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KATIE BURNSIDE

Sr. Lorena

Earned Super Centex Player of the Year honors for the second-straight season with 19 goals, 44 assists.


News
editor's pick
Lawsuits 'a way of life' for appraisal district
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 
 05.03.19

When you are in the business of telling taxpayers the market value of their property, lawsuits and protests are business as usual.

As those unhappy with recent appraisals line up to complain, McLennan County Appraisal District officials continue to deal with $1.6 billion worth of appraised values that are tied up in litigation dating back seven years.

Currently, there are 83 lawsuits pending against MCAD, with some of the county’s largest retailers and industries crying foul about their appraised values, including Sandy Creek Power Plant, Target, both movie multiplexes, Mars Wrigley Confectionery, H-E-B, Walmart, Chick-fil-A and a number of apartment complexes.

So far this year, 3,568 taxpayers have given notice they intend to protest their appraisals, said Joe Don Bobbitt, MCAD assistant chief appraiser. Typically, like many taxpayers who wait until the last minute to pay their taxes, those protesting appraisals often flood the office with 11th-hour filings and mailings.

Bobbitt said protests are down from this same time last year, but by the May 15 filing deadline in 2018, about 15,000 people had filed to protest their appraisals last year.

“It’s just a way of life down here,” Bobbitt said.

MCAD officials are required to have 95 percent of the tax roll completed before they can certify the roll and give the numbers to taxing entities for budget preparations.

According to MCAD figures, the average homeowner saw a median increase in appraised market value of 4.8 percent this year, down from about 12 percent last year.

But it’s the accumulative effect over the last few years that have taxpayers flocking to MCAD’s office and galvanizing on social media in constant debate of MCAD’s methods.

MCAD has a $300,000 budget for legal matters this year, down from $450,000 the year before when MCAD officials thought they would be battling Sandy Creek in court again. MCAD also has a reserve fund of $400,000 to $600,000 set aside for litigation, Bobbitt said.

In 2018, MCAD spent $220,000 for legal costs, he said.

Most of the lawsuits are filed by businesses. If they sue MCAD, they are required to pay taxes on the undisputed amount. If they want to pay the entire amount, they get a refund if they prevail. If they just pay the undisputed amount and lose, they have to pay the remainder of the taxes, possibly with interest, Bobbitt said.

The appeal process remains underway in 2019, so no new lawsuits have been filed this year. County records show that 58 lawsuits were filed against MCAD in 2018, with 13 disposed of; 40 filed in 2017, with 28 disposed of; 46 filed in 2016, with 38 disposed of; 22 filed in 2015 with 18 disposed of; and 23 filed in 2014 with 18 disposed of.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file 

The Sandy Creek plant in Riesel cost more than $1 billion to build, but after multiple lawsuits against the McLennan County Appraisal District, its value was lowered to $400 million. The latest suit seeks a valuation of $250 million.

Among the high-profile plaintiffs, the Sandy Creek Power Plant in Riesel, continues to be a thorn in MCAD’s side. The coal-fired plant site, divided into eight properties for taxing purposes on 689 acres, sued MCAD in 2014, 2016 and 2018.

A 170th State District Court jury handed MCAD a major courtroom defeat in August 2016, its verdict slashing the appraised value of the plant by more than half after a five-day trial.

MCAD argued for a value of $900 million in 2014 and $1.17 billion in 2015. The jury, however, set the plant’s value at $408 million in 2014 and $431 million in 2015, close to what the plant was seeking.

On the same day the judgment was entered in the 2014 lawsuit, Sept. 7, 2016, MCAD filed its response to Sandy Creek’s lawsuit challenging its 2016 appraisal, according to court records.

The jury’s verdict saved Sandy Creek $12 million in taxes for each year, while the trial cost the appraisal district about $600,000 in legal expenses, MCAD officials said.

In January 2017, Sandy Creek and MCAD entered into an agreed judgment setting the overall value at $400 million, down from the previous $431 million.

While MCAD figures list the 2018 appraised value at $466.6 million, the Lower Colorado River Authority owns about 11 percent of the plant and is tax-exempt, Bobbitt said. The 2018 lawsuit dispute boils down to a $444 million appraised value placed on Sandy Creek by MCAD, while Sandy Creek is seeking a $250 million value, Bobbitt said.

Mars Wrigley Confectionery, the candy maker formerly known as M&M Mars, has sued MCAD the last three years, and all three suits remain pending, according to county records.

In 2016, MCAD set its appraised value at $72 million, but the Appraisal Review Board knocked that back to $65 million. The 2017 appraised value is listed at $68.1 million, while the 2018 appraised value was set at $71.8 million. In 2018, the Appraisal Review Board granted Mars no relief, leaving the appraisal the same.

American Multi-Cinema Inc., doing business as the Starplex Cinema, sued MCAD in 1999, 2017 and 2018. The 1999 case was settled in January 2000 but court records do not show the result of the settlement.

Starplex now has two lawsuits pending involving appraisals from 2016, 2017 and 2018. In 2018, the appraised value was $7.2 million and the ARB granted no relief.

Likewise, Hollywood Theaters Inc., doing business as Jewel Stadium 16, sued in 2008, 2013 and 2018. All the suits have been resolved with values hovering around $7 million from 2010 to 2018, with a 2019 appraised value at $7.59 million.

H-E-B has sued MCAD for appraisals on its multiple stores in 2009, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018. All were resolved except for the most recent case, records show.


Traffic
featured
University Parks closed Saturday at I-35 as crews remove exit ramp
 
 05.03.19

Work crews with Webber LLC will begin removing the southbound exit ramp from Interstate 35 onto Fourth-Fifth streets Saturday, prompting the closure of University Parks Drive in both directions.

The work is scheduled to begin at 7 a.m. and end at 7 p.m. and University Parks will remain closed at I-35 all day.

Traffic on University Parks traveling west from Baylor toward downtown Waco will be redirected to Martin Luther King Boulevard. Eastbound traffic will be directed to 18th Street, according to a Texas Department of Transportation release.

The start of this work was postponed from Wednesday due to rain.

Only one lane on the southbound access road will be open Saturday, to provide a buffer zone between the demolition and the traffic in that area. The left and center lanes will be closed.

Demolition of the ramp will continue nightly through May 11.

Interstate 35 widening project through Waco: May 2019

News
editor's pick
Baby Lauren searches for birth parents
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 
 05.03.19

She was known as Baby Lauren throughout Central Texas. The tiny child with striking blue eyes captured the hearts of those who cared for her and garnered media attention from the day she was born.

Lauren didn’t start out life like most babies. A woman waiting in the parking lot of the former Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center spotted Dr. Floyd Barry getting out of his car. The woman told Barry her friend had a baby and didn’t want her.

Barry, who declined comment for this story, bundled up the 6-pound girl — with umbilical chord still attached — and carried her into the hospital.

That was 17 years ago, and like Waco authorities back in March 2002, Lauren wants to find her birth parents.

Submitted photo  

Baby Lauren was adopted by a foster family after her mother left her with a doctor in a hospital parking lot.

Lauren, an outgoing high school junior who loves basketball and works hard for her grades, has known since she was 4 that she was adopted. But the older she gets, the more important it is to Lauren to know her birth parents, to find out if she has other brothers and sisters, to learn why her life turned out like it has and to just find out who she looks like.

Lauren and Kari, her adoptive mother, asked that they not be identified by last name because they fear internet trolls, stalkers or those who might contact them with bad intentions. Lauren and Kari are hoping anyone who reads this story with information about who Lauren’s mother or father will contact them at babylaureninfo@gmail.com, a special account created to receive information about Lauren’s parents.

Lauren says she has prepared herself for the possibility that she may never find her mother or that her mother might not want to be contacted. She is not angry that her mother gave her away and is thankful that she had a loving family with four older, supportive and protective brothers to care for her and love her.

“I have wanted to reach out like this my whole life, but my mom didn’t want me to do anything because she didn’t think I was ready at such a young age,” Lauren said. “Everyone knows who their parents are, who they got their genes from, their traits. I don’t know these things. I don’t go to family reunions and see people I may look like. I can’t say I got this nose or these blue eyes from this person. I want to know who I am or who I could have been.”

Foster parents

Submitted photo 

Lauren (top right) poses with her family. 

Kari said she and her then husband were shocked when they got the call in late March 2002 that they had been chosen as foster parents for Baby Lauren. It had only been a few months since they were certified by Child Protective Services officials to become foster/adoptive parents.

“We had four sons and were hopeful we would add a daughter to complete our family,” Kari said. “We were able to go see her two days later, hold her and feed her. She had dark hair, olive-colored skin and the most amazing blue eyes. At 6 pounds, she was tiny and precious. Our family brought her home on Easter Sunday.”

Lauren’s parents committed no crime since she was dropped off in a safe place with people to care for her. In their search for the parents, police and CPS officials stressed that no one would be arrested, but they wanted to find out who the parents were for a variety of reasons.

No one came forward, the parents were not located and a judge terminated parental rights, freeing Lauren up for adoption.

The family was living in Robinson at the time and moved to Canyon, near Amarillo, in 2006. They moved to Layton, Utah, 30 minutes north of Salt Lake City, in 2015. Kari and her husband, Arlen, an aerospace engineer, divorced last year.

While Kari and her then husband were thrilled to be able to adopt a daughter, they didn’t expect to take in a child with no medical background, no history of who the birth parents are, no information at all. But Kari resolved from the beginning if Lauren wanted to know about her birth parents, she would tell her the truth. She just didn’t expect her to be so inquisitive at such a young age.

Submitted photo  

Baby Lauren as a 3-year-old.

“When Lauren was 4, we were watching a Discovery channel show about babies and she asked me if she had been in my belly like those babies were,” Kari said. “I had promised myself that I would always answer her questions when the time came. So from that moment on, she knew that there was another woman who carried her. She is a very intuitive person. She asks deep questions.”

Lauren will enter her senior year in high school in the fall. She said she wants to go to Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, to study cosmetology and become a barber.

Kari says anyone who contacts them with a serious claim that they are the birth mother or father will have to undergo a DNA test before she lets them meet Lauren.

In the meantime, Lauren is thinking about what she will say if she ever gets to meet her mother or father.

“I’m thinking if they don’t want me in their life, I completely understand,” Lauren said. “I really would understand. I put myself in her position. She might have been a teenager and scared and didn’t know what to do. So I always keep that in mind. But I at least want a picture to see what they look like.

“I would say, ‘I don’t hate you for what you did. I’m not mad. I’m not angry. I’m just confused.’ ”


Courts_and_trials
featured
Attorneys seek dismissal of lawsuit facing Mart political group
 Kristin Hoppa  / 
 05.03.19

Attorneys representing members of a Mart-based social media group are asking a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit a city council candidate filed against them, calling it an “an instance of boiled-over politics masquerading as a federal case.”

Attorneys Jim Dunnam, of Waco, and Chad Dunn, of Austin, who are representing Henry Witt III, filed the motion Friday in Austin seeking the dismissal of a lawsuit filed April 10 by council candidate Kollin Behrghundi. The lawsuit claims Witt’s Facebook group, Save Our City, violated his rights to free speech and equal protection under the law.

The suit alleges the Save Our City group opposed Behrghundi’s candidacy and retaliated against him for playing a role in sharing a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality report on city wastewater treatment violations. It said those actions are improper because Save Our City is essentially an arm of the city.

Dunnam said the only person formally served with the lawsuit has been Mayor Len Williams. He said Williams has never had any control over the Facebook group and has never posted to the page.

“I think Save Our City is comprised of good people who could do good things for Mart and the community,” Dunnam said. “It is just the name of a Facebook page, so I don’t know if the lawsuit is filed to get publicity or what it was filed for, but it clearly doesn’t have any merit.”

Waco attorney David Schleicher, Behrghundi’s attorney, said he will address the motion to dismiss.

“This is the sort of response we expected and to which we will fully respond with citations to the pleadings and the law,” Schleicher said.

The motion states the individuals named in the lawsuit, all current city council members, do not have standing to be sued under the claims. The motion claims the SOC group is a name of a Facebook page and is not an actual entity.

“As shown on the site itself, the Save Our City Facebook page is used to promote community, city, school and church events,” the motion states in part. “The remainder of plaintiff’s complaint amounts to political arguments between one citizen, other citizens and some elected and former elected leaders.”

Witt, who now lives in Robinson but serves as chief planning officer and a consultant for Mart on a major overhaul of its water system, said Save Our City is meant to encourage a promising future for Mart. He said the group does endorse candidates in local elections but has chosen not to endorse Behrghundi.

“We believe this lawsuit is not only an attempt to discredit SOC because we chose not to endorse Mr. Behrghundi, and to instead campaign against him because of his seemingly self-serving actions, but it is also an effort to stifle the First Amendment rights of SOC supporters during the campaign through open-ended threats of additional lawsuits without naming future defendants,” Witt said. “Basically, this lawsuit is a baseless publicity stunt, political ploy and scare tactic all rolled into one.”

The motion comes on the heels of a request last month from Mart Police Chief Paul Cardenas for the Texas Rangers to investigate Mart city officials’ actions. Cardenas notified city officials in an email about the possibility of falsified wastewater logs, a social media conspiracy against a potential candidate for office, improper use of city equipment and other misconduct.

Mart City Council candidate sues local political group

A candidate in the May 4 Mart City Council election has sued a group organized on Facebook that he claims is acting as a de facto extension of the city and violating his constitutional rights by opposing his candidacy and harming his business.