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Year in Review: Denton County’s top 5 stories of 2021

From new headquarters to new district lines to new transportation, change was the standard for Denton County in 2021 — all while wrangling year two of the coronavirus pandemic. In no particular order, here are this year’s top five county storylines as covered by the Denton Record-Chronicle.

Jeff Woo/DRC file photo 

Denton County staff, volunteers and medical personnel gather to celebrate DCPH’s 100th vaccine clinic on Oct. 20 at the Denton County Morse Street Facility.

Coronavirus pandemic

2021 began with Denton County facing the highest number of coronavirus cases it had to date, and the county public health department’s role became magnified with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. As criticism mounted over the state’s handling of vaccine shots, frustrated boiled over to Denton County Public Health’s own phone registration system.

After several weeks of being left in the dark on vaccine allocations, DCPH was named a vaccine hub by state officials. Vaccine doses were shipped in by the thousands, culminating in the county’s mass clinics at Texas Motor Speedway. At the program’s peak, over 15,000 Texans could get a drive-thru dose in a single day.

Denton County faced its own struggles as well, much of which spilled over from year one of the pandemic. Departments continued to adapt on the fly — especially those responsible for doling out millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funds. The purchasing department continued to bypass standard procedures under the county’s disaster declaration, which even applied to the rental contract with Texas Motor Speedway.

One coronavirus death hit especially close to home for county officials. After spending over 15 years at Denton County, Fire Marshal Roland Asebedo died of COVID-19 complications in September. Hundreds of family, friends and co-workers said goodbye at his funeral in Lewisville.

Denton County says goodbye to Fire Marshal Roland Asebedo

Hundreds of family members, friends and co-workers gathered at First Baptist Church in Lewisville Monday afternoon for the funeral service of Denton County Fire Marshal Roland Asebedo, who died last week of complications from COVID-19.

New courthouse

The Denton County Administrative Courthouse opened for business in September after several years of construction. The four-story, 96,000-square-foot building is now home to over 10 county offices and courts, which moved over from the Courthouse on the Square and the Joseph A. Carroll Building.

A look inside Denton County’s new headquarters

After nearly three years and about $45 million, the Denton County Administrative Courthouse is now open for business. Here’s a look inside the four-story, 96,000-square-foot building — and the factors that sent it over its original timeline and cost projections.

County Judge Andy Eads said the new courthouse’s design pays homage to the iconic original downtown — in details from material used on exterior walls to the floor plan of the new Commissioners Courtroom.

The project had plenty of hiccups, ending up about $2 million over budget and about a year past its initial opening timeline. Eads chalked up the delays to the pandemic, February’s winter storm and shortages of material and labor. But he also said things didn’t always go smoothly with contractor Sundt Construction.

In one example, Eads said, an installation of bricks had to be redone because county officials determined it wasn’t done according to the design. He said he was pleased with the end result, but left the county-contractor relationship somewhat ambiguous.

“We do have legal advice that we seek as we’re wrapping this up, to make sure the county’s protected and our interests are protected,” Eads said. “We appreciate the work Sundt has done and we’re glad they submitted a bid. … We want to be a good place to do business but we’re also balancing that with the fact these are tax dollars. That’s why we do maintain our standards.”

Redistricting

Denton County’s redistricting process set off local fireworks in November. Officials released guidelines ensuring the new maps would be drawn with as minimal change as possible, but some residents had objections.

It was Oct. 26 that officials released their redistricting guidelines and stated they’d be aiming for ”minor modifications.” Residents got less than two weeks to give their input before commissioners approved the precinct lines Nov. 9.

For the most part, it was Precinct 2 that got put under the spotlight. The precinct is by far the most politically competitive of the four, won by current Commissioner Ron Marchant by fewer than 400 votes in 2018.

Residents, including two city mayors, raised concerns over the proposed changes to Precinct 2. But the end result was significant changes to both its geographic area and its population demographics. Eads said gerrymandering accusations are made during any redistricting process, but didn’t rule out politics as a factor.

“I think politics comes into play any time you’re looking at redistricting,” Eads said. “It’s a variable you can consider, and the Supreme Court has allowed you to look at partisanship in drawing lines. … I would say the overriding factor that we used for the lines was population growth and the future population growth.”

GoZone and bus routes

In September, the Denton County Transportation Authority rolled out GoZone, an on-demand rideshare service designed to replace Denton and Lewisville’s Connect bus routes.

In the months leading up to the GoZone launch, and in the months since, the program has been the subject of debate. Many residents — including some Denton City Council members — defended the bus routes despite DCTA’s insistence that they simply don’t get ridden enough to justify their cost.

As that debate raged on, DCTA dealt with some early struggles in the program. Via Transportation, the contractor responsible for GoZone’s day-to-day operations, had to increase the number of active vans to account for increasing wait times.

In early December, DCTA’s board settled on a compromise following a proposed plan by the agency’s CEO and staff. Lewisville’s two routes were cut, but all except one of Denton’s routes will stick around as a new hybrid model is worked on. That model will see bus routes heavily modified in an attempt to integrate them into the GoZone app and increase their ridership and efficiency.

DCTA saves most Denton bus routes, cuts Lewisville routes

The Denton County Transportation Authority has reached a consensus on fixed bus routes: With the exception of one Denton route and both of Lewisville’s routes, the agency’s Connect service has been continued through September 2022.

“Optimizing fixed route and tying the two together is a really exciting opportunity moving into the new year,” DCTA CEO Raymond Suarez said. “The demand should shape what kind of service we’re providing.”

Courtesy image 

Shown is a mockup of how the Confederate soldier monument might look once it’s moved to the Denton County Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum.

Confederate monument

Denton County’s Confederate soldier monument was taken down in 2020, but county officials announced in April their plan to make an exhibit out of the monument in the Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum.

The exhibit will include the soldier and two engraved tablets from the original monument. It will be surrounded by a 3D version of its previous form on the lawn, with the exhibit also including a contextual narrative on its history and the history of slavery.

Eads said the plan was a way to present the monument in terms of its history, saying it’s not up to the county to tell people how to interpret it. Activist Willie Hudspeth, on the other hand, disagreed with the plan after his years of advocating for its removal in the first place.

In the spring, county officials stated the exhibit would be installed by about November, but that timeline has been pushed back. Officials have not given a reason for the delays, with the latest update from Eads being that the exhibit will likely be installed sometime in January or February.


Year_in_review
featured
Year in Review: Top 5 city of Denton articles of 2021

Denton’s government saw significant shifts amid an already tumultuous 2021.

Below, in no particular order, are the top five city of Denton stories published by the Denton Record-Chronicle along the way:

3 new members elected to Denton City Council

Three Denton City Council incumbents lost their election bids earlier this year.

That included two-time incumbent John Ryan, who lost his seat to political newcomer Alison Maguire.

Incumbents Birdia Johnson and Connie Baker both won their seats in special elections after former council members Gerard Hudspeth and Keely Briggs resigned their seats to run for mayor.

Hudspeth won that bout and is up for his first reelection as mayor in 2022.

Johnson and Baker lost their seats to Vicki Byrd and Brian Beck, respectively.

Another key Denton city role filled by interim

A half-dozen city administrators’ jobs were filled by interim replacements during 2021, and the bulk of them were still occupied by interims in late December.

  • Sara Hensley took over from former City Manager Todd Hileman.
  • Tiffany Thomson took over from former Assistant City Manager Sarah Hensley.
  • Sarah Kuechler took over from former Deputy Director of Human Resources Stephanie Lang.
  • Ryan Adams took over from former Chief of Staff Kuechler.
  • Erin Carter took over from Cory Lacy, the Denton Economic Development Partnership’s vice president of economic development.

  • Katherine Clifton took over from former City Attorney Aaron Leal.
  • Mack Reinwand has since been appointed as the full-time city attorney.

Those positions account for a sizable chunk of the public’s business being handled and overseen by people who might be temporary replacements and who often have other duties they must still tend to in their usual roles.

Denton’s Greenbelt reopens

Denton’s Greenbelt access opened in 2021 after about six years of closure following record-breaking rainfall in 2015.

The roughly 11 miles of trails connect Lewisville Lake and Ray Roberts Lake.

The Greenbelt was designed and built decades ago using taxpayer money, but some of its fiercest advocates see a lapse in government accountability as the root cause of its extended closure over recent years.

Engineers who originally designed the recreational area knew it would occasionally flood, so why was it so difficult for various government agencies to work out how to rectify recent problems, and who would do the rectifying?

Courtesy photo/Richard Rogers 

A flooded section of the Greenbelt north of U.S. Highway 380 is seen in September 2020, in an aerial photo taken by Greenbelt Alliance board chairman Richard Rogers. 

You might be in a new Denton council district

City Council members spent weeks debating the relative good of redistricting before deciding to spend weeks weighing the benefits of three maps in particular.

Those included the existing map created a decade ago, a map submitted by council member Brian Beck and a map submitted by council member Jesse Davis.

Accusations of gerrymandering flew across the dais throughout the redistricting process, and dozens of voters came to speak their piece, but a split vote eventually selected the more significant changes put forward in Beck’s proposal.

DRC file photo 

Participants and guests don purple masks to show their support for domestic violence awareness during Denton County Friends of the Family’s “Healing Through the Arts” fundraiser in October. Masks are required at the Patterson-Appleton Arts Center and other city facilities.

Denton votes 5-2 to enact mask ordinance

Denton votes 5-2 to enact mask ordinance

Following the lead of other jurisdictions, namely Dallas County, the Denton City Council voted 5-2 during an emergency meeting Thursday night to directly challenge Gov. Gregg Abbott’s order against requiring face coverings.

A split vote among now-familiar lines enacted the city of Denton’s mask mandate.

Among other things, it required public schools to require masking on campuses, but Denton ISD ignored that in favor of its own — roughly equally controversial — stance.

Texas had previously had a mask mandate in place, which itself was largely unenforced locally, but it was lifted long before Denton decided to craft an ordinance of its own modeled after Dallas’ mandate.

Hardly a City Council meeting has gone by in Denton without arguments about the efficacy and enforceability of the mask mandate surfacing along the same 5-2 split.


The_watchdog
The Watchdog: With apologies to Ripley, the Texas property tax system is one big believe-it-or-not scheme

Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

The state property tax system is unfair, confusing and rotten to the core.

The Watchdog collected stories from the 2021 tax season that prove my point. Unfortunately, these stories are not rarities. This is like a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! exhibition about hurt taxpayers.

Denton County

Let’s begin with news coming out of troubled Denton Central Appraisal District, where civil war has broken out.

Beverly Henley, the outgoing chairperson of the Denton County Appraisal Review Board, which handles home value protests, has filed a complaint with the state against Denton County Chief Appraiser Hope McClure.

In her letter to state regulators, Henley, who is resigning on Jan. 1, dished the dirt. She accused McClure of “suspected fraud” hurting both governments and taxpayers.

Her chief accusation is that McClure couldn’t meet deadlines to finish property reviews, so McClure sent out erroneous value notices to hundreds — and some say thousands — of property owners. The notices showed an automatic 10% reduction. Some of these owners then happily withdrew their protests.

But later, these owners received a second corrected notice, often far less than the10% reduction in the first notice. With their values, and thus taxes, suddenly higher, owners were irate and confused.

McClure declined to comment on this, telling me, “The Denton Central Appraisal District is completely separate from the Denton County ARB. I cannot respond to the opinions or decisions made by Denton Appraisal Review Board or its members.”

Collin County

If you miss your protest hearing at the Collin Appraisal Review Board, you can file a “good cause request” for a second chance.

The application form for this is one of the most intrusive I have ever seen. It’s designed to catch liars.

“If you were out of town ... when did you leave? Return? Where were you? Why were you there? Did you have access to a phone? ... Do you have copies of airline tickets?

“If you or a family member was ill ... who was it? When did the illness occur?

“If a member of your immediate family died, who died? What relationship to you? When did he/she die? When and where were the funeral services? Do you have an obituary?”

If you think I’m making this up, I’m not. That’s word for word.

Dallas County

A Dallas County taxpayer sent me a screenshot of his phone that showed he was on hold with the Dallas Central Appraisal District for 3 hours and 18 minutes waiting for his protest hearing via telephone.

He showed up on time. The hearing folks did not.

Dallas CAD spokesperson Cheryl Jordan said, “There typically are not hold times for telephone hearings because property owners call in and we either queue them to their hearing or we call them back.”

A typical wait is 15 to 30 minutes, she said. Tell him that.

Missing numbers

Some sharp-eyed taxpayers have noticed that a key number is no longer given to property owners.

That number is the estimated tax bill that comes on the initial value notice. That number helped people decide whether to protest their property values.

That number is gone, thanks to a new law that appraisal districts don’t have to provide an estimate anymore.

Appraisal districts pushed state lawmakers to allow them to stop providing an initial estimated tax number, saying the numbers were never accurate in the end. Plus, a new system in which taxpayers in larger counties are asked to visit websites to get their tax numbers supposedly suffices.

The problem is those numbers don’t come in until later, so it’s very possible people who could protest don’t have the information in time to know what to do.

Also, how many people visit the new websites? Every time I visited, the number shown was zero. Updates are slow. We miss the estimated tax number.

Rockwall County

This happened in Rockwall, but it could happen in any county. A man and his neighbor both had protest hearings on the same day at the same time. Both had the same strategy: Each had a next-door neighbor whose property was very similar, and the next-door neighbor’s value was lower than the two protesters.

They requested that their values drop to match the next-door neighbors’ value. That usually works in a protest.

This time, though, it only worked for one of them. The loser was so upset he couldn’t sleep. His note to me arrived at 2 a.m.

“I am dumbfounded of how this ‘fair’ system works,” he said.

Welcome to the club, sir.

Tarrant County

A Grapevine woman didn’t know her homestead exemption was mistakenly dropped by the Tarrant Appraisal District, which then sent her a bill for five years of back taxes, which she paid.

The exemption never should have been dropped. Still, her fight to correct this outrage lasted two years.

In the end, about $10,000 was refunded to the woman. In exchange, chief appraiser Jeff Law asked her property tax agent to withdraw two open record requests to the appraisal district.

In a note to me, Law did not admit his office’s clerical error in dropping her exemption.

“The only error that I am aware of was the stopping of the exemption of the previous owner,” he said.

Everybody file a protest

I will stick with my long-term recommendation that everybody file a protest. (Do you remember my movement has its own flag?)

Of course, there are exceptions. But even seniors who can freeze much of their property tax at age 65 may want to protest to keep values down.

As I’ve learned, in this unpredictable system, the secret to keeping your property tax low is to be consistent in protesting the market value.

Taking action to protest each spring can and often usually does have an impact on where you start with next year’s value. Lowering this year means a lower hurdle the following year, and on and on.

That’s what I think. Believe it or not!


State
Holidays and at-home tests mean omicron’s spread will be harder to track in Texas

As the omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly, a real-time snapshot of how the virus is impacting Texans may be muddled over the next couple of weeks thanks to a lag in state data and soaring demand for at-home tests.

The Texas Department of State Health Services, which tracks the number of coronavirus vaccinations, cases, hospitalizations and deaths across the state, won’t be updating its daily dashboard Friday through Sunday both this weekend and next over the holidays.

The agency, which delayed reporting daily data over the Thanksgiving holiday in November, told The Texas Tribune it plans to backfill that data the following Monday in both cases.

Those information lapses come at an inopportune time: Texas has again started to see a rapid increase in the number of coronavirus infections.

According to state data, the seven-day average for the number of confirmed cases has doubled over the past week. And while COVID-19 hospitalizations have remained relatively low in most of the state so far, the number of hospitals reporting full intensive care units has started to rise again after dropping since August.

A DSHS spokesperson said Wednesday that the agency is taking the break to give its staff a chance to enjoy the holiday season.

“Frankly, it’s just a matter of wanting to give our staff, who have been working all the time for the last nearly two years, a chance to spend the holidays with their family without having to be chasing down numbers,” said Chris Van Deusen.

Still, some health experts say that time off is coming at a crucial time.

“Crunch time is now — Christmas Eve, Christmas Day — and it’s going to be a very bad time as omicron starts to rev up,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. “It just puts more of a burden on the local health departments to manage that situation.”

Another potential blind spot in the state data is the surge of at-home tests, which drug stores like CVS and Walgreens have reported are widely out of stock or in short supply nationwide for months. Those tests aren’t automatically reported to the state, which could affect the state’s understanding of how many Texans are testing positive for the virus.

“I imagine most people don’t even know who to report it to, which would be your local health department,” said Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. “Anybody can report infectious diseases to their local health department or DSHS. But we know that even for health care providers, reporting isn’t 100%. I think it’s a lot to expect the public to do it.”

Van Deusen though said he’s not worried that at-home testing “is going to kind of leave us blind in any way” and pointed to the large amount of testing that is getting reported back to the state.

“If you look at the level of testing that is occurring, just looking at the last week, we have gotten an average of 100,000 each day for the last seven days. That is, by far, enough to give us a picture of what’s happening with the pandemic in Texas,” he said. “When you take a look at the cases, combined with the positivity rate, it gives us a real good indication of what’s going on. We’re seeing cases go up a lot. We’re seeing the positivity rate go up a lot.”

Dr. Bhavna Lall, an internal medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at the University of Houston’s College of Medicine, said that while sometimes patients will let their health care providers know about a positive at-home test, there should be a system in place for doctors to better inform public health authorities about it.

As far as the number of hospitalizations related to COVID-19, Van Deusen said that data is typically more consistent over the holidays because it’s data that’s not reliant on people getting tested.

“Hospitals do report every day and will continue to report every day. We will have daily totals from them,” he said. “Hospitals are very much 24/7 operations. We still expect that reporting will occur, and we will be able to share that data for the weekend as well.”

Health officials emphasized the precautions people should take as omicron surges and families and friends prepare to gather for the holidays.

“It’s really important that people do the measures we already know work — getting vaccinated, getting their boosters if eligible, wearing masks indoors, testing before gathering, and practicing physical and social distancing,” Lall said Wednesday. “We have the tools that we know work, so we want to make sure people use them right now.”


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