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Rod Aydelotte  


James Lynch

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$14.5 million zoo expansion bond could hit November ballots
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

Waco and McLennan County are poised to call a $14.5 million countywide bond election to fund an expansion of Cameron Park Zoo, which has been without a permanent director for more than a year.

The Waco City Council approved an agreement with the county this week that would have the county issue the bond, if voters approve, and pay the city monthly as the city carries out the expansion, with a total estimated cost of $15.3 million. McLennan County commissioners will consider the agreement during their meeting Tuesday.

A new black footed African penguin exhibit would account for almost $4.5 million of the expansion. African penguins are an endangered species, interim zoo director Johnny Binder said.

“Fifty years ago there were 146,000 pairs of South African penguins, and they’re down to 26,000 pairs now, so they’re in great need for conservation,” Binder said.

Binder has previously said zoo donors have expressed enthusiasm for the expansion and that he expects they would contribute to the work.

Plans also include an $8.3 million veterinary and educational complex, to be located near the zoo’s entrance. The building would house visiting classes and exhibits as well as school events and create more space for veterinarians to care for the zoo’s 1,628 animals.

“Currently, Cameron Park Zoo provides education programs to over 26,000 schoolchildren each year in a building that’s the size of a typical master bedroom in a home,” Binder said.

Terri Cox, new executive director of the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society, said attendance increases at the zoo when it makes additions.

“Each year that we have added a new attraction, we have seen increases, most of which have been sustained,” Cox said.

Zoo attendance spiked in 1997 and 2005 after major expansions, she said. A dramatic uptick in Waco’s tourism in recent years, driven by Magnolia Market at the Silos, has also spilled over to the zoo. Attendance hovered at about 350,000 in 2016 and 2017, and grew to almost 361,000 last year, she said. The births of an orangutan and lion also boosted attendance in 2016 and 2017, Cox said.

“Historically, we’ve seen a 20% or greater gain in attendance with a major expansion project,” Cox said.

The proposed expansion would also include a $375,200 renovation of a hoof-stock barn and $100,000 to remodel the existing animal commissary.

The city provides the zoo with an annual subsidy of about $2.7 million, which is not expected to change because of the expansion. New staffing and maintenance costs are expected to be covered by increases in revenue from attendance, Cox said.

The zoo’s admission prices are scheduled to increase next year by $2 a ticket, bringing the cost to $12 for adults, $9 for children and $11 for seniors.

The zoo is also operating under a new contract between the city and the zoological society that removes the society from day-to-day operations but preserves its fundraising role.

“Under the new contract, the city of Waco will manage the Zootique gift shop and all retail operations, the society will continue managing special events and fundraising for the zoo in addition to conservation and enrichment programs,” Cox said.

Former zoo director Jim Fleshman proposed the zoo expansion, then estimated to need a $12 million bond, to the city in April of last year, shortly before he resigned in the wake of an audit report that found lax cash handling practices and policy. The new contract between the city and zoo society was finalized by April this year.

If the county signs off on the bonding agreement the city approved Tuesday, the bond would be up for a vote in November, and development would start in March next year. The project is slated for completion between fall 2021 and spring 2022.

Before signing off on the agreement, Mayor Kyle Deaver and city council members voiced support for the project.

“Tourism is not a silver bullet for our economy, but I think now is the time for us to really solidify our place as the tourist destination in Texas because it is an important part of any economy,” District 4 Councilman Dillon Meek said.

District 3 Councilman John Kinnaird said the zoo is important to the public, and he has a personal love for penguins.

“I appreciate the zoological society and staff working together over this past year as we’ve kind of transitioned and reworked the relationship between the two a little bit,” Kinnaird said.

Also Tuesday, the council also approved an almost $500,000 Tax Increment Financing grant to pay for a new overflow parking lot at the zoo.

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Robinson eyes tax hike
Robinson proposes tax rate bump to fund streets, raises after 3 years of cuts
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

Robinson City Council members are considering raising the city’s property tax rate by a penny-and-a-half in an effort to pay for road needs and to offer raises to city employees.

“There are two major issues we are trying to address in this budget,” City Manager Craig Lemin said. “One is salaries, especially for the police department, and the second is street maintenance. We conducted a salary survey this past year and found that while some of our salaries are near the average of other cities in McLennan County, we did have some that are significantly below the average which was leading to employees leaving and others we were trying to hire going to other cities.”

During their meeting Tuesday, council members considered a property tax rate of 49.95 cents per $100 of property value, up from this year’s rate of 48.45 cents. The increase would follow three years of rate cuts that started in 2015, when the rate was 50.53 cents.

Lemin proposed a budget with a 49.45 increase, but council members agreed to discuss the 49.95 increase with extra money going to city street maintenance. The city will likely increase employee salaries by a total of $240,000.

Lemin said if council members approve the 49.95 tax rate, the extra money would strictly go to street maintenance.

If the rate is approved, the city would collect a projected $4.6 million in property taxes, up from almost $4.2 million this year. The increase in revenue from existing properties would be less than 8%. An increase of 8% or more would trigger the possibility of a rollback election giving voters the option to set the rate lower.

For the owner of a house valued at $200,000, the 1.5 cent increase in the rate would add $30 to their annual property tax bill, about $2.50 per month, Lemin said.

Public hearings on the tax rate will give residents an opportunity to weigh in at 6 p.m. Aug. 20 and Aug. 26 at City Hall. The council is scheduled to adopt a tax rate Aug. 29.

Mike Lashombe, a 16-year resident of Robinson, said he was not familiar with the tax increase proposal, but that a $30 per year increase seems manageable.

“I spend over $30 going out to eat with my family. If it will help a neighbor get better streets, I’m for it,” Lashombe said. “There is a lot of sensitivity to raising taxes all over McLennan County, and Robinson is no different. Most people think Robinson’s city taxes are high, but they’re actually lower than many towns in the county.”

The city has been gradually stepping up spending on streets to address a need that has in the past gone unmet, Lemin said. The scope of street maintenance next year will depend on the tax rate, he said.

The city spent $50,000 to $78,000 on street maintenance each year from 2013 to 2017.

“While we are working on multiple projects to reclaim and reconstruct our worst streets, Robinson has traditionally under-funded maintenance,” Lemin said. “Last year and this current year we raised that amount to $130,000. Next year’s budget will increase that amount to $285,000 to $330,000 depending on the final tax rate adopted by the council.”

The city council’s goal is to extend the life of the streets that are still in good condition, which will take more money than the city has traditionally dedicated to streets, Lemin said.

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Statements from suicide victim to be admitted in child sex abuse trial
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

Statements from a Robinson teenager who killed herself last year on the eve of her testimony against her former stepfather will be admissible at his upcoming trial on charges he sexually abused her for five years, a judge ruled Friday.

Judge Ralph Strother of Waco’s 19th State District Court granted a state motion that forfeits Jose Manuel Gonzalez’s right to object to the admissibility of the evidence based on the unavailability of the witness because he “engaged in a course of action directed toward Clarisa Santos designed and intended to control, threaten and manipulate” her from reporting his actions.

Santos, a 14-year-old Harmony Science Academy student, took her own life May 6, 2018, the day after she received a subpoena from the state to testify at Gonzalez’s trial on continuous sexual abuse of a young child and indecency with a child charges, her mother, Clara Santos told the Tribune-Herald last year.

Gonzalez’s trial was postponed and is now set for Aug. 20 in Strother’s court. Gonzalez’s attorney, Chris Bullajian, declined comment Friday after Strother’s ruling.

Santos died in Robinson at the same location in which the FBI shot and killed her mother’s boyfriend, Joshua Steven Mitchell, who also went by the name Gio Michell.

Mitchell, 44, was killed after FBI officials said he threatened them as they arrived early in the morning of July 25 to serve an unspecified warrant, which remains sealed by federal authorities.

The Tribune-Herald does not routinely identify the alleged victims of sexual abuse without their permission or report on most suicides. However, Santos’ mother, Clara Santos, and Mitchell said last year that they wanted her story told and planned to create a foundation called One More Day with the goal of suicide prevention.

Strother also revoked Gonzalez’s $250,000 bond, ruling it was insufficient after deeming him a flight risk and declaring he engaged in a course of action that caused Santos to be unavailable to testify against him.

In a motion filed by prosecutor Sydney Tuggle, the state alleges Gonzalez’s behavior worked to prevent Clarisa from reporting the sexual abuse and “culminated just prior to the previous trial setting in this cause when Clarisa Santos took her own life.”

Clara Santos told the Tribune-Herald last year that she bought a gun to protect her and her daughter after Clarisa thought she saw Gonzalez lurking near their home on Stegall Drive in Robinson.

To boost workforce, medical schools try to sell rural life

BRISTOL, Va. — On a field trip to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Ashish Bibireddy put on headphones and scrolled through a jukebox of music from an influential 1927 recording session.

Bibireddy and nine other medical students had already been biking and rafting on their visit to rural Appalachia organized by a nearby medical college. But it wasn’t just casual sightseeing; the tour was part of a concerted effort to attract a new generation of doctors to rural areas struggling with health care shortages.

The Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University is among a small group of medical schools across the U.S. with programs dedicated to bolstering the number of primary care doctors in rural communities.

The schools send students to live in small towns and train with rural doctors. Like Quillen, some also organize outings and cultural experiences to try to sell students on living there after they graduate.

Schools have taken students to a ranch to brand cattle, brought in an Appalachian story teller and catered local delicacies to show students who may have never lived without the convenience of a Starbucks or Target what rural life offers.

“It’s a little sense of what the fun part of rural life can be,” said Dr. Dana King, chair of the family medicine department at West Virginia University School of Medicine, where students in the rural track go to a ski resort, visit a coal mine and go whitewater rafting.

At the University of Colorado School of Medicine, students can meet with the mayor, police chief or other leaders of rural communities and interview residents to learn about the town.

“We want to give the students an idea about what goes into the workings of a small community,” said Dr. Mark Deutchman, director of the school’s rural track.

Most of the more than 7,000 facilities, population groups and areas in the U.S. facing a shortage of primary care physicians — often a patient’s first point of contact for treatment — are rural, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They need nearly 4,000 additional physicians to close the gap.

Most of the students who came to Quillen did not grow up or attend school in rural areas, but all expressed an interest in working with underserved populations, rural programs coordinator Carolyn Sliger said.

The students spent three weeks with doctors in rural towns in eastern Tennessee and a week in June exploring the region. After the museum tour, they visited a war memorial with an eternal flame and hulking U.S. military attack helicopter. The group then headed to a rooftop bar overlooking Bristol, where the brick-lined main street straddles the Virginia-Tennessee state line.

Bibireddy, 23, grew up in suburban Edison, New Jersey, and attended the University of Central Florida medical college in Orlando. He never lived in a rural area but was impressed with what he saw of Appalachian life during the visit.

“The people here are genuinely caring,” he said.

He was inclined to work in a rural area after medical school but acknowledged that building relationships with a community as an outsider would be difficult.

Jason Soong, another medical student in the program, said he has “always known” that he wanted to live in a sparsely populated place with open space. Soong, 23, grew up in a Philadelphia suburb and attended California Northstate University College of Medicine outside Sacramento.

“Living out in a rural area, you can just go outside your door, and you have nature right there,” Soong said.

Katherine Schaffer and a few other students ended their day in Bristol around a patio table at a stylish downtown bakery.

Schaffer, 27, said she was excited to meet people who shared her interest in rural practice. Her medical school friends in Norfolk, Virginia want to work in cities as specialists and worry they wouldn’t have a social life in a small town, she said.

“I think it’s very difficult in my medical school to find like-minded people,” she told the group.