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City council approves TIF money for downtown Hyatt, could consider parking separately
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

Several projects got the green light for public Tax Increment Financing Zone subsidies at Tuesday night’s Waco City Council meeting, but the fate of some additional public parking still hangs in the balance.

The council approved a TIF board recommendation that gives $1.9 million to developers of a Hyatt Place at 301 S. Third St. but leaves out another $1.4 million the developers requested to use on 66 additional public parking spots in the hotel’s garage.

To get the money for parking, the developers would have to re-start their TIF application process.

“That, singularly, will start with a TIF application and then go back to council, for the parking specifically” District Four Councilman Dillon Meek said. “Everything else is moving forward.”

An Embassy Suites planned at 301 S. Second St. next to the Hyatt has already received council approval for almost $3 million in TIF money to pay for 141 public parking spots in its garage. That portion of the TIF grant was not in the Embassy Suites developers’ initial request.

“If the TIF contributes to parking, then it will be for public spaces,” Meek said. “It will ensure the public will have a floor or two of parking.”

The agenda packet for Tuesday’s meeting notes city staff recommended the TIF board reject the request from the Hyatt, in part because of input from City Center Waco’s Parking Alliance.

Meek said the hotel developments, which will include retail and restaurant space, and their neighbors will create a demand for public parking.

“I don’t think we’re going to regret making sure that there’s ample parking opportunities for people, specifically in places with this particular kind retail and development occurring,” he said.

Also Tuesday, the council voted for the second time to approve TIF grants for conversion of Washington Avenue to a two-way street through downtown and for work on creating a public plaza and festival space on Bridge Street near Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

The council approved $350,000 for engineering work on the Bridge Street project, which is in the area where a group of three hotels is planned with TIF backing. Plans include construction of a public plaza off of Elm Avenue and an adjacent “festival street” area, designed to be walkable and easily closed for events, on Bridge Street.

The city’s Public Works Department will also receive $1.2 million to convert a portion of Washington Avenue into a two-way street with upgraded traffic signals, sidewalks, accessibility, bike lanes with a bikeway barrier, parking spaces, and improved curbs and gutters.

Methodist Children's Home picks new president
 Mike Copeland  / 

It was 20 years ago when a young college student named Trey Oakley needed a part-time job to impress his future father-in-law. He applied to work as a part-time librarian at the Methodist Children’s Home in Waco, a child care ministry founded in 1890.

On July 1, Oakley will become the 11th president and CEO of the home and the social services it represents in Texas and New Mexico. He will take over from Tim Brown, who announced his retirement in January after 10 years as president and 36 years with the organization. Generations of Waco residents know of the Methodist Home, and its influence spreads beyond the campus on Herring Avenue, near Cameron Park.

It operates a Boys Ranch, a charter school and a new family outreach center at Fifth Street and Waco Drive. A $26 million capital improvements campaign includes 11 new cottages being built on the grounds. Almost 30 young people who have spent their formative years as Methodist Home residents will graduate high school Friday. They will receive $400,000 in scholarships and tuition assistance to pursue college degrees or vocational training.

“The Methodist Home started as an orphanage,” Oakley said. “There were no families or parents. We have evolved to serving kids of all different backgrounds, from all walks of life. We know it’s a challenging time to be growing up, and it’s not getting easier. We try to apply a spiritual component to finding ways to meet the needs of children, youth and families.”

Oakley, 45, lives in China Spring with his wife, Karen, and their two children, Abby and Brady.

Donors key

Methodist Children’s Home has an endowment of more than $450 million and relies heavily on individual donations.

“Our long-term success is a credit to the donors,” Oakley said. “Less than 5% of our overall budget, which is $27 million annually, comes from state or federal funds, and less than 1% comes from the families we serve. We provide the highest level of care regardless of a family’s ability to pay or not to pay. One thing we take very seriously is good stewardship. The gifts we receive from individuals, we put them back into our programs to ensure our ministry for years to come. The permanent endowment gives us stability.”

Oakley transitions to the presidency after being directly involved in fundraising since 2001, when he joined the organization’s development department. He became vice president for development in 2006.

“I’ve had the opportunity to serve under three great presidents: Jack Kyle Daniels, Bobby Gilliam and now Tim Brown,” Oakley said. “What I find is that the mission of the Methodist Children’s Home these 129-plus years makes it something people want to support. Many times my role here has been matching up opportunities with resources. I don’t want to make it sound easy, but the mission here inspires donors to be extremely generous.”

He said congregations often designate money for Methodist Children’s Home, and it is not unusual to receive gifts from estates. He said the home recently received a $5 million gift from an individual whom he did not name.

Daniels is the only former resident of Methodist Home to become president, having moved there as a 2-year-old in 1937 with six siblings.

“In our national search we encountered many talented candidates seeking the position of president/CEO at MCH,” board Chairman Hank Coleman wrote in the press release. “Trey was our choice because of his experiences, passion for the mission at MCH and relationships with supporters, churches, staff and those we serve.

“We are excited about his vision for continuing the great work of our ministry and are ready to partner with him in fulfilling our mission to the children, youth and families in communities throughout Texas and New Mexico.”

Oakley’s educational background includes receiving a bachelor’s degree in Christian studies from Howard Payne University, a master’s degree in philanthropy and development from Saint Mary’s University and a master’s degree in Christian ministry from Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary.

Strategic plan

Oakley said he will continue to carry out the home’s strategic plan when he takes over as president. A major component of the plan is new cottages, which replace houses built in the 1940s and 1950s. The homes will accommodate up to 10 young people, each with a separate bedroom and bathroom, and provide space for live-in house parents.

Features include LED lighting and large porches for gatherings. Oakley said the home partners with the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development at Texas Christian University to learn about best practices in creating a nurturing, secure atmosphere. This can include little things such as having healthy snacks or warm baked goods available to youngsters after school.

“We’re sending a message that this is home,” Oakley said.

The ministry typically has 100 residents living at the home at any time, though it provides outreach services to thousands. It receives voluntary referrals from agencies and individuals statewide, Oakley said.

Brazos shows its brawn

Water flows through the gates at Lake Whitney and into the Brazos River on Tuesday at a rate of more than 24,000 cubic feet per second as area lakes continued to drain pent-up floodwaters this week.

Lake Whitney was 18.4 feet above its normal levels, while Lake Waco was 14.6 feet over its normal 462 feet above sea level. As Memorial Day approaches, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has closed all day-use and camping areas at Lake Whitney and most at Lake Waco, with partial closures at Midway and Reynolds parks. Corps officials said it will likely take weeks before the reservoir levels subside and parks can be cleaned up for use.

Meanwhile, the Brazos River at Waco was flowing at 27,600 cubic feet per second and continued to swamp walkways on both sides. Even with low rain chances into the weekend, the river level is forecast to remain steady at more than 20 feet.

Texas prosecutors want to keep low-level criminals out of overcrowded jails. Top Republicans and police aren't happy.

Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot announced policy reforms last month that he said would be “a step forward” in ending mass incarceration in Dallas. His plans include decreasing the use of excessively high bail amounts and no longer prosecuting most first-time marijuana offenses.

But part of his plan included a decision not to prosecute thefts of personal items under $750 that are stolen out of necessity. Immediately, Creuzot came under fire from state officials and police leaders who said the policy was irresponsible and would encourage criminal activity.

Creuzot said he didn’t arbitrarily pick that $750 threshold — that’s the value of stolen items that state law dictates will result in people being charged with no more than a Class B misdemeanor.

“I’ve been in criminal justice for 37 years, and I’ve seen people steal because they’re hungry, and I’ve seen the system react where the cases are dismissed or react in a more harsh manner where incarceration is requested,” Creuzot said. “But the reality of it is putting a person in jail is not going to make their situation any better.”

But the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, the largest police union in the state, called for Creuzot to step down. Gov. Greg Abbott fired off a series of tweets criticizing the policy and wrote a joint letter with Attorney General Ken Paxton that said the DA should reconsider his position and leave criminal justice reforms up to the Legislature.

“Reform is one thing. Actions that abandon the rule of law and that could promote lawlessness are altogether different,” the letter said.

Creuzot’s policy and the ensuing backlash highlight growing tensions among local district attorneys who want to reform a criminal justice system they say is broken and other public officials who believe that letting criminals skate could make cities more dangerous.

And Dallas is far from the only place in Texas — or the United States — where such debates are playing out.

“There is a movement across this country to ensure that our criminal justice systems are really about justice,” said Brianna Brown, deputy director of the Texas Organizing Project, which endorsed Creuzot in his election last year. “I think there’s been a real wake-up call, especially on the progressive side, about how do we figure out a way to really make an impact in everyday people’s lives, in particular folks of color who have been so disproportionately impacted by the kind of policies that have come to warehouse black and brown families across this country.”

A new area of reform

District attorneys, the elected officials responsible for prosecuting crimes on behalf of the state in the jurisdictions where they reside, have immense discretion in the cases they choose to pursue — or ones they choose not to prosecute.

But it’s only been in recent years that DAs across the country have begun tapping into this power, enacting policies they say can go a long way to ending problems like mass incarceration and court docket overcrowding in their jurisdictions.

“The system is bursting at the seams. There’s not a lot more room to put people, and we have to find a way to shrink the system,” said Jay Jenkins, Harris County project attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “The efforts at reforming police thus far have proven not effective at treating the system. The efforts of judicial accountability have not proven effective at shrinking the system. And so the reform movement is moving to the next most important person in this process, which is the district attorney.”

In 2016, District Attorney Kim Foxx in Illinois outlined policy reforms that included declining to charge shoplifters with a felony unless they stole more than $1,000 worth of goods or had 10 prior felony convictions — a huge leap from the $300 threshold for felony theft convictions in previous years.

Two years later, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said he would handle retail theft cases under $500 as summary offenses, which are similar to traffic violations and often result in fines.

This year alone, district attorneys in Massachusetts and Missouri included theft policies among their lists of reforms. In Suffolk County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Rachael Rollins said she would decline to prosecute shoplifting and larceny, or theft of another person’s property, under $250. And Wesley Bell in St. Louis said he would issue a court summons, not an arrest warrant, for certain low-level felonies — including theft of items over $750.

The list goes on; in the last two years, district attorneys in Maryland, Florida, North Carolina, Washington and Tennessee have enacted various reform policies in their jurisdictions.

But it’s just not just theft cases that prosecutors are beginning to treat differently — and such policies have reached Texas, too. This year, Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales announced he will soon begin a cite-and-release program that would give police the option of issuing a ticket for misdemeanor offenses like possession of marijuana, theft and driving with an invalid license. Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore announced last month that she was expanding Travis County’s practice of declining charges for cases involving trace amounts of drugs. And Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced in 2017 that she would send people convicted of certain marijuana offenses through a diversion court.

But advocates say the success of such reforms can be hard to measure. For one, many of these policies are brand new or only a few years old. And success depends on what metric jurisdictions are measuring, like jail populations or the number of cases on local court dockets, for example.

“It’s still such a new area of reform that we’re not sure exactly how it’s going to end up,” Jenkins said. “But it’s encouraging that the reform movement has expanded beyond just police accountability and beyond judicial accountability.”

He said it’s also a reflection of local jurisdictions’ need to prioritize criminal justice resources. When Creuzot took office, for example, the city had a backlog of 10,000 cases.

“It’s about discretion to tell the police that that is not worth our time and resources,” Jenkins said. “The DA’s office has a pie, and they can only spend that pie of resources. And they can choose, like most DAs, to spend that pie prosecuting low-level theft offenses and continue this cycle where we put poor people and black and brown people in jail, or they can take those resources in that pie … and commit those to solving rapes and murders.”

Law enforcement fears

But police officers in Dallas are still wary. While Michael Mata, president of Dallas Police Association, said some of the reforms Creuzot implemented are needed, he said police officers in the city feel they’re being blamed for enforcing the law on theft. He said officers already do everything they can to help people who steal because they are poor or hungry, and that “going public” with the policy is harmful to officers.

It’s creating a “belief that it’s an option, that we are choosing to enforce laws,” Mata said. “We are mandated to, especially if we have a complainant and he’s telling us, ‘No, I want to be a complainant, I want to file a complaint,’ and we have to. And that’s misinformation that erodes an already eroding relationship with the public. This isn’t helping us.”

Despite the opposition, Creuzot says he plans to stick to the reforms. As a felony district court judge in 1998, he founded the Dallas Initiative for Diversion and Expedited Rehabilitation and Treatment, known as DIVERT court. The court diverts nonviolent drug offenders to treatment and counseling programs instead of traditional criminal justice processing.

The program resulted in a 60% reduction in recidivism and saved over $9 for every dollar spent on the court, Creuzot said. He said his new reforms are largely based on the success he’s seen in the DIVERT court.

A week after the announcement of his latest reform plans, Creuzot said in a statement that he was not directing police officers to stop making arrests for theft offenses and that the personal items in the plans included necessities like food, diapers and baby formula. And he said thefts for economic gain will still be prosecuted.

“Even $750 worth of bacon will get you prosecuted under my rules because you’re a thief. You’re not stealing $750 worth of bacon to eat it; you’re going to sell it,” Creuzot said.

Creuzot said the reform will affect only a handful of cases. The number of people who steal out of hunger, for example, is very small, and they’re usually stealing less than $100 worth of food — which is a Class C misdemeanor and is handled in municipal court.

He’s also pointed out that much of what he is implementing was part of his successful campaign for district attorney in November.

“People will say what they want and how they want, and I have no control over that. I know what the research shows; I know who’s supporting me — some of the most conservative individuals in the state are,” he said. “I won by 60%, so obviously these reforms and these ideas have support in the community.”