Commissioners also ratified a property tax increase, as the flat year-to-year tax rate of 26.2-cents-per-$100 rate will draw 4.5% more revenue because of increasing property values compared with last year.

Employee health insurance costs, a 5% pay raise for law enforcement and a 3% increase for all other employees combined to total at least $3.5 million in added spending.

Budget Director Linda Bailey and County Auditor Laurie Woloszyn told commissioners that, after talking with an insurance consultant, they determined that the county-paid portion of health premiums is increasing 17% to $981 a month per employee for medical and to $51 a month per employee for dental.

In May, the county updated its health and insurance benefits program with an effort toward encouraging employees to make healthier choices that can ultimately provide cost savings to the self-funded plan.

“It’s only been, like, three months, so we really haven’t realized those savings and costs yet,” Woloszyn said. “We may have to look into the future more.”

She projected that it will take at least 12 months for the county to realize any cost savings from the updates.

“We’re not going to bear any cost savings in three months,” she said.

Commissioners agreed to request bids from vendors interested in adding vestibules at entrances into the Gregg County Courthouse.

Purchasing Director Kelli Davis said that a contract won’t be awarded until next year’s budget year, which begins Oct. 1, but that the county should starting the bidding process now.

Vestibules could be installed at all four entrances, but commissioners might decide to install a vestibule only at the north entrance or at both the north and east entrances, which are wheelchair accessible.

Pittsburg police looking for information after building shot at least four times

The 13 employees of the Pittsburg Police Department are working in a heightened state of awareness since four shots hit their building Wednesday night, Police Chief Richard Penn said Thursday.

Penn declined to say how officers are adjusting their tactics in response to the report of shots fired at 10:45 p.m. at the metal police station at 520 S. Greer Blvd.

“I will say they have a higher awareness (of danger),” Penn said. “There are steps that are taken to enhance the safety of our officers.”

Police said the building was occupied at the time, but no injuries were reported. Penn said police have not determined what kind of weapon was used.

“We don’t have a suspect or suspects or name,” he said.

He said the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Texas Rangers; the Texas Department of Public Safety; the Camp County Sheriff’s Office and Camp County Constable’s Office are assisting Pittsburg police in the investigation.

He praised his 10 fellow officers and two civilian employees for showing up to work Thursday, as they do on any other workday.

“To me, this speaks volumes of the dedication to the commitment to the profession and the communities they serve,” he said.

He advised anyone with any information about the shooting to call CrimeStoppers at (903) 843-3131 or the police department at (903) 856-3330.