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Top Stories No. 1: County budget struggles

(Editor’s Note: Henderson County Now will be counting down the Top 5 stories of 2012, with one story each day starting Friday, Dec. 28 and ending Tuesday, Jan. 1. … No. 5 – Changes to Ag Child Labor Laws Dropped … No. 4 – West Nile Hits County … No. 3 – Nativity Scene Controversy … No. 2 – Redistricting Scrambles Election.)

It might not surprise anyone that our top story of 2012 involves money.

Henderson County Commissioners’ Court struggled through the summer with its budget for the coming year before keeping the current tax rate: .472658 per $100 valuation.

“We did come up with a budget that did not increase taxes. I think that is very important in this day and time, with all the people who are hurting trying to make ends meet,” County Judge Richard Sanders said at the time.

The decision was popular, but not easy.

Factors like slower than normal tax collections, declining revenue from the jail, and increases in health insurance and retirement created a deficit for the county. Even something as universally praised as the senior citizen tax freeze has had an impact. In 2013, the county will lose an additional $180,000 in revenue because of new senior citizens, said Pct. 2 Commissioner Wade McKinney.

In order to balance the budget, the county eliminated the equivalent of 14 personnel slots, some full time and some part time. Counted in human terms, eight people who were on the county payroll in 2012 are not there today.

“Everyone on this Commissioners’ Court took it very seriously,” Sanders said. “We tried to cut everywhere else you could possibly cut before we considered any personnel cuts, whether it be part time or full time. I believe we did that to the fullest extent that we could.”

Commissioners also warned that keeping the status quo with money did not equal the status quo on services.

In August, McKinney and Pct. 4 Commissioner Ken Geeslin issued a report detailing the relationship between income and cost within the county budget. The McKinney-Geeslin Report covered five years and included topics such as revenue, tax collections and tax rates, personnel costs by department, and the cost of road materials.

The two commissioners found what they expected: The shrinking “purchase power” of the Road and Bridge fund is cutting into their ability to repair roads and provide services to their constituents.

As Geeslin says only half-jokingly, “Unless we get some relief for Road and Bridge we’re going to have to have a part time clerk just to keep up with the call volume of the folks complaining about the lack of services. The way Road and Bridge has been able to stay afloat is we take money out of road material and we plug it in everywhere else, so therefore the amount of work (is down).”

The report covers five years, from 2007 to the present, McKinney said, “because that takes into account the (economic) crash and everything, and gives you a good balance.”

“Well, in that amount of time, gasoline has gone up 125 percent,” he said.

Diesel fuel, which is mainly what is used at the precinct barns, has gone up 68 percent since 2007. The price of material for the routine way the county maintains roads, which is also the least expensive (seal coat and pea gravel), has more than doubled over the past five years. Health insurance and retirement has gone up 26 percent and 23 percent respectively for workers at the precinct barns.

The McKinney-Geeslin report says income for Road and Bridge during that same time has gone up about 9 percent.

“We only have a couple of shots of getting the truth out there,” Geeslin said. “We live in a world of propaganda that is repeated and the truth seldom is repeated. I want the people of Henderson County to understand that we can pass a budget this year with no tax increases, but there will be consequences and I don’t want them to think the Road and Bridge operations are just becoming lazy and just don’t want to do anything. I want them to understand that if we can’t respond and the fix the roads the way they are accustomed to seeing them fixed, it isn’t because our desire isn’t there. It is because the funds aren’t there.”

Commissioners have already started meeting to discuss next year’s budget, which figures to be just as difficult.

Top Story No. 2: Redistricting problems

(Editor’s Note: Henderson County Now will be counting down the Top 5 stories of 2012, with one story each day starting Friday, Dec. 28 and ending Tuesday, Jan. 1. … No. 5 – Changes to Ag Child Labor Laws Dropped … No. 4 – West Nile Hits County … No. 3 – Nativity Scene Controversy.)

Who knew it would be so hard to count and organize?

In 2011, the Texas Legislature went through the once-every-10-years process of redistricting — the redrawing of governmental subdivisions (like House and Senate districts) based on census data.

The driving principle behind the exercise is the idea that districts need to be of similar size to be truly representative.

Of course, the meaning of “representative” is sometimes up for grabs when it comes to politics, and in 2012 redistricting went to court. Multiple courts, actually.

The upshot for the average Texan was that the primary election was pushed back .. and back and back … all the way to May 29.

Locally, it meant officials were conducting elections almost continually from April 30 to July 31. Those included municipal and school elections, the primary, and a couple of primary runoff elections.

And as if that didn’t cause enough problems, Henderson County officials also had to deal with its own redistricting plus the Legislature split the county into two House districts for the first time.

For Elections Administrator Denise Hernandez, that meant reducing the number of voting boxes from 31 to 27. Also, officials had to shuffle voters around Cedar Creek Lake into either House District 10 or House District 4.

The split by the state caused plenty of confusion for voters, particularly in the Malakoff and Cross Roads area, where commissioners had to move some folks out of Box 1MN (Malakoff) into 1CR (Cross Roads).

“This is a direct effect of splitting Henderson County,” said Pct. 1 Commissioner Joe Hall. “I am frustrated to no end. This is not a good scenario, but there is no perfect scenario.”

Top Story No. 3: Nativity Scene

Nativity Scene

(Editor’s Note: Henderson County Now will be counting down the Top 5 stories of 2012, with one story each day starting Friday, Dec. 28 and ending Tuesday, Jan. 1. … No. 5 – Changes to Ag Child Labor Laws Dropped … No. 4 – West Nile Hits County)

Coming in as our No. 3 Top Story of 2012 is the one story guaranteed to make everyone’s list: The nativity scene controversy. After all, it put Henderson County into the national spotlight twice.

The controversy split into separate prongs this year. The first is the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which started everything in December 2011. The second is San Antonio atheist Patrick Greene. We’ll take each one in turn.

The FFRF and The Banner

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is the Wisconsin-based organization that demanded the county remove a nativity scene from the Christmas decorations on the courthouse lawn last December. Later, the foundation shifted its focus from removing the nativity to allowing one of its banners.

In April, the FFRF formally requested Henderson County commissioners allow one of its atheist banners on the courthouse lawn for this December.

The proposed banner read: “At this season of the Winter Solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth & superstition that hardens hearts & enslaves minds.”

“What we are trying to do is directly counter the theology of the nativity display,” FFRF Co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said at that time.
They didn’t get the chance, at least not this year. In October, County Judge Richard Sanders denied the FFRF request.

County Attorney Clint Davis said, “(The banner) is merely a rant against religion. When you look at the overall goal of the county, which is to make the town center attractive through seasonal decorations, you have to ask if their banner does that.”

The FFRF wasn’t happy with the decision.

“Henderson County’s decision to deny our permit is appalling,” Gaylor said. “County officials have continually given FFRF the run-around in an attempt to stonewall our application which they had no intention of approving. Using government power to promote religion and hinder criticism of religion is tyrannical, and is precisely what our secular Constitution prohibits.”

Although the FFRF took no other action in 2012, there is a good chance the group could file a lawsuit in 2013.

“At this time we are considering legal action,” said FFRF attorney Stephanie Schmitt after the banner was denied. “Had a message of our choosing been approved, litigation would not be necessary. It was pretty obvious that no matter what we proposed, our banner – anti-religious or not, was going to be denied. They are trying to exclude any nonreligious viewpoint.”

Atheist Patrick Greene

Henderson County residents were between the FFRF uproar of last December and the banner request of April when they first heard the name Patrick Greene.

The San Antonio atheist, who is not part of the FFRF, became interested in Henderson County in February 2012 after watching video of a Christian nativity rally held on the courthouse square. He sent a letter to Commissioners’ Court threatening a lawsuit if the nativity scene was not moved to private property for this December.

Then things got weird. Greene changed his mind because he believed he was going blind.

A group, led by Sand Springs Baptist Church, collected $400 and sent it to the struggling Greene and his wife to help with expenses. Greene responded by flirting with converting to Christianity, although he reverted back to being an atheist fairly quickly. Still, the atheist-helped-by-Christians story went viral, garnering the county national attention.

Greene was then quiet for nearly eight months, before bursting back onto the scene in December with a lawsuit against the City of Athens.

He said he filed against the city because the city pays Keep Athens Beautiful $10,000 annually. The lawsuit read: “These funds were partly used for the upkeep of a life size Christian Nativity display, thereby violating Article 1, Sections 6 and 7 of the Texas Constitution.”

Greene withdrew that lawsuit less than a week after it was filed when Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott asked the Bexar County District Clerk for a copy. Greene also said he was afraid of Christian violence.

But to prove that you can never be sure of what Greene will do next, he closed out the year by filing another lawsuit, this time against County Judge Richard Sanders.

In that lawsuit, filed Dec. 28, Greene claims Sanders, “abused his position as judicial head of Henderson County, by giving official governmental permission to private citizens to display this Christian Nativity scene. This also violated Article 1, Section 6 of the Texas Constitution; ‘No human authority ought, in any case whatever, to control or interfere with the rights of conscience in matters of religion, and no preference shall ever be given by lay to any religious society or mode of worship.’”

Greene said he wants the nativity scene moved to private property.

The one thing we can be sure of in 2013, is that Patrick Greene isn’t going to just disappear.

Top Story No. 4: West Nile hits county

People in North and East Texas learned to live in fear of mosquitoes in 2012.

The pest-borne West Nile Virus ravaged the region, accounting for 405 cases in humans and 18 deaths in Dallas County alone. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said 2012 saw the highest number of West Nile cases since the disease was discovered in the United States in 1999.

Henderson County also set a record this year with four cases of West Nile Virus in humans. While that may not sound like much compared to Dallas County, remember that before this year, the county had a grand total of two confirmed cases of the infection in humans. Both of those came in 2005.

Locally, fears ran high enough to prompt city officials to increase spraying efforts.

In August, Athens officials sprayed the entire city, something not usually done.

“Normally we go out and spot treat,” Director of Planning and Development Gary Crecelius said at the time.

In Malakoff, where the city usually sprays for mosquitoes twice a month during the summer, officials increased that to twice a week. At least once, the city even bumped that up to three times a week.

“We are just trying to do the best we can for our city,” Malakoff Public Works Director Tim Whitley said.

When the cold weather moved in and killed the mosquitoes, fears of West Nile died as well.

But the buzz will return with the warm weather, so remember these tips from the Northeast Public Health District:

– Use an approved insect repellent every time you go outside and follow the instructions on the label. Approved repellents are those that contain DEET, picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus.

– Regularly drain standing water, including water collects in empty cans, tires, buckets, clogged rain gutters and saucers under potted plants. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water.

– Wear long sleeves and pants at dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active.

– Use air conditioning or make sure there are screens on all doors and windows to keep mosquitoes from entering the home.

Top Stories No. 5: Changes to ag child labor regulations dropped

Pct. 2 Commissioner Wade McKinney (far right) poses with his father and his son.
Pct. 2 Commissioner Wade McKinney (far right) poses with his father and his son.

In September 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) proposed changes to agriculture child labor regulations for kids under 16. Those rules would have put restrictions on the operation of tractors, and prohibited many animal husbandry practices such as branding, breeding, dehorning, vaccinating, castrating, and treating sick or injured animals.

Rural Henderson County was furious at the idea.

Pct. 2 Commissioner Wade McKinney, who said he learned how to drive a tractor at age 7, was one of those leading the local charge against the measure. He said working on the farm gave him “an awareness of circumstances around me. It taught me to think, and it has for everyone that has grown up in an agricultural background.”

“It gives you an awareness of the world that, in my opinion, that is lacking as we get farther away from an agrarian society,” he said.

Rural families around the country protested, and the DOL received more than 10,000 comments, nearly all negative, on the proposed rules change. Washington, D.C. heard the uproar.

On April 26, the U.S. Department of Labor announced it was dropping proposed changes.

“This ruling means that rural America will continue with its traditions of family farms and ranches, neighbors helping neighbors, and the free exercise of learning and living an agricultural way of life as we have for generations,” McKinney said after the announcement. “The circumstances associated with this way of life have helped to instill a work ethic in our children that extends well beyond their childhood.”

“This issue was a direct assault on my way of life,” he said. “If I hadn’t had the opportunity and the freedom to grow up in this very fashion, I would not be the person I am today. My life is the product of at least four generations of farmers and ranchers passing a tradition down to me. I am currently passing that same tradition down to my son and to have been prevented from doing that would have been a travesty to me.”

Congressman Jeb Hensarling said, “Working on a family farm provides youth the opportunity to gain valuable skills, earn money for education, and learn the value of hard work, character, and leadership. While it is essential to ensure the safety of all workers, decisions on who can work when and where are best left to the individual families, farmers, and ranchers of East Texas—not bureaucrats in Washington.