The 87th Texas Legislature has approved hundreds of millions of dollars in tuition revenue bonds for massive new projects at the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University campuses in Denton.
Tuition revenue bonds are construction bonds that universities can sell to fund future building projects on their campuses.
The state approved $113.4 million in tuition revenue bonds for UNT, which will build a 167,700-square-foot research building that will serve students and faculty in biological, physical and material research.
The state also approved $100 million in tuition revenue bonds for TWU, which will build a health sciences center on the Denton campus. Kevin Cruser, the TWU director of legislative affairs, said the university initially asked for about $108 million during a board of regents meeting on Friday. He credited state District 64 Rep. Lynn Stucky, R-Denton, for advocating for the approval.
TWU Chancellor Carine Feyten told the regents that the approval was a watershed moment for TWU.
“A lot of universities had to cut back the amount they wanted by half,” she said. “We asked for $108 million, and we got $100 million. This is amazing.”
Feyten added that the state had approved the bonds for only five public universities in Texas. Two of those universities are located in Denton. Her remarks earned applause from the attendees at the regents meeting.
Stucky said he worked on both tuition revenue bond approvals, and that the team put in “hundreds of hours to get those bonds secured” for the schools.
“Without higher education, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in, and my wife is a Texas Woman’s master’s graduate,” Stucky said. “I’m happy the regents at TWU understand how much work we put into that. TWU is not only the biggest woman-focused independent university in Texas, it’s the largest in the country — and part of the work we did in the session was to make sure it doesn’t get eaten up by another system and keeps its independence.”
Stucky said the health sciences center will give more students, most of them women, more chances to earn a degree in much-needed health care specialties. Stucky said the center also will offer more opportunity to women who want to earn a degree but face financial constraints.
“It’s also going to be something that brings jobs to the area,” he said. “I’m just glad to see we were successful in doing good work for the district.”
UNT President Neal Smatresk said the bond approval is also a major win for UNT. The money will fund construction of a building that will be state of the art for students and faculty in the university’s research division.
“UNT has made tremendous progress in growing its research enterprise in the last decade,” Smatresk said in a statement. “For our university to continue this incredible momentum, we must provide a more modern space to accommodate the cutting-edge research taking place at UNT. Adding this new facility will ensure we are able to meet our growing demands so our faculty can continue their research collaborations to help move society forward.”
Smatresk said Friday that there isn’t a site selected for the future Science and Technology Research Building, and that the university has a lot to consider before dropping a pin on the campus map for construction.
The research the students and faculty are doing is intended to solve real-world problems, Smatresk said. He pointed to the work UNT professor Richard Dixon is doing with students to take a “small plant from China” and turn it into a fuel source.
“Think about flying a jet that is burning plant fuel,” Smatresk said. “That’s the kind of research we’re talking about. The students and faculty are working on research that is meant to solve a problem out there in the real world.”
While building plans have yet to be drawn up, he said the building will be a flexible space for students and faculty to work on small- and large-scale projects. But the building also will signal to the marketplace that UNT is serious about deepening its standing as a Carnegie-ranked Tier 1 public research university.
“This kind of facility can really attract top-quality faculty,” Smatresk said. “We’re highly compressed [for physical space] right now. When we increase our space, that means we’re better able to attract the faculty we want and need to grow our programs. And we’re rapidly rising among our competition.”
New buildings can mean more than instruction space. New buildings can give universities more opportunities to connect with their surrounding communities. Cruser said the TWU health sciences center will have a focus on student and faculty, but with implications beyond campus.
“The tuition revenue bond authorization for the health sciences center will definitely have a positive effect on the local economy and improve access to health care in the Denton community,” he said. “The center will be focused on training for our allied health care fields such as nursing, physical therapy, and occupational therapy, and provide clinical training to Texas Woman’s students on the Denton campus. There will be a focus on training students to serve in rural health care settings in particular and as a part of that training, clinical health care services will be provided to the community.”
The new building also will contribute to the most recent growth on campus after the Science & Technology Learning Center opened late last year. Cruser said the newest center will play a key role in meeting the fast-growing demand for health care workers, a field that was experiencing more demand even before the pandemic.
“Having this facility in Denton County will allow Texas Woman’s to graduate more nursing, physical therapy and occupational therapy students, meeting an increasing demand for these health care professionals, who, as we know, are more likely to stay and work in the community where they completed their degrees,” he said.
As supply chain issues limit inventory and drive up grocery prices, Thanksgiving could look a little different for North Texas families this year.
Retailers and food banks are feeling the pinch of depleted inventory, with supplies of turkeys over 60% out of stock and cranberry sauce, yams, sweet potatoes and stuffing in short supply, according to data from market research firm IRI. With U.S. consumer prices up 6.2% in October, Denton County shoppers are seeing bigger bills at checkout and difficulties getting Thanksgiving staples.
“We actually have signs up that say no ham or turkey for the holiday season,” Denton Community Food Center board chairman Tom Newell said. “You don’t see the grocery stores doing ‘buy one, get one.’ A lot of people used to buy their turkey and bring up the extra one — we don’t see those kinds of donations coming in anymore.”
Some national retailers the organization partners with have halted special orders through the end of the year as they try to keep shelves stocked. Those retailers the center is able to get through to come with a higher price tag, Newell said. Food prices in the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington area increased 1.3% in the two months ending in September, with the cost of food at home up 6.6% for the year due mainly to an increase in prices for meats, poultry, fish and eggs.
DCFC was able to provide ham and turkeys for holiday meals last year thanks to county CARES Act dollars, but those funds are no longer available to help offset increased costs. As inflation has risen across the state, the center also has seen demand increase over the past two months, climbing 14% since summer, when it was serving about 140 families per day.
At First Refuge Ministries, which distributes about 20,000 pounds of food weekly through its pantries, demand also has been up — and donations harder to come by.
“The big challenge is having food to give to the families especially when it comes to protein items such as meat, dairy items, eggs — those have become a little bit more scarce,” said Izell Bennett, director of food distribution at First Refuge. “Those key items that a lot of families enjoy for Thanksgiving, such as stuffing and cranberry sauce and even turkeys, have been really hard to come by. We have a partnership with Albertsons, we have a partnership with Winco and Aldi, and we also get donations from other local distributions. But even those have been scaled back because their supplies, and what they’re able to get in their inventory looks a little different.”
The Village Church Denton also has experienced some difficulty sourcing supplies for its annual Thanksgiving banquet at Calhoun Middle School, where volunteers typically serve about 2,000 locals. The church does not take private food donations but is sourcing from local retailers, where ordering in large quantities has been a challenge, associate minister of operations Stephanie Mabe said.
National food producers Butterball and Ocean Spray have acknowledged supply chain issues. For consumers and food banks, smaller turkeys are scarce, with the few available selling out quickly as families look to downsize the Thanksgiving centerpiece.
“Turkey supply is somewhat limited this year due to labor challenges and packing material,” Kroger Corporate Affairs Manager James Menees told WSLS-TV in Virginia. “Average turkey size is 16-18 pounds, so anyone looking for a smaller turkey should look to buy as soon as possible.”
North Texans planning to travel for the holiday also can expect to pay more. Gas prices continued their upward trend this week, rising 2 cents across the state. Energy costs in the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington region have risen 6.2% for the two months ending in September, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
For Denton area food banks, the focus remains on keeping people fed, even if it’s not a traditional Thanksgiving meal. DCFC and First Refuge have been participating in biweekly calls with other nonprofits in the county to share resources. Though the calls were originally set up to coordinate emergency funds, they have now become a space to try to help one another meet the needs of local families.
“Without a doubt, we will provide food for families — we’re not going to come up short on that,” Newell said. “We want families to come together and have a meal and celebrate the holiday, but it might not be with a turkey or a ham.”
Twenty years ago, Lee Clay was in his first year as a student and football player for the University of North Texas. Saturday, he attended Apogee Stadium as a fan instead — and to continue a 15-year tradition of using homecoming week as a reunion with family and friends.
Clay, who made the trip from Midlothian with his wife and kids, said the homecoming tailgating tradition started out small in 2006, the same year he graduated. It operated out of cars then before evolving into tents and, eventually, into the mega celebration it is now: over 30 family members and friends huddled around his trailer for grilling, drinks and games.
Clay joked that it might be hard to find much on his career as a defensive and special teams player in the early 2000s, but said his support for the team hasn’t wavered since then. For him, coming out to each year’s homecoming game is a way to connect with the past.
“We know we’re going to see guys from years past,” Clay said. “I’ve seen teammates I haven’t seen in years.”
But the main reason for the annual celebration is meeting up with family and friends. While it started out modest, Clay said the tailgate has evolved into a full-on family reunion, with multiple generations of different families represented. While scheduling makes regular meetups difficult, they can all find the time to come together for UNT football.
One example of that can be found in James Hicks, UNT class of 2005, who said he met Clay when he was rooming with Hicks’ cousin. He said the benefit of tailgating is simple.
“We catch up with each other once a year and we’ve been doing it so long, we’ve grown into family,” Hicks said. “It’s therapeutic to come out here and see people you went to school with.”
Shellea Mason, another member of the crew who graduated in 2003, said the reunion is a chance to take a break from the usual day-to-day work.
“This would be the thing we look forward to,” Mason said. “We’re all busy. … It does give us a way to see each other and at least touch base.”
Of course, the crew isn’t there just for each other, but for the game as well. UNT kept its bowl hopes alive Saturday, beating the University of Texas at El Paso on a field goal with seven seconds left. The win was the Mean Green’s third in a row after starting 1-6, and the roller coaster season has drawn out plenty of strong opinions — but Clay remains optimistic about the progress he’s seen since he left the program 15 years ago.
“Everyone has room for improvement and everybody can find something [to criticize] if they want to,” Clay said. “I’m always going to be on the positive side.”
Denton County’s COVID-19 disaster declaration has been extended through Jan. 4, nearly two years after it was instituted in March of last year. From its operations at Texas Motor Speedway to the management of its vaccine portal data vulnerability, here’s how officials have utilized the declaration throughout the pandemic.
Broadly, the purpose of the county’s declaration is “emergency protective measures, mitigation procedures and response plans to the current public health emergency.” In the pandemic’s early stages, officials used the declaration to issue restrictions on gatherings, closures of businesses and, eventually, a full stay-at-home order.
But for well over a year, the county has stuck to Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide orders. In practice, that has left one primary benefit: purchasing flexibility. Through local government code, the declaration allows officials to “exempt bidding requirements for the purpose of purchasing items necessary to preserve or protect the public health or safety of the residents of the county.” Put simply, that means purchases can skirt the standard purchasing procedures if officials identify urgent circumstances.
Scott Arledge, director of the county’s purchasing department, said that typically, the county works in thresholds. Under $5,000, any department can simply call a vendor or contractor and get a quote for the purchase. Between that and $25,000, departments must get multiple quotes from different vendors, and for products nearing or exceeding $50,000, the purchasing department goes through a competitive bidding process before recommending a vendor for approval.
But during the pandemic and under a disaster declaration, Arledge said things work differently. That’s because the county has made heavy use of CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act funding, and as federal funds, the thresholds are separate. Small purchases are considered up to $10,000, with multiple quotes “encouraged” for everything up to $250,000. Over that amount, the competitive bidding process is required.
If the county believes a purchase needs to be made urgently or can be fulfilled only by one vendor, the emergency management department can write a letter of exigency, bypassing the need to get multiple quotes or go through a typical bidding process — which could take well over a month. That letter has multiple steps, including a description of the product or service, an explanation of why the purchase should be excepted and a disclosure of any conflicts of interest.
Records obtained by the Denton Record-Chronicle showed 17 instances between March 13, 2020, and Oct. 11, 2021, where purchases were made using exceptions, with millions of dollars spent between them. Arledge said that’s far more than in a typical year, where officials might make an emergency exception two or three times. All of the purchases, he said, were made with federal relief money.
“We’ve never worked an emergency that’s lasted almost two years,” Arledge said. “This is a once in a lifetime event. … As the money was coming out of the federal government to the local agencies, you got direction day one, but their direction on what you could do and how to do it kept changing throughout the process.”
The largest individual purchase order was for eight “FORTS” portable buildings with add-ons, costing a total of $1,244,400. The buildings, deployed at county vaccination clinics, were bought from Florida-based Elite Aluminum Corporation, identified as the only company providing the model the county wanted.
“We started looking to see if there was anybody else that had anything that was comparable to it, and we only found one company in the U.K.,” Arledge said. “The feasibility of making that type of purchase overseas and getting something shipped over here was just not going to happen. That’s when the decision was made to use the emergency process.”
Arledge said the county set up a system early on in the pandemic for procuring COVID-19 supplies such as masks and gloves. The county wanted to buy personal protective equipment by the thousands, but vendors were selling out fast, so staff bought the equipment in whatever quantity they could find. Exigency letters established long-term urgent circumstances so that purchases could be made as soon as the stock was available.
“Everybody wanted everything that every vendor had on day one,” Arledge said. “We were wanting to buy 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 [PPE]. We would find 1,000 with this vendor and 500 with this vendor, so our people in the office here were chasing those rabbits around trying to find them wherever we could.”
Larger purchases were made as well, including for masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. In one purchase order, the county bought nearly one million pairs of gloves, costing a total of $146,962.
Three more exceptions were made for continuous COVID-19 testing contracts with three separate laboratories: Livingston Med Lab in San Antonio, AIT Laboratories in Denton and Principle Laboratory in Houston. Those included costs of the equipment for hosting testing clinics, as well as the tests themselves, which ranged from $70 to $89 per individual test.
Several large purchases were made related to the county’s vaccine clinic operations at Texas Motor Speedway, including the rental contract itself, two transport vehicles, and even a contract with CoServ for the continued delivery of food to staff and volunteers. Arledge said TMS made more sense as a site than other options, so the emergency exception was used to get started as soon as possible.
“There was just no other facility in the county that could handle that volume of traffic,” Arledge said.
Rental and service fees alone totaled $941,045 by the end of the county’s time at TMS. Two utility task vehicles specifically for use at the clinic cost $62,396, with another $37,845 spent on 11 portable heaters.
The county also organized a contract with electric company CoServ for the continued delivery of food. The company had been previously feeding clinic staff and volunteers for free, though the county began reimbursing it for the cost of the food on March 23, paying up to $72,000 over the next two months. CoServ continued to deliver it free of charge.
An early July data vulnerability in the county’s online vaccine portal ended up costing over $400,000, according to purchase records made with the emergency exemptions. Chief Information Officer Kevin Carr said that amount was paid through the county’s cyber liability insurance.
The vulnerability was discovered in a third-party application that potentially exposed data from anyone who signed up. County officials have not had any indication the data was accessed. While no sensitive information such as Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses, financial accounts and insurance was at risk, Carr said the county was still legally required to contact anyone whose information was potentially exposed.
“We’re required to make notification to those who were impacted and also give those persons the ability to contact us,” Carr said. “If you had the capability of handling maybe hundreds or thousands of calls, you could have someone in your office handle your calls. A lot of [agencies] go through call centers because they’re experienced in setting up for large call volume.”
The bulk of the cost — an estimated $382,000 — went to ConsumerInfo.com, a part of business services company Experian. It handled sending out notifications by physical letter and email, as well as a 90-day call center, which Carr said answered 618 calls.
Another $40,000 went to Pennsylvania-based cybersecurity law firm Mullen Coughlin LLC, with an additional $25,000 paid to crisis communications firm LEVICK in Washington, D.C. Carr said the vendors were selected through the county’s insurance broker, USI Insurance Services.
The county’s disaster declaration will stick around at least through January and can be extended further. As long as it remains active, the purchase exceptions will remain available.