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Denton County LULAC celebrates 40 years, looks to future

Denton County’s local council of the League of United Latin American Citizens celebrated 40 years Friday. Members say the Latino community has made strides since the chapter’s beginnings in 1981 — but also that there’s much work still to be done.

LULAC began in Corpus Christi, in 1929. It credits itself as the largest and oldest Hispanic organization in the United States, aimed at advancing the living situations and opportunity for Hispanic Americans. It wasn’t until 1981 that the organization came to Denton County, with local council 4366 stationed in Denton.

Denton’s council celebrated 40 years Friday at Rudy’s BBQ, in addition to naming officers for Denton, Ryan and Guyer high schools. It also took contributions for its most visible program: its college scholarship awards, which give out hundreds of thousands of dollars to seniors. Original member Isabella Piña-Hinojosa said that program has been the focus since the beginning.

“Education and scholarships have been the main focus of the Denton LULAC,” Piña-Hinojosa said. “We have continued to persevere and have members continue to join us, and there’s been some of us here since the beginning. It’s still a group that is strong in its roots.”

But education isn’t the only contribution the group has made. LULAC participates in several events and works to increase Latino representation in governmental bodies. In fact, current president Alfredo Sanchez said voting is at the top of the list for next year.

“One of the biggest issues for us is the number of Latinos here in Texas, that we’d like to get them more involved in voting,” Sanchez said. “That’s where our biggest impact is. Whether it’s Democrat or Republican, getting them out to vote and having their voice heard.”

Sanchez said he thinks things are moving in the right direction for the Hispanic community, but that there’s still a lot that needs to be done. One of the challenges, he said, is the inherent diversity of the group.

“We [tend to] throw everybody into one big bowl, but there’s a lot of our Hispanic community that’s been here for a long time, that go back to the 1700s or 1600s,” Sanchez said. “We have to learn to differentiate between those that have been citizens for decades and those that just arrived. … We have to deal with new immigrants much different than those who have been here for generations.”

Sanchez said he wants more recognition for the community’s accomplishments — and wants to get more young people interested in making important decisions.

“Trying to get more of our young people interested in politics and having them run for offices,” Sanchez said. “They are capable. … They can be more involved in the community and be leaders in the community.”

Longtime member Piña-Hinojosa has similar hopes for the local LULAC council and the Latino community as a whole.

“What’s in the future for Denton is what’s in the future for LULAC,” Piña-Hinojosa said. “We want to continue growing. Hopefully the new generations will continue to step up for the league.”


Sanger
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A highway expansion created a food desert. Sanger leadership hopes the new highway will also fix it.

SANGER — For Holly Bourquin’s family, the demolition of Sanger’s only grocery store meant more than the loss of a convenient place to shop. Her husband’s grandfather originally owned the store, then named Burrus, which opened in 1979.

“My father-in-law worked for his father at the store after high school and met my mother-in-law at the store,” Bourquin said. “If it weren’t for Burrus grocery store, my in-laws would probably never have met and my husband or children wouldn’t exist either.”

Bourquin’s father-in-law watched the demolition of the Super Save building he’d once worked in earlier this summer. The grocery store was one of a combined 150-plus property acquisitions by the Texas Department of Transportation for two adjacent highway expansion projects expected to begin construction as early as summer 2022.

The first project will widen FM455 from west of FM2450 to east of Marion Road in Sanger, making the two-lane roadway into four lanes with a center left-hand turn lane. The second project will reconstruct 4,500 feet of the Interstate 35 interchange over FM455 as part of a breakout project.

“Most people won’t notice the difference between the two projects — they’re letting [for construction] at the same time, and they’ll be under construction at the same time for both FM455 projects,” TxDOT spokesperson Emily McCann said.

Acquisitions were completed in 2019. The Super Save was one of several properties on Stemmons Street (the I-35 frontage road) that were in the path of both intersecting projects. Snap Shop, The Donut Shop, Shell Convenience Store, Oriental Express and Howard Mortuary either closed or moved outside city limits, while others such as Sonic moved to a new location in Sanger. Several residential properties along Third Street and Chapman Drive also were demolished for the project, and auto repair shop Car Care Center also closed in 2019.

With the closure of Super Save in April, Sanger residents are driving to Denton for most of their groceries. Though 156 Produce and K’s Gourmet Foods have helped fill the gap for produce and baked goods, many say not having access to a full grocery store remains a hardship.

“With the gas prices being so high, it’s one of the biggest things on my mind,” resident Jo Haigwood Johnson said.

The city of Sanger released a statement in April addressing resident concerns about the closures.

“City Council and staff are aware of the community’s desire to have more retail businesses in town, especially a new grocery store,” the statement read in part. “We are confident that the continued growth that is occurring in the Sanger area positions our city to be a very desirable location for a new grocery store.”

The city has been reaching out to chains for years in the hopes of attracting a grocer to the area, Sanger Mayor Thomas Muir told the Denton Record-Chronicle in July. Among top factors for grocers when looking at a new market are the number of residents and their discretionary income, Muir said. City officials hope the closure of Super Save will make the area more attractive for retailers.

“It creates a void, where now with that extra available market and some of the growth we’ve seen in Sanger, those two things combined, I think we’re ripe for some action,” Muir said. “We can’t force developers to come, but we’re trying to be friendly and make sure we’re doing all we can to facilitate that.”

The projects will address congestion on FM455 and accommodate future growth, according to TxDOT. Sanger leaders hope the projects also will bring new opportunities for the city.

“While we understand it [the construction] will be painful probably for everybody to live through, it solves a longer-term transportation problem for the city and opens up that 455 corridor for redevelopment to the benefit of retail businesses that can serve the residents of Sanger,” Muir said. “We think it’s an opportunity to bring in new retail establishments to serve the residents and upgrade the retail businesses that are in town so the residents have services and businesses they didn’t have beforehand.”

But some say the city cannot afford to wait.

“If we wait for the I-35 project to be completed before establishing basic services [like] grocery, gas, dining, Sanger will be hard-pressed to recover,” resident Janice Joyce-Campbell said.

For current business owners, too, the projects have brought challenges. Sandra Dobbs, owner of The Salon Escape, had to move her business from North Fifth Street to its current location on North Stemmons Street, where she said her rent doubled.

“I love our new location, but it [rent] almost tripled when you count bills because I didn’t have to pay sewer and all those extra fees that I do here,” Dobbs said. “I think we pick up a little bit more business being here on the service road, but it’s a lot of stress when you’re under that kind of pressure [to move].”

Joe and Joann Baker own Texas Auto Towing Service, which they’ve operated out of a leased building on Stemmons Street for nearly six years. They also were told they would have to relocate to make way for the expansions. Although they qualified for TxDOT’s relocation program, there’s no available property in Sanger that works for their business, so they’re moving it to Valley View.

“Because of the way we have to operate because of our contracts, there’s certain things we’re required to have and do, so that makes it a little bit harder to find a commercial property,” Joann Baker said.

The property they did find needs upgrades, which have been about a year in the making. The Bakers have been working with TxDOT and a third-party group as part of the relocation program, but the process has been a slow and at times frustrating one, with each step needing approval.

“You’re being forced to leave the property where your business is at, but at the same time, they want to drag their feet,” Joann Baker said. “It would be nice if you weren’t always having to hunt somebody down to get an answer.”

The Bakers have not been given a deadline to vacate, but with construction slated to start in less than a year, they know it may come any day.

“It’s been a hardship on us and a big stressor,” Joe Baker said. “They want to come in and do this project and say it’s going to be good for the city, good for who? The big chains and corporations that can come in after? What about the mom-and-pop businesses that have built their business here?

“Sanger wouldn’t be what it is without them.”

For other residents, the growing pains feel like necessary ones.

“It should bring good business opportunities and a commercial tax base to help fund the infrastructure growth our city and school district desperately need,” resident John Harvey Reed Jr. said. “But I think a good deal of that growth will be postponed until the road projects are complete or near complete. Timing large construction projects around a potentially fluid TxDOT timeline can be very difficult and costly.”

Despite the hurdles brought on by the projects, Muir said local officials are remaining optimistic. Though Sanger won’t quite be the same city after the projects’ completion, they hope it can, in some ways, be a better one.

“It takes some time to develop, but we do think business comes when you get that type of good, solid infrastructure in place to support those businesses and the flowing of traffic,” Muir said. “We’re living where our residents are living because we’re residents of Sanger, so we would just request patience.”


Vehicles travel past a future construction site for the upcoming Interstate 35 expansion project that will run through Sanger. Many businesses on the I-35 service road have had to move to make way for the project, including Super Save, the city’s only grocery store, which was demolished earlier this year.


Denton
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Denton police and fire made more than $400,000 in COVID-19 overtime pay in 2020

The Denton police and fire departments each had members log overtime coded as COVID-19 starting in 2020, with the two departments logging more than $400,000 in overtime pay last year — the bulk of it paid to firefighters.

While together they logged $409,401.47 in overtime, the Fire Department logged a bulk of it at $380,891.69 in 2020, according to records obtained by the Denton Record-Chronicle. A total of 85 Fire Department employees logged overtime hours, making an average of $4,481 each. Most were firefighters.

Both the Denton fire and police chiefs said absences in their departments occurred more heavily during surges in cases — weeks when cases climbed above an area’s average caseload.

“It’s really died off [lately], equivalent to what’s out there in the community as well,” Denton Fire Chief Kenneth Hedges said. “We have [one case], but that doesn’t really impact staffing.”

COVID-19 has changed the way people work and also how much people work. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out with guidance to avoid exposing people to the illness, people started to stay home more often from work if they started exhibiting symptoms. That left co-workers putting in more time to help out their colleagues.

The COVID-19 overtime hours don’t account for 2020 as a whole, as Denton County didn’t have its first positive COVID-19 case until mid-March last year. 2021 overtime hours would show a full year’s worth of pandemic-related overtime.

Hedges said in September that personnel were quick at the beginning of the pandemic to offer taking overtime hours. Hedges said the last time the department struggled with staffing was around August and September, when the delta variant became prominent.

Staffing became a struggle for firefighters because a certain number of people are required to operate each fire station according to best practices standards. Those struggles were most intense when cases surged countywide.

Denton Police Chief Frank Dixon in September said that COVID-19 has been a driver of absences and that staffing shortages also come in cycles for the department.

At the Police Department, 44 employees earned $28,509.78 in overtime pay in 2020, and most of those were police officers. The 44 staffers each made an average of about $648 just in COVID-19 overtime pay. The Police Department has other codes for overtime, such as when someone is working at an event or doing training.

On top of the COVID-19 overtime pay for police officers and firefighters, the average pay for those positions in Denton in 2020 was $82,960.12 for police officers and $79,518.94 for firefighters. The Denton Record-Chronicle looked at the 2020 salaries of different government entities in October.

Hedges said a staffer’s overtime pay is based on the person’s hourly rate. Only three people at the department, himself and the assistant chiefs, are salaried so they aren’t eligible for overtime.

Staff at the Fire Department would code overtime as COVID-19-related if they were picking up another person’s shift because that person was either sick or had been exposed.

“If somebody’s off, then we have to backfill that position,” Hedges said. “If COVID causes a vacancy on shift, then that person filling in, we hire them for overtime.”

While the city auditor’s office hasn’t made any plans to audit overtime related to COVID-19, auditor Madison Rorschach said they did an audit specifically for the Police Department in 2019 because the department logs a lot of overtime.

“One thing we do is we make sure the duties of the payroll are appropriately segregated,” she said. “In 2019 [for the police overtime audit], we found there was an admin approving a lot of overtime because they needed the payroll done. The improvement in that is where the officer’s supervisor is approving it.”

She said that change was important because the officer’s supervisor would know better than an administrator if the officer did do the overtime work. Rorschach said audits are needed so a department can get a third-party review of their operations.

She said they do audits yearly based on what the City Council approves, and residents can get news flashes through the city’s website to be alerted about new audit reports.

“Some [city] departments don’t really have overtime because they’re all salary,” Rorschach said. “We did the police specifically because they usually have a lot of overtime. Fire does too, so we might do a separate fire one.”


Denton’s Fire Station 3 is shown on Friday. Denton police and fire departments each had members log overtime coded as COVID-19-related starting in 2020, and in that year alone, both departments racked up more than $400,000 in overtime pay.


News
With questions about omicron’s severity still unanswered, Texas braces for new COVID-19 wave this winter

As the omicron variant of COVID-19 quickly spreads across the United States, public health experts fear that Texas’ health care system could once again be overwhelmed by the disease within weeks.

“It’s really accelerating fast,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a virologist at Baylor College of Medicine. “I think we’re going to be in the middle of it by Christmas.”

The new variant of the coronavirus was detected in Texas for the first time earlier this month, and outbreaks and surging case counts have since been tied to the strain. Although COVID-19 hospitalizations remain relatively low in most of the state, a fast-rising number of people are testing positive for the virus in the state’s urban centers. Hospitals in the Texas Panhandle and El Paso are again filling up with COVID-19 patients, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

As of Thursday, there have been 116 confirmed coronavirus cases related to the omicron variant in Texas, the state health department said. Although the delta variant is still prominent in Texas, medical researchers predict omicron will soon become the dominant strain. Early evidence suggests omicron may be milder but spreads faster and more often to vaccinated people, medical experts said. They expect that people who have been fully vaccinated and recently gotten a booster shot will still be much better protected from serious illness or death.

Still, medical researchers are trying to determine how severe omicron-related infections are on unvaccinated individuals or even the less-recently vaccinated, since evidence of more mild infections is based largely on anecdotal cases among a younger population, like in South Africa. With Texas’ lagging vaccination rates and an already-depleted hospital workforce, public health experts in the state fear omicron could become devastating for the health care system — even if the variant ends up largely causing only relatively mild illness.

“Those rural counties where we have low vaccination rates and have lost hospital infrastructure, those I think we should be the most concerned about,” said Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health. “The past 20 months we have seen hospitals close, we’ve seen hospitals lose their staff. … We are not in a great place with our health care infrastructure to handle another mass influx of cases.”

As of Friday, about 20% of people hospitalized in the El Paso and Panhandle hospital regions had COVID-19, according to state health data, putting them above the 15% marker previously used to indicate whether local officials could enact some restrictions. New infections in Dallas County are more than three times higher than they were two weeks ago. And the state’s positivity rate — which calculates the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive — has inched to nearly 10%, putting the state in the so-called “red zone,” in which federal officials urge more restrictions to limit the virus’ spread.

Although it’s often unclear whether omicron or delta is behind current infections, local news reports have highlighted ever-climbing numbers of cases in areas throughout the state, with some notable ones tied to the new variant.

This week, the University of Texas at Austin reported a spike in coronavirus cases that is believed to be driven by the omicron variant. Nearly 80 cases were confirmed among students in two days this week, compared with less than 30 cases the entire previous week, according to the Austin American-Statesman. The increase came days after three UT-Austin cases were deemed likely to be related to the new strain and contracted through community spread.

The Houston Chronicle reported Thursday that the new variant made up about 32% of COVID-19 hospitalizations in a city hospital system testing strain types, up from 13% on Dec. 11. Omicron traces are also being detected at more of the city’s wastewater treatment plants.

The uptick in COVID-19 infections related to the omicron variant is part of a new wave of cases in the Houston area, with the Texas Medical Center reporting more than triple the number of positive cases last week, the Chronicle reported. The Harris County Public Health system this week reported its highest single-day total of positive cases in more than two months, and the mayor said he tested positive for the virus Friday.

What the new variant means for vaccinated individuals is still unclear, but UT-Austin projections released Thursday predict that the new variant could, in a worst-case scenario, lead to the most severe health care surges of the pandemic throughout the nation. More optimistically, the variant could lead to a less drastic spike in deaths and hospitalizations than what the country saw in January. The projections presume that omicron will be as severe as delta for unvaccinated individuals with no antibodies, and that vaccinated individuals will have significant but potentially less protection than they have against delta.

When delta raged in Texas this fall, the state health department reported that unvaccinated people were 13 times more likely to become infected with COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people, and were 20 times more likely to die.

Fischer does not expect that disparity to wane with omicron, and she and Hotez urged more Texans to get vaccinated as quickly as possible. About 56% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, according to the health department, and more than 10 million Texans have not had any dose of the vaccine. About two million Texans are under 5 and therefore ineligible for vaccination.

Experts and local and state public health officials urged those who are already vaccinated to get a booster before traveling during the holidays if possible. Hotez, who is co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, said a new study indicated older doses of the Pfizer vaccine may provide less protection against infection of omicron than with the delta variant.

“It gets much better after the third dose, but even then [protection] begins to wane pretty quickly … especially against symptomatic illness,” he said. “It’s still holding up well against severe disease.”

During what is expected to be a high surge, even fully vaccinated individuals should try to eat outdoors when visiting restaurants, gather in small groups, and simply be mindful of hygiene and the protection of those around them, the experts and officials said.

“Our ultimate expectation, and in a way our hope given that we are not expecting the virus to magically disappear, is that we settle to a place where it does cause more mild diseases and that vaccines will prevent disease and death just as the flu shot does,” Fischer said.

But with depleted health care resources and a high percentage of unvaccinated individuals, she’s unsure if that hope will become reality anytime soon.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.


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