Photo: A debris hauler in Pinehurst Monday uses a grapple truck to pick up ugly leftovers from Tropical Storm Harvey. (Courtesy photo)

 

Dave Rogers

For The Record

They were talking trash at Orange County Commissioners’ Court Tuesday and there’s plenty of it to go around.

But the court considered a number of matters at its first weekly session of the 2017-18 fiscal year, including one that could affect everyone’s bottom line one way or the other.

Commissioners set a date of Tuesday, Dec. 19 for a county-wide special election on whether or not to establish an Orange County Hospital District.

Wording on the petition calls for the district to cover the entire county with the hospital district having the authority to levy a tax of up to 18 cents per $100 property value.

Proponents say Orange County needs a hospital to attract commercial and residential development and a hospital district is the best way to attract investors for a hospital.

Detractors say creating another taxing entity in the county will be a drain on taxpayers who are currently struggling to rebuild after a national disaster, Tropical Storm Harvey.

County Judge Stephen Brint Carlton and the four commissioners introduced the idea of a hospital district to most of the county citizens with a February Town Hall and several luncheon club presentations by the judge.

But they say their role is only informative, and they steer clear of opinions in public.

“As the petition language appears to have satisfied all the statutory requirements, our duty is to accept the petition,” Carlton said.

“The legal response to the petition that was turned in is this court shall call an election,” Commissioner Jody Crump said prior to the 5-0 vote.

Early voting will be held from Mondays through Fridays Dec. 4-15 at four polling locations – Orange Public Library, Mauriceville Volunteer Fire Department, Bridge City Public Works Building and Vidor ISD Administration Building.

Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on all dates but Tuesdays, when the hours will be extended from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The court held a 15-minute hearing on the validity of the hospital district petition before its regular meeting, finding the wording in order.

Tina Barrow, county elections administrator, said that 149 of the 164 signatures on the petition checked out OK. Only 100 valid signatures were required.

Also in Tuesday’s regular meeting, commissioners approved polling places and times for a Nov. 7 Texas constitutional amendment election.

The special hospital district election, which will cost the county $40,000 to stage, could not be joined with the Nov. 7 election because of timing requirements relating to when the petition was filed.

Because of damage caused by Harvey, six of the regular polling places for election days in 2017 have been moved. Precincts 2 and 5 move to Orange Public Library; Precincts 18 and 19 move to Vidor Junior High; Precinct 7 moves to St. Francis Catholic Church; and Precinct 23 moves to First Christian Church Orangefield.

The hospital district election business took the spotlight momentarily for what county officials say will be the No. 1 concern for months – debris removal linked to Harvey and the record flooding it caused.

Carlton reported Tuesday that the county’s debris haulers had already removed 43,000 cubic yards of waste.

But Buddy Lofton, project manager for the county’s lead debris contractor AshBritt, recently estimated Harvey had created 225,000 cubic yards of debris.

As a grapple operator, front, unloads a double hauler at the county landfill, an excavator works in the background compacting the pile of debris from Tropical Storm Harvey. (Photo by Dave Rogers)

Debris hauling has been going on for three weeks. Lofton predicts his company will be through by Thanksgiving.

He and county officials admitted, however, that many of the trash haulers that might normally work for AshBritt on a project the scale of Harvey in Orange were being redirected to Florida or Puerto Rico, where the pay is higher.

“No one’s really thought of having something this large just in Texas and so many other natural disasters affecting the United States at the same time,” Carlton said.

“That’s part of the problems we’re having getting FEMA resources, DRCs, debris haulers. It’s just kind of an unprecedented event.

“I do ask that everyone have patience as we go through this. Unfortunately, it’s not something that can be done quickly.”

Good news on the debris front came with the announcements that TxDOT would essentially donate a week of free debris removal to the county and that FEMA would authorize debris removal from private roads countywide on a case-by-case basis.

Currently, AshBritt is concentrating on Bridge City and Pinehurst, which has brought up some problems noted by Commissioner John Gothia.

Citizens are frustrated because the haulers are forbidden from picking up debris by low-hanging power lines and the reach of their grapple trucks. Homeowners were advised to keep debris behind ditches but the haulers can’t reach it there.

A debris truck driver, left, looks up to the monitors’ tower at the Orange County Landfill as his load is checked by the “eyes in the sky” and entered into computers. (Photo by Dave Rogers)

The city of Orange, which has its own debris hauler, issued a related press release Tuesday. The city advised that it would bear no responsibility for the actions of a third-party debris management company that is currently being hired to push debris to where the trucks can pick it up.

Commissioners asked Joel Ardoin, county code enforcer, to work with AshBritt on a solution.

Also on Tuesday’s agenda was possible action on a change in employees’ disaster pay and audiovisual equipment for the 163rd District Court.

Both were tabled.

The Courthouse is currently closed because of water damage caused by Harvey and commissioners could not say when it would reopen.

“We can’t reopen until we start repairing it,” said Sheriff Keith Merritt, whose office is currently housing at the County Expo Building on FM 1442.

Commissioner Barry Burton said the county is awaiting a damage report from architects and other consultants.