Photo: Jessica Hill, director of Orange County Economic Development Corporation, appears before county commissioners Tuesday asking for a Reinvestment Zone for land recently purchased by Chevron Phillips Chemical. RECORD PHOTO: Dave Rogers

 

Dave Rogers

For The Record

 

Orange County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to establish a 1,600-acre Reinvestment Zone that might one day be home to one of the world’s largest chemical plants.

“This is a big moment for all of us in Orange County,” County Judge John Gothia said. “I certainly want to thank Chevron Phillips for their consideration of Orange County in this endeavor that we are looking forward to.”

Earlier, commissioners took the first step toward what Gothia said was a plan to give all county employees a 2% raise.

They did it by voting 4-1 to advertise plans for a 2% raise for all county elected officials – with Precinct 4 Commissioner Robert Viator voting “nay.”

They voted 5-0 to propose a 2% raise for County Auditor Pennee Schmitt, who reports to the county’s state district judges.

The vote for a Reinvestment Zone now makes it possible for the county and its Economic Development Corporation to offer a tax abatement to entice an $8 billion joint investment by Chevron Phillips Chemical and Qatar Petroleum.

It’s the latest step taken since January, when CPC announced Orange County was one of several locations being considered for a new plant.

First, the company approached the West Orange-Cove and Bridge City school districts and won agreements to limit their future tax appraisals in exchange for other considerations.

Then it convinced the City of Orange to disannex more than 400 acres on the northwest and southwest ends of its new land to put all its property between into Orange County’s unincorporated boundaries.

Then it asked for a Reinvestment Zone.

Community leaders say the “U.S. Gulf Coast II Petroleum Project,” as it was named in a July news release announcing CPC’s partnership with the official oil company of Qatar, could bring more money to Orange County than all the current industrial plants in the county combined.

As many as 9,000 construction jobs would be available, as well as 600 full-time jobs after construction is finished.

But no decision is expected on a go-ahead for the plant, at any location, for another 18 months, despite the smiles going around the commissioners’ courtroom Tuesday.  

“This is the first step in making this property available if we get the project,” Commissioner Johnny Trahan said during a morning public hearing on the Reinvestment Zone Tuesday.

The county leaders began a schedule of three public meetings early Tuesday, with Jessica Hill, director of the Orange County EDC, providing some answers to public questions about the Reinvestment Zone.

Only two people asked questions in a 15-minute meeting.

Patti Smith Barras was concerned about possible pollution.

“I live less than a mile away from this particular property and I have concerns about the location,” she said.

She mentioned the possibility of flooding, then went heavy on the air quality questions.

Gothia, Hill and audience member Carl LeBlanc, a retired chemical plant worker, talked pollution controls.

“The Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission works hand in hand with the state of Texas doing quarterly monitoring,” Gothia said.

“Just over the past 10 years, they have reduced emissions in Southeast Texas over 60%.”

Barras asked for more readily available information regarding the proposed plant.

“If you put it on the computer, so many senior citizens don’t have access,” she said. “We need more transparency and we need more information before any decision is made.”

Jessica Hill, director of Orange County Economic Development Corporation, and Vicki Derese of Chevron Phillips Chemical community relations, hold a copy of Tuesday’s resolution by Orange County Commissioners establishing a Reinvestment Zone on land recently purchased by the petrochemical giant. RECORD PHOTO: Dave Rogers

Gothia reiterated that creating a Reinvestment Zone was just a preliminary step. He said there were many more – and much information to come – before any abatement decision is made.

Tuesday afternoon, the commissioners found themselves in the uncomfortable spot, for the second time in three years, of putting their names on a proposal for a pay raise for themselves ahead of their employees.

It’s a formality required by state law. A proposed raise for the county’s 18 elected officials must be published for 10 days prior to a final vote.

Gothia said he wants to include a 2% cost of living raise for all of Orange County’s employees in the 2020 fiscal year budget, which will be finalized in September.

In 2017, commissioners – including Gothia and Trahan — voted 4-1 for the first raised for elected officials in nine years. Those averaged 13.5% per person, maxing out at 23.6 for the county clerk, treasurer and tax assessor-collector. The county judge pay was raised 22.9 percent to $105,040 per year and the commissioners’ base pay went up 15.3 percent, to $72,800.

The 2% raise would put Gothia’s salary as commissioner up to $107,140, with Sheriff Keith Merritt at $106,080 and set commissioners’ base pay at $74,256.

Schmitt, the auditor, would make $94,156 with the pay hike.

A second public hearing on the proposed county tax rate for 2019 was held just before Tuesday’s regular commissioners’ court meeting.

The tax rate may go lower but cannot go higher than 54.2 cents per $100 property value, a decision commissioners made Aug. 6. The 54.2 cents rate is the same rate the county has adopted each of the past two years.

After only one taxpayer spoke at Friday’s first tax rate hearing which was over in nine minutes, two came forward Tuesday in a 15-minute meeting.