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Change land lease for schools, Upshur County court says

By Christina Lane
Feb. 15, 2012 at 11 p.m.

GILMER - Upshur County's Commissioners Court agreed on at least one thing Wednesday - that a future lease for the county's school land needs to be corrected to ensure the county receives all of the money it is due.

Commissioners said a lease regarding the 17,000 acres of school land owned by Upshur County in Baylor and Throckmorton counties needs to be revised.

Otherwise, during a nearly two-and-a-half-hour meeting Wednesday, commissioners tended to disagree and debate a variety of topics, including naming a road, hiring personnel, 911 mapping and wireless Internet service.

School land is property the Texas Legislature gave to each county during the 1890s to support that county's schools.

Glenn Leach addressed the commissioners court saying that money from the school lands was being diverted from Upshur County via a lease agreement with Spade Ranches. Leach also referenced oil wells that had not been properly plugged on the property and a well that had been drilled without the Texas Railroad Commission's knowledge.

Commissioner Mike Spencer said the county's lease agreement calls for all rights and damages to be paid to the tenant, and as for the oil wells, Spencer said that is in the hands of the commission at this point. Leach told Spencer the Texas Constitution said money from the school lands cannot be diverted.

None of the commissioners were on the court when the original lease with Spade Ranches was executed in 2002, County Judge Dean Fowler said. Commissioner James Crittenden said "substantial assets" belonging to the county were given away for a "nominal" fee.

The county collects about $200,000 annually on the land and distributes the money to each of its school districts. Fowler said he did not consider nearly $200,000 to be a "nominal fee."

"What he's saying is the damages that we're not receiving, we're giving away," Commissioner Cole Hefner said.

"I'm saying that needs to be corrected in the next lease," Fowler said. The county is accepting bids for a new lease on the land.

"We're all in agreement," Spencer said. "We agree on something."

Spencer's comment came near the end of meeting in which commissioners disagreed or debated a majority of the agenda items.

They disagreed and tabled a decision on wireless Internet service at the county's buildings. Crittenden requested the agenda item, saying attorneys needed Internet service to be able to take care of business in court using their laptops and electronic tablets.

Fowler, an attorney, said he could not think of a reason why lawyers would need Wi-Fi service in a courtroom, adding they don't use their computers in court except for things such as a PowerPoint presentation that does not require an Internet connection. Fowler asked Crittenden why an attorney would need Wi-Fi and Crittenden said he didn't know, but that he has been approached by attorneys requesting the service. Fowler said no attorneys have approached him.

Crittenden said there was "no need to fight" and that if the rest of the court disagreed with him, then they wouldn't offer the service. However, other members of the court, as well as Sheriff Anthony Betterton, expressed an interest in the service. Betterton said he'd like to see it used for the whole county and not just the courts because his deputies can use the service.

Crittenden said he received an estimate from Etex Wireless that would have the county pay $8 per month per building and a one-time $50 connection fee per building. However, Information Technology Director Karmen Kelley said she had called Etex on Wednesday morning and received estimates ranging from about $25 per month to about $75 per month.

Commissioners tabled the issue for the next meeting to clarify pricing and other information.

Crittenden opposed the vote to name a road in River Oaks subdivision as Private Road 3053. The county's guidelines state all roads in subdivisions must have a name. Commissioners debated whether naming the road would require the county to maintain it. Road Engineer Eric Fisher said that it is a private road and will be privately maintained, but it is required to have a name. The other commissioners agreed to name it.

Crittenden also was against allowing District Clerk Carolyn Parrott to fill a vacancy in her department without lifting a hiring freeze in the county. The county put a hiring freeze in place one year ago that called for there to be no new positions; however, administrators were permitted to rehire for vacated positions with the clarification that when the budget was to be considered, those positions could be subject to elimination.

Parrott had one position eliminated in the budget process this past summer, and it was dissolved when the new fiscal year started in October. Another employee in her office was fired recently for undisclosed reasons, leaving Parrott with four employees. She told commissioners she could not operate with that number of employees and needed to fill the position.

Crittenden said he did not want to do so until the county had lifted its hiring freeze. Commissioner Lloyd Crabtree said money had been placed in Parrott's budget for her to operate her department, and it was her choice to use her budgeted funds to rehire. After debate with Crittenden, Hefner and Spencer agreed with Crabtree.

A decision on 911 mapping was postponed to the next court meeting after commissioners considered several options for reassigning the duties. The county is considering contracting with the East Texas Council of Governments for the services; however, other choices are to place the duties with either the sheriff's office, the tax office or the road and bridge department.

Commissioners intend to reconsider the issue, though Betterton cautioned against assigning the duties to the road and bridge department because that department has little to do with 911 coordinating.



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