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Commissioners approve abatement ordinance; burn ban continues

By Brian Besch
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LIVINGSTON — Tuesday's meeting of the Polk County Commissioners Court approved an abatement ordinance to handle nuisance property in the unincorporated areas of the county.

The discussion over a policy to handle dilapidated and abandoned structures has continued for weeks, with commissioners concerned about invading the property rights of landowners when it comes to overgrown lots or acreage.

State law allows counties to tear down structures that pose a health hazard, but the policy commissioners considered expanding that to buildings that pose a nuisance.

Commissioners accepted a recommendation from Emergency Management Coordinator Larry Pitts to not lift the current burn ban at this time.

"Same song, different verse from two weeks ago," Pitts said of the ban. "Basically, nothing has changed and the numbers are a little bit worse."

A reconsideration of personnel to reclassify a staff position at the district attorney's office was approved, pending the additional resources come from an appellate fund.

Polk County District Attorney Lee Hon said he wished to approve a pay increase to a staff member by $3,155, who was performing the same job as his victim assistance coordinator. Hon felt the money fell under grants that the office had earlier procured.

The move, County Judge Sydney Murphy argued, would need a corresponding action to amend the budget, which had been set for the year.

"The only limitations (Hon) had was some miscellaneous items and we did that across the board," Murphy said. "We did that with everybody. Given that most of his budget is personnel, we did not want to reduce excessively. If we did, that would mean people would be laid off and we're trying to avoid that. I'm trying to balance a budget,"

"You're trying to balance it out of my operating budget, which has already been reduced by 16 percent," Hon answered. "You're just taking money out of one pocket and sticking it in another, as far as I'm concerned."

The money for the salary was taken from funds earmarked for the district attorney's office if a case is taken to appellate court. Murphy argued that by using that money, the budget would remain balanced and if a case was taken to appellate court, the county would be required to finance any such case.

Lower Trinity Groundwater Conservation District General Manager Gary Ashmore said of all the 14 counties and districts covered, Polk and San Jacinto County is "water rich," with the largest water limit of any of the surrounding counties.

"It is wonderful for economic development," Ashmore said. "It is a big draw, because places like Conroe and Montgomery County are not allowed to sink wells. It is against regulations. No one can have a private well and they have to reduce all of their groundwater usage by 60 percent in the next two years. It is a nice opportunity — in my personal opinion — for San Jacinto and Polk County to appeal to companies that want to come here, because we have a big margin for water usage." Ashmore said the Groundwater Conservation District also monitors for drought conditions and that the county is currently in a level two drought. If level three is reached for 90 consecutive days, there are state guidelines that go into place for utility companies.

Since 2006, there have been 1,000 private wells registered in Polk and San Jacinto County. In 2014, 7,900 acre-feet of water was pumped in the area. The limit for the area is 53,000 acre-feet, meaning about 14 percent was pumped.

The commissioners approved a service agreement contract with the IAH secure adult detention facility by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to extend the period of performance through March of 2016.

The facility will operate under the standards of ICE. It will not need various services required for a population of Texas jails, which include anything from the worst offenders to processing. The main impact will be a decrease in operating costs at the facility by about $70,000 per month and reduction in staffing costs.

Also approved was the installation of cameras, recorders and exercise equipment to be purchased and installed by IAH operators. ICE will reimburse the operators through contract modification.