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DCAD to revisit agricultural exemption guidelines after opposition

The Denton Central Appraisal District will revisit its agricultural exemption guidelines next month after its last proposal was met with opposition from local officials and residents — including County Judge Andy Eads.

DCAD drew criticism at its Dec. 16 board meeting, where directors were set to “adopt new agricultural policies and guidelines,” in addition to appointing members for its agricultural advisory board. But the district’s proposal was tabled after dozens of residents attended the meeting to oppose it, largely over concerns the new guidelines would exclude some from applying for exemptions.

Recordings of the meetings are not available and the December meeting’s minutes have not yet been posted. Two documents relating to the agricultural guidelines are available online, although some attendees said they don’t clearly lay out what the changes would be for each agricultural category.

DCAD existing agricultural protocol

DCAD proposed agricultural guidelines

DCAD Chief Appraiser Hope McClure declined an interview last week to go over the changes, but said in a written statement that the entire topic was tabled and will be revisited in February at the earliest. According to her, the new proposal aimed to establish firm guidelines for the exemption process.

“Although Denton CAD has historically had an agricultural appraisal manual, the standards and ‘degrees of intensity’ have not been clearly defined for landowners or Ag Appraisers,” McClure wrote. “The proposed guidelines are intended to help new property owners have an increased clarity and transparency on how to qualify for agricultural valuation, before purchasing a new property in Denton County.”

“Degrees of intensity” refer to a set of standards land has to meet to be considered for agricultural use, and they differ depending on the type of agriculture. The standards (applied for acre size, the number of animals or crops per acre and other factors) determine if land should be considered an agricultural operation.

McClure also wrote “the intention was never to remove existing exemptions.” She was likely referring to a belief from some that the minimum size for an agricultural exemption would be substantially increased. Northlake Mayor Pro Tem Brian Montini, one of the residents who attended, stated in a Facebook post that he believed there was a “lack of information” available.

“I estimate over 50 people were in attendance to address issues,” Montini wrote. “The issue at hand was really a rumor that all Ag Exemptions would now be limited to 10 Acre lots or larger excluding many of our residents with 5 acre lots that many have had for decades.”

Montini added there were some other changes to be “concerned” about, but an email inquiry for his further thoughts wasn’t returned. County Judge Andy Eads was also in attendance, and said he was disappointed at DCAD’s “lack of transparency” over the proposal.

“We could not get clarity from the appraisal district,” Eads said. “I had to scramble around that morning trying to get a copy of the changes to decipher what the actual changes were.”

Andy Eads

Eads went further, saying he believes the proposal was an example of DCAD’s “mismanagement.” In particular, he said he’s frustrated at the explanation that the district doesn’t currently have firm procedures in place for granting the exemptions.

“They said twice they do not have standards for which they provide agriculture exemptions,” Eads said. “I find that hard to believe, or bad practice if that’s the truth. How have they been providing those in the past?”

Ultimately, Eads said he would like the new proposal to take more community input into consideration, and that in general, he wants to encourage local agriculture. He added he’s appreciative directors tabled the topic at December’s meeting.

Starting Monday, Jan. 3, landowners who qualify or who may be applying for agricultural exemptions can take a survey on DCAD’s website. McClure stated that survey will stay up for 30 days, at which point the district’s directors will write up an updated set of guidelines for approval in February. She said updates will come “as available” to the district’s website.

Running to a dream: UNT cross country runner left Eritrea behind for a brighter future

University of North Texas freshman Tiblets Abreha was just 11 years old when she packed her school backpack with everything that would fit and started a trek from Eritrea to the Ethiopian border.

Abreha walked for hours with a group of about 10 children through mountains, where hyenas lurked, until they made it to the border.

As Ethiopian soldiers drove them another three days to Endabaguna, Abreha kept her eyes on a very particular prize: education. At Abreha’s home in Eritrea, girls and women don’t get to go to school. When she sneaked away in the middle of the night, Abreha was a few years away from the age girls in her community marry. They take on the role of mature women as young teenagers to help their families.

“They have a baby when they are a baby, so it’s really sad,” Abreha said.

Today, Abreha runs for the Mean Green cross country team. She’s still not totally sure what her academic focus will be, but in the meantime, she’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep her eye on the next finish line.

Her journey to college took her from living in a refugee camp, then traveling to Fort Worth, where a foster family started the work of getting her settled and started in school. The foster family worked with Catholic Charities of Fort Worth. One of eight children, Abreha has two siblings in the United States, another in Holland, two in Israel, and one who was still in a refugee camp, and who might have returned to Eritrea.

“I got here when I was 13 or 14,” Abreha said. “My brother had come to the U.S. through Catholic Charities of Fort Worth. He processed me in, and I lived with him for a month. Then I stayed with that foster family for another two years.”

Abreha said her home in Eritrea was a hardscrabble life, where families sometimes have to choose between watering their crops and having water to drink for their families.

“There was sometimes no food. No water. No electricity,” Abreha said. “Life was hard.”

Fort Worth was a culture shock. She went to school, but understood and spoke no English.

“I didn’t understand my courses until the last year,” she said.

She said she made friends who helped her immeasurably. She joined the school choir, where she sang for five years, and she also joined the cross country team. Abreha moved around a bit, living in a group home for a time until she moved in with Ricardo Roberto and his wife in Grapevine.

Roberto said he and his wife were moved to foster international youths after they learned more about the work through the Catholic Charities. The Robertos are devoted Catholics with their own children, and they now have three foster daughters who stay in touch with them even as they’ve aged out of the system.

Ricardo Roberto saw Abreha’s drive and work ethic when she joined her high school cross country team, where runners try to complete a 6K course as quickly as possible.

“Her junior year, she ran a 5K in 37:47 minutes,” Roberto said. “That was her first year of running. The other students laughed. In her senior year, she was running it in 21:19. They weren’t laughing then.”

During the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Roberto and Abreha would hit the road together, logging 35 to 40 miles a week and lifting weights.

“I like the long run,” Abreha said. “I enjoy the 8-mile day. And I like running with the team. When you run with people, you learn about them.”

Abreha joined the Mean Green women’s cross country team. Running has become meditation in motion, and a connection to the university through the team. It also charges her batteries for the other demands of college life, she said.

“It gives me energy for the whole day,” she said. “And your team is like your family.”

Abreha just finished her first semester of college. Right now, she’s considering a degree in kinesiology, but when she thinks beyond college, she imagines a career related to kinesiology and an avocation that will connect her with young refugees.

Abreha joined the UNT PUSH program for students who have been in foster care. Her peers in the program elected her the group’s vice president.

“I wanted to go to UNT partly because of PUSH,” she said. “And I wanted to go to a college that had a cross country team.”

Brenda Sweeten, PUSH program adviser and UNT foster care liaison officer, said Abreha was a natural for leadership in the program.

“Tiblets made an immediate impact on PUSH staff and her peers because of her positive outlook and ability to persevere through challenging circumstances,” Sweeten said.

Sweeten said a positive leader can show students who are eligible for the program that they deserve the benefits PUSH can bring to their college careers.

“For a lot of students who have spent time in foster care, it’s something they’re ashamed of,” Sweeten said. “Especially domestic students who have been in foster care. PUSH is strength-based and empowerment-based for the students who are eligible. There are a lot of students who have spent some time in foster care who don’t know there is help available for them in college. We want these students to know there is help, and it’s for them.”

Sweeten said there are almost 300 UNT students who have lived in foster care at some point in their lives — a tiny number out of 42,000 students.

“A lot of those students don’t know that PUSH exists,” Sweeten said. “I want other students like Tiblets to know we’re actually here for you. I do think education can break cycles — cycles of poverty, domestic violence, addiction. We can get students connected with benefits that exist for them.”

Roberto said PUSH could open a lot of doors for students who have aged out of the foster care system.

“So many fosters kids don’t know what their options are,” he said. “For kids who don’t get parental support, a lot of them don’t even know PUSH is even an option.”

Abreha said being involved in UNT’s PUSH program is a way for her to put her own experiences to work for other students who have been in the system.

“It has been a challenge to move from place to place, make friends, get used to new family and school, but I am a survivor,” Abreha said. “I want to travel. I want to see my family. I want to go back home. I also want to travel to refugee camps, to see the kids and help them if I can. That’s my first goal.”

Roberto, who said Abreha texts him and his wife every day, will accomplish anything she sets out to do.

“She’s very intelligent,” he said. “And she works so hard. And she’s very competitive. She played tennis with us, and in 20 minutes, she wanted to start beating us. She wants to do everything well. She’s special to us. She’s shown us that facing adversity makes you able to face more adversity. She’s a good one. She’ll be in our lives for a long time.”

The Watchdog: Read this and become a member of Watchdog Nation, a consumer rights movement

Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

People ask how they can join my Watchdog Nation consumer rights movement.

I explain it’s not actually a club with membership dues (although there are membership cards). It’s a state of mind.

To join all you need to do is read my twice-a-week Watchdog column and subscribe to five basic principles that can help you live a scam-free life.

My New Year’s gift for you in 2022 is a refresher course right here. I developed these principles based on my own life experiences (read that as failures) and those of my readers. These ideas are common sense, simple and free. I can’t help everyone who seeks the Watchdog’s help, so my goal is to prevent you from having to ask me. Here’s how:

1. Check it out.

Check it out is the single most important advice. If you do your homework before you sign a contract, hire someone or buy something, you dramatically decrease the chance you’ll find yourself in trouble.

Always remember to take advantage of the greatest research tool ever: the internet search box. Check the reputation of a company or person and look for any obvious problems.

In the search box, type the person’s name, the company’s name or the product you are considering, along with the word “scam” and then try “rip-off,” “complaints” and “reviews.” An angry customer can alert you to problems.

If you find only a few negative comments, they may be outliers. But if there are dozens, you found what you needed to know. If you don’t have a computer, smartphone or internet connection, you can ask your local reference librarian for search help.

2. Hold customer service people accountable.

When you have a problem with a company, don’t speak to nameless people in customer service on the other side of the world. They know who you are, so find out about them. Turn a blank piece of paper for note taking into a power sheet.

Record the name, employee ID number and location of the person on the phone. Jot down the date and time, too.

After getting this information, say: “Before I tell you my problem, I know you are recording me: I want to let you know this call is automatically recorded on my end, too, for customer quality control.”

You might add, “This will help me when I send a letter of praise to your bosses after you solve my problem.”

You don’t even have to record the call (it’s legal in Texas). Just the idea that they think you are is often good enough to motivate them to step up and actually help you.

3. Find the company’s point of vulnerability.

If you have a problem not easily solved, use the search engine to learn how others are dealing with the same problem. You are not alone. Someone else may have already found and posted a solution that the company doesn’t want you to know. It’s the company’s kryptonite.

Usually, it’s one of four possibilities:

An existing class-action lawsuit.

An attorney general of one of the 50 states is already investigating.

A regulatory agency is looking into the problem.

A newspaper reporter (like me) or a TV reporter has already covered the problem.

Call the company and ask for the supervisor. Share with the supervisor the details of your power sheet (whom you previously spoke to, and what they didn’t do).

Tell the supervisor you are recording the call because if he or she can’t resolve the problem, you will take it to the regulator, the attorney general, the lawyers or the reporter. In other words, serve up the company’s point of vulnerability.

Supervisors can make problems disappear. You give them the reason.

4. Ask a bunch of questions.

My hypothesis is that Americans are usually two questions shy of getting information we need. Sometimes out of embarrassment we stop asking questions too soon. We might not admit that we don’t understand the jargon, or we don’t want to seem pushy.

Ask two more questions and find out what the salesperson isn’t telling you. Penetrate the wall of secrets, the fine print details, the good, the bad and the ugly.

5. Find their pressure point and squeeze.

The Watchdog doesn’t believe that anyone should complain to a company with more than three phone calls or one mailed letter (emails get lost). Your first two calls can go to customer service. Then comes the supervisor. If that fails, move on to the pressure point.

Nearly everyone we deal with today, aside from out-and-out criminals, has to answer to somebody. Businesses are audited, licensed, regulated, inspected, certified, registered or approved by some state or federal agency.

In the pre-internet days, you needed to know your way around a law library to figure out who regulated what. Now all you have to do is ask a search engine.

Example: Let’s pretend a home warranty company won’t fix something it’s supposed to fix. A search shows that in Texas, these companies are regulated by the Texas Real Estate Commission. Every two years the commission is supposed to audit the financial records of each company and then renew its license.

The commission also takes complaints.

Some companies are good at ignoring customers. Getting rid of a government overseer is not so easy.

That’s my Happy New Year message to you for a safe, scam-free 2022. I’m sure you do some of these, but have you used all five?

Oh, and if you’re not already a member, welcome to Watchdog Nation.

Southeast US poised for a firestorm of omicron cases, with few safeguards in place

The United States is heading into the third year of the coronavirus pandemic with the extremely contagious omicron variant poised to ignite a firestorm of infection across the Southeast after exploding through the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.

Lower vaccination rates and fewer mask and vaccine mandates have created a much different environment for the omicron variant to spread in the South, leaving experts unsure whether outbreaks will end up deadlier than in the North.

Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi are among the states experiencing the sharpest increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations since Christmas, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. And the situation may only get worse, as initial outbreaks in metropolitan areas spread to more poorly vaccinated rural regions.

Georgia has shattered records, with nearly 1 in 3 tests coming back positive in the last week of December — and in metro Atlanta, nearly half of tests were positive. New daily infections in Florida have hit an average of about 43,000 — far above the peak of 23,000 reached during the delta variant surge in the summer. Louisiana also has eclipsed daily infection records set during its summer surge, with 12,500 cases reported Thursday, which state officials said was nearly twice the record, established in August.

David Rubin, who monitors coronavirus trends nationally for PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said he expects the Southeast to be a major driver of the nation’s cases this month. But he said he expects a fast decline, mirroring patterns observed during omicron variant surges in South Africa and Britain.

“The [South’s] bigger test is probably going to be in the summertime, when they usually have their big surges,” Rubin said. “We are going to continue to have waves in the new year that I think will become lesser in amplitude over time and will lead to fewer hospitalizations over time.”

Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan cautioned Sunday that the next month could mark the “worst part” of the pandemic in his state, with residents who are unvaccinated against the virus placing a strain on hospitals. Hogan appeared on CNN’s State of the Union, days after Maryland hospitals eclipsed a record set a year ago of more than 2,000 people hospitalized with COVID-19.

In New York, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul has held regular briefings since cases started exploding and has required businesses to mandate proof of vaccination for entry or that customers wear masks. But Republican governors in Southern states with outbreaks have remained comparatively muted and have resisted measures to contain the spread, as they did during the delta variant surge.

Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said he would not reconsider his ban on local mask mandates and told a radio station that “we’re moving forward with life as we know it” when asked recently about his response to the omicron variant.

As infections in Georgia surge to record highs and hospital beds fill up faster than in any state besides New Jersey, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp announced that his administration would expand testing sites, deploy 200 National Guard troops to hospitals and testing sites, and spend up to $100 million to add as many as 1,000 health care workers. But he pointedly rejected measures to contain the virus and criticized Atlanta for recently reimposing a mask mandate.

“It is time to trust our citizens to do what’s right for themselves and their families,” Kemp said in a statement Wednesday. “That is why I will absolutely not be implementing any measures that shutter businesses or divide the vaccinated from the unvaccinated, or the masked from the unmasked.”

Harry Heiman, a public health professor at Georgia State University, said such an approach is more about managing the consequences of a virus surge rather than trying to quell it.

“Unfortunately, the deja vu we are experiencing in Georgia also includes state-level public health leadership that in the face of a predictably severe surge of the pandemic is really doing very little to proactively respond,” Heiman said.

“We will see more people hospitalized and more people dying, especially as it moves into the more rural parts of our state, where there’s a higher number of people who are unvaccinated and less health care infrastructure to take care of people when they are sick,” he said.

Monty Veazey, president of the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals, said the small, largely rural hospitals he represents are bracing for the coming weeks, especially with the potential of hospital staff members calling out sick.

“People need to know if they come to a hospital during a surge, they are going to have to be patient,” Veazey said. “This issue is not going away. We must live with it just like the flu, and the only way to really curb that is to be fully vaccinated.”

But the South remains the most poorly vaccinated region of the United States, with about half the population vaccinated in most Southern states, unlike in New Jersey, New York and the District of Columbia, where about 7 in 10 residents are fully vaccinated as omicron variant cases surge. Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas also have some of the nation’s lowest booster rates, as does D.C.

That has raised acute concerns about Southern hospitals that may not be able to bank on a largely vaccinated community ending up with mostly mild symptoms. Hospitals have warned they can be overwhelmed by even smaller surges in cases if infected staff members are sidelined, or if even a small fraction of those sickened in a huge outbreak are admitted.

“So, you are going to have a lot more people who are going to get sick because they don’t have any immunity,” said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “Now, the South has had pretty substantial outbreaks already, and it may be that people have some natural immunity. That could be the one thing that perhaps is a saving grace.”

Louisiana has urged vigilance among residents who were infected during a massive summer spike that prompted the governor to impose a statewide indoor mask mandate and the mayor of New Orleans to mandate proof of vaccination to enter the city’s music venues and restaurants. State officials reported that about 1,200 people had experienced reinfections in addition to about 9,500 people infected for the first time at the end of the year.

Experts say this is not surprising, especially given evidence from South Africa that the omicron variant is reinfecting people in droves. But it remains unclear whether disease-fighting antibodies from previous bouts of the virus can stave off the worst complications, keeping unvaccinated people infected with omicron out of the hospital. Experts believe immunity induced from vaccines has that effect.

“It’s so hard in the midst of this process to understand whether previous natural infection might also provide some benefits in terms of severe illness. That’s far more difficult to understand,” said Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University in New Orleans. In the meantime, those who have previously gotten the delta variant “shouldn’t count on that protecting them — certainly not from infection, which means they could spread it to a whole host of people with their family and workplace.”

As in the summer wave, about 80% of those now hospitalized in Louisiana with COVID-19 are unvaccinated. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake medical center in Baton Rouge, said vaccinated patients are generally coming in for precautionary visits because of other medical conditions that could be aggravated by the virus, while unvaccinated patients are coming in as sick as they were during the delta variant wave.

“We see this idea a lot: Surely everybody has had this. Surely enough people have been infected [that] the pandemic is going to go away. And it just has not played out,” O’Neal said.

“All we can say is people who have been previously vaccinated are faring better,” O’Neal said. “That’s the only trend I can take from all of these surges.”