This Week's Headlines

Water rates increase for some residents

Firefighters petition for pay increase

County unveils new hurricane app

Local police make bizarre drug bust

PISD seeks citizen nominations

$95K check stolen from CBCMUD

UHCL releases briefs

CCISD Board seeks nominations for award

Community report earns Excalibur Award

Dave Martin to host park ribbon-cutting

2017 South Belt Schlitterbahn vacation contest photos shared

Sports personality Flores remembers South Belt upbringing

Clear Brook, Dobie football mark special schedule dates

Shiflett Realtors sells JFD football tix

High school volleyball preaseason begins Aug. 1

JFD tennis to begin unofficial workouts

Longhorn bowlers excel at nationals

 

Water rates increase for some residents

Residents living within the Houston city limits may have recently noticed an increase in their water bills.

A city ordinance passed in 2010 requires the Combined Utility System of the Public Works and Engineering Department to implement an automatic annual rate adjustment effective April 1 of each year. The rate adjustment under the ordinance for April 1, 2017 was a 3.4 percent increase. This rate adjustment is based on a combination of the 2016 Houston Regional Consumer Price Index of 1.6 percent plus the city of Houston’s population increase of 1.8 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. According to city officials, this annual rate adjustment is intended to help cover cost increases that impact the provision of safe, clean drinking water and the collection and treatment of wastewater. This includes operational costs, as well as the costs involved in the repair and replacement of portions of the city’s aging infrastructure.

The rate adjustment should have been reflected in residents’ May bill.

Residents living in unincorporated parts of the county that are serviced by local municipal utility districts might also notice an increase, as the districts may opt to pass the added costs onto the consumer.

According to Sagemeadow MUD President Ted Heinrich, residents of the subdivision should have received an increase of roughly 3 percent on their June water bills.

While the Clear Brook City MUD has yet to levy a rate increase, district consultant Chris Clark said a meeting is scheduled for late July to renegotiate its current deal with the city.

Unlike other local MUDs, the Clear Brook City MUD is part owner of the City of Houston’s Southeast Water Purification Plant. Other co-owners include the Gulf Coast Water Authority (City of Galveston and City of League City), the Clear Lake City Water Authority (City of Nassau Bay), the La Porte Water Authority, Harris County MUD No. 55, the City of Pasadena, the City of South Houston, the City of Webster, the City of Friendswood and Baybrook MUD No. 1.

Any such increase in the Clear Brook City MUD would come fresh on the heels of a previous rate increase that went into effect in December 2016 to provide for five additional patrol deputies for the Harris County Precinct 2 Constable’s office.

The $7.22 increase was broken down as follows:
• $3.25 per month for constable contract increase
• $1.06 per month for Southeast Volunteer Fire Department rate increase
• $1.31 per month for City of Houston water rate increase
• $0.22 per month for City of Houston sewer rate increase
• $1.38 per month for infrastructure maintenance

Under the new rate, Clear Brook City MUD residents using the minimum of 7,000 gallons of water per month saw their rates increase from $60 to $67.22.

While the Sagemeadow and Kirkmont municipal utility districts are also responsible for paying for the new constable contract and SVFD rate increases, neither of the MUDs have yet to make any changes to their utility rates.

Heinrich said, however, that will likely change soon, as Sagemeadow MUD board members are expected to ratify a rate increase at a meeting later this month. Sagemeadow residents should expect to see an increase of roughly $3.50 per month on either their August or September water bill, Heinrich said.

While the Kirkmont MUD has yet to raise its rates in response to the city’s recent increase, or the added Precinct 2 patrol deputies, Kirkmont MUD Manager Linda Arnone said such a measure was not off the table.

Arnone said, however, it was not listed on the MUD’s July agenda.

Firefighters petition for pay increase


A number of local firefighters of the Houston Fire Department have recently begun fighting a heated battle of a different sort.

Passed by the Texas House in May of this year, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s pension reform bill hopes to bring an end to the City of Houston’s fiscal crisis, one that has spanned over 16 years. Even as he cheered the bill’s passage, Turner warned that more work lay ahead, a clear nod to the series of referendums looming this fall.

Among those challenging the bill are members of the Houston Fire Department, who feel the bill unjustly strips them of their pensions, while not paying them at the same rate as other city agencies, namely, the Houston Police Department.

The disparity in pay between the two agencies has grown considerably over the course of the past several years. The starting pay of a firefighter cadet is $28,900, while a police officer cadet can expect to start at $42,000. This trend remains consistent with higher ranks in both departments, as firefighters are paid, on average, 60 percent less than police officers, when compared at a rank by rank basis. The firefighters have earned 3 percent pay raises since 2011, whereas the police officers have enjoyed pay raises of 26.44 percent since 2011. Furthermore, the Houston Fire Department operates with a $458 million annual budget, compared to the $775 million budget of the Houston Police Department.

Outraged by this staggering disparity, Houston firefighters have taken to the streets to take matters out of politicians’ hands, and into the hands of voters.

Appealing to Section 9.004 of the Texas Local Government Code in which the governing body of a municipality on its own motion may submit a proposed charter amendment to the municipality’s qualified voters for their approval at an election, the department now petitions and aims to collect 21,000 signatures from Houston residents that are registered voters. If this quota is met, the proposed amendment will be brought to the ballot in November for voters to decide its fate.

Deemed the Houston Firefighter Charter Amendment, the charter aims to require parity in the compensation provided to Houston firefighters compared to the compensation provided to Houston police officers on a rank by rank basis.

Among those leading the effort is Capt. Rob Ramirez of the Houston Fire Department. Ramirez is a longtime resident of the South Belt community, and is also a member of the Southeast Volunteer Fire Department.

“As public servants, I believe that we are all important,” said Ramirez. “We are just as important as the police officers, and our pay should reflect that. The starting salary for a firefighter cadet is $29,000, and that may be okay for a single 19 year-old, but for someone who is going in with a family, they’re having to look for government assistance because the pay is so low.”

The department’s decision to forego high pay raises in return for retaining its pensions has resulted in its current predicament.

“When we bargained for our raises, we always wanted to preserve our pensions,” said Ramirez. “We had a well-funded pension, so we gave up pay increases, as long as they did not take our pension away. We shot ourselves in the foot when we did that, because now they’re taking our pension away and giving it to other city workers, like the police officers and the garbage collectors, as part of Mayor Turner’s pension reform.”

Although they are comparing their pay to that of police officers, the Houston Fire Department wants to make it clear that this effort is in no way an attack against the Houston Police Department, but rather an effort to earn what they feel they deserve.

“We’ve given upfront pay raises to hold onto our pensions, whereas the Houston Police Department has sacrificed pension benefits in order to get pay raises,” said Capt. Keven Desai. “We’re not in any way saying that they don’t deserve it, but the mayor himself has said the City of Houston needs pension parity. It’s something that he’s been quoted as saying, and it’s something that he’s worked hard on over his tenure. All we’re saying is that if they want pension parity, then we want pay parity.”

Ramirez feels the passion that firefighters have for their profession has contributed to the department’s current dilemma.

“It’s just sad and upsetting that we’re not being paid at the same rate, because it makes us feel like we’re not as important,” said Ramirez. “We’re almost our own worst enemy, because we love what we do so much that we’ve looked the other way for so long and now we’ve ended up in this predicament. It’s almost like being a volunteer firefighter. Those guys don’t get paid anything, they do for the passion of the job.”

Ramirez and Desai have worked tirelessly through the summer heat to collect the signatures required to meet the 21,000 quota, and are often seen garnering support at local businesses, including Almeda Mall and Foodarama.

“We’re knocking on doors, doing block walks,” said Ramirez. “We are going to different events around the city, as well as asking for support of the community through radio stations, Facebook and other social media outlets. We’ve been featured on a number of television channels, including ABC 13.”

The response from the community that they serve has been nothing but positive.

“The community has been very receptive and a hundred percent supportive of what we’ve been doing,” said Desai. “They are shocked when they hear the disparaging differences between the Houston Fire Department and the Houston Police Department.”

Even with the positive response from the community, Desai is still uncertain of the Houston Firefighter Charter Amendment’s ability to pass in November.
“With all the negative things that have happened to firefighters recently, I don’t feel confident about anything,” said Desai. “I hope that the citizens know what we do for them and know that we do it for the right reasons.”
For the members of Houston Fire Department, though, their service to their city and their commitment to serving others supersedes any issues regarding politics.

“We are the third largest fire department in the nation, and we are ranked number one in terms of city services,” said Desai. “We have great medical personnel that constantly rank either first or second in the nation in terms of the number of lives saved in cardiac arrest calls. Whether this gets approved or not, if it makes it to the ballot and the voters vote it down, the quality of the service that we provide to this city will not be affected.

‘There’s no time for politics when we’re on duty. If you call us, we’ll be there.”
Residents interested in aiding the Houston Fire Department’s cause and supporting the Houston Firefighter Charter Amendment are urged to visit their website at www.LetTheVotersDecide.us for more information, and above all else, spread the word.

“We’re asking for the support of this community now and in November,” said Ramirez. “Get the word out and spread it around as much as you can. We’re not asking for much, we’re just asking for fairness and equality. Please make it out to the voter polls in November and support us.”

County unveils new hurricane app


The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season officially began on Thursday, June 1, and will continue through Nov. 30.

This year’s hurricane season is expected to be busier than usual, as meteorologists with the Tropical Storm Risk predicting a total of 17 named storms (sustained winds of 39 mph or higher), seven hurricanes (sustained winds of 74 mph or higher) and three major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5; winds of 111 mph or higher) this season.

Experts are anticipating this year’s hurricane season to be the most active since 2012. By comparison, 2016 only had 15 named storms. The 30-year average is 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes.
Residents of the South Belt community are no stranger to the fact that the weather is unpredictable and often changes at but a moment’s notice. As such, all residents should plan accordingly, in the event that a major storm should strike the area.

Emergency preparedness starts with being informed, and the Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management offers a free mobile application that aims to provide the most comprehensive resource to aid citizens in building a personal preparedness plan before a major storm, while providing real-time updates during emergency situations.

Deemed ReadyHarris, the mobile application is an all-hazards overview of disaster information. Using the ReadyHarris application, residents will be able to share their status with selected contacts, receive critical emergency alerts through push notifications, locate Harris County emergency shelters, display updated evacuation route maps and get live weather updates and alerts.

Additionally, the application features a number of tools for residents to be prepared for major storms, including a step-by-step guide to developing a personalized familiy disaster plan and a series of survival tips in the event of an emergency.

The personalized emergency plan comprises an emergency supply kit checklist tailored to the user’s needs.

The checklist includes the following: a customized emergency food supply shopping list, an emergency communications plan to notify loved ones of the user’s status and critical information to prepare the user’s home for the impending emergency. Once the plan is developed, it is stored on the user’s smartphone and can easily be shared with family members and friends.
The ReadyHarris mobile application also features 11 integrated eGuides, aimed at informing residents about emergency situations that they are likely to face. These guides include “Emergency Preparedness for People with Functional Needs”; “Emergency Preparedness for Pet Owners”; “Fire Safety”; “Floods”; “Hurricanes”; “Keeping Kids Safe”; “Safety at Home”; “Tornadoes”; “Thunderstorms”; “Wildfires”; and “Winter Storms.”

The application is provided in both English and Spanish, and comes at a time when recent surveys find that residents depend on their smartphones more than ever for breaking news, important government information and what is happening in their community.

The application is available on both the Apple iOS and the Google Android platforms, and may be downloaded from the iTunes and Goole Play application stores, respectively.

Residents are urged to download the application and store it on their mobile devices for the duration of the hurricane season.

More information on how to prepare for severe weather and other disasters can be found at www.readyharris.org.

E-mail mynews@southbeltleader.com with news items of interest.

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