Judge takes lonely tax abatement stand
For The Record
Six months ago, Dean Crooks won 57 percent of the vote to become County Judge.
This week, no one would stand with him in favor of making the Orange County tax abatement policy more restrictive — except his administrative assistant, Bailey Aaron.
Tuesday afternoon’s 4-1 vote by Commissioners’ Court to keep the abatement policy as is followed a Monday night standing room-only public workshop that featured area civic and business leaders voicing their objections to adding restrictions to what they say is a necessary tool to attract new business to the area.
Crooks is against offering tax breaks to new business prospects that aren’t available to existing businesses.
“He’s got an opinion we need to do it one way, and everybody else that was there felt differently,” Commissioner John Gothia said.
“Eleven people stood up and said they want us to adopt the policy without restraint.”
Those who made clear their opposition to Crooks’ notion included mayors Larry Spears of Orange, David Rutledge of Bridge City, Robert Viator of Vidor and Cathy Nagle of Pine Forest; city managers Jerry Jones of Bridge City, Robbie Hood of Pinehurst and Mike Stelly of West Orange; business owner Chad Havens and Mark Viator, director of government affairs at Jefferson Energy.
Aaron stuck up for her boss at the end of the meeting.
“A lot of people were very angry that we had that meeting at all,” Crooks said Tuesday afternoon.
“We tell people that we want them to get involved, and what we get is elected officials, mayors and other commissioners saying we should make the decision ourselves,” Crooks said.
Gothia took exception to that, noting that while offering tax abatements was a tool used by the county’s Economic Development Corporation to attract investment, all final abatement contracts were presented and voted on in front of the public at commissioners’ court meetings.
“Some of the people he says he wants to protect are the ones that will be hurt if we don’t grow,” Gothia said. “Without growth, small businesses will hurt.”
Commissioners approved awarding $214,000 of hotel occupancy tax money to 17 non-profits.
Greater Orange Area Chamber of Commerce topped the list at $75,000, Lutcher Theater was next at $30,000, the OCEDC was awarded $25,000 for billboard advertising, and Heritage House $20,000.
Other awards were: Cormier Museum, $10,300; Friends of the Orange Depot, $10,000; Mauriceville Crawfish Festival, $7,500; Gulf Coast Cajun Fest $6,000; Bridge City Museum, $5,562.50; Ham Fest, $5,000; Music By The Stars, $5,000; Orange County Historical Commission, $4,000; Mauriceville Heritage, $3,000; Vidor BBQ Bash, $3,000; Orange County Livestock Association, $3,000; Vidor FFA #1, $1,000; Vidor FFA #2, $1,000.
A week after approving the Sheriff’s Office to spend drug forfeiture money for a $20,000 SWAT robot, commissioners agreed to spend $25,000 from the Sheriff’s Office assets forfeiture fund for a fleet of three drones.
The biggest drone costs $11,000 and will be fitted with a $9,000 thermal imaging camera to use in search and rescue or SWAT scenarios.
“This is not a want for a toy,” Sheriff’s Captain Richard Howard explained. “There is a real need. Instead of getting a helicopter for $650 an hour, we can use this for $20 an hour.
“Using a series of drones, we’ll be able to do a lot more.”
The county bosses also okayed $10,700 to upgrade cell phone reception at the County Expo Center on FM 1442, home of the Emergency Operations Center.
Besides difficulty using cell phones at the EOC, the county has also had multiple issues with its email system. A fix was approved that would include dumping its $18,000 per year out-of-date system for Google G-Suite Business.
The only immediate charge would be $8,000, but the county agreed to pay $52,500 a year for 2020 and 2021.
Commissioners agreed to pay $376,521 in bills plus turn over to the state $226,832 collected by the county in quarterly criminal costs and fees.
Tax assessor collector Karen Fisher presented the 2018 current tax roll of $29.5 million and delinquent tax roll of $35 million and commissioners accepted it.