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Staff photo —Jerry Larson  

Baylor coach Matt Rhule led the Bears from 1-11 in his debut season to 6-6 this year, and back to a bowl game.

Waco wins $1.5 million HUD grant to fight childhood lead exposure
 Phillip Ericksen  / 

The city of Waco won a $1.5 million federal grant Wednesday that will help residents pay to fix lead-paint hazards in their homes.

City leaders were ecstatic when they learned of Waco’s cut of $139 million in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants announced Wednesday to help vulnerable residents nationwide address toxic lead hazards. Children are particularly vulnerable to brain damage and other health issues caused by ingestion of lead.

Waco’s lead problems are particularly pronounced and are associated with lead-based paint on houses built before the material was banned. The Tribune-Herald reported last year that 17 percent of children in the 76707 ZIP code who were tested had lead levels of more than 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. Areawide, 5.7 percent of children tested exceeded the 5 microgram per deciliter threshold, compared to 2.6 percent statewide.

During the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, 10.6 percent of children tested exceeded that threshold, which is the level that should trigger interventions, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The city applied for its $1.5 million grant in September and a month later passed an ordinance requiring property owners to address sources of lead exposure in children.

Under the ordinance, crafted by the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District, officials will work to identify sources of lead contamination if a test identifies a child who has blood-lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter or more.

Property owners who fail to provide interim controls or abatement plans within 90 days could face Class C misdemeanor charges. City officials have said they believe the ordinance is the first of its kind in Texas.

The grant is expected to be enough to pay for 140 low-income Waco families to fix lead problems in their homes. Lead paint is typically addressed by encapsulating it in another specialized paint or by removing it while taking steps to collect dust and protect workers from exposure.

The city did not start enforcing the new ordinance as it waited for results of its grant application, Assistant City Manager Deidra Emerson said.

“This has been such a long process, and I’m so happy,” health district spokeswoman Kelly Craine said. “There were several of us working on it, from housing, from health, and we got a lot of support from city managers. Now, to actually have it, I’m excited, and I can’t wait to really find out and get started and know how it’s going to work.”

Waco District 3 Councilman John Kinnaird, who is also chairman of the health district, said collaboration between various groups was necessary to get to this point and win the grant.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Kinnaird said. “I’m very excited and very appreciative to all the work the staff put in because it’s a very competitive grant. The fact that we were awarded such a substantial amount, I think it’s going to be a fantastic thing in this community, and it’s going to go a long way.

“It’s still a first step, but it’ll go a long way toward helping remediate and alleviate the problem that this lead and paint and other environmental contamination points has on the community.”

Administration action

Also Wednesday, President Donald Trump’s administration released a plan involving several federal agencies meant to combat lead exposure in children. Environmental advocates said the attention on the issue is appreciated but that the plan lacks new targets for regulatory or enforcement action, the AP reported.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson announced the $139 million grant package Waco got a piece of during an event Wednesday with other federal officials introducing the administration’s lead plan.

The CDC has found that children in at least 4 million households nationwide are exposed to lead from a variety of sources, according to the AP report.

In Waco, flaking lead paint is the main culprit for exposure. Paint makers lowered the concentration of lead in their products in the 1960s, and lead in paint was banned nationwide in 1978. More than two-thirds of homes in the 76707 ZIP code were built before 1960.

“Today, we take another important step toward creating safer and healthier homes for families and their children,” Carson wrote in a press release. “At HUD, one of our most important missions is to provide people with safe and reliable housing, and these grants will help states and local communities eliminate lead-based paint and other health hazards from low-income homes.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Mart’s Elijah Green (50) holds up the championship trophy as defensive MVP Jacob Ybarra (right) celebrates the Panthers' victory.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Mart head coach Kevin Hoffman gets doused with the water bucket after the Panthers defeated Gruver.

New director taking helm of revamped Convention and Visitors Bureau
 Phillip Ericksen  / 

As the new director of the Waco Convention Center and the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau, Todd Bertka is hoping to make some magic in the Heart of Texas.

“Making magic” was the guest-experience concept at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, where Bertka held one of his several previous positions in tourism, sales and marketing.

Though he just learned the location of the front doors to the Waco Convention Center, he said everyone who passes through them or anywhere in city limits will be treated with care.

“We want visitors for life,” Bertka said. “We don’t just want the one-and-done. We want to present a destination that people put on their radar either annually or every three, four or five years. We want that visitor for life. That’s the trick, and delivering on that expectation when folks come here and have that experience. They couldn’t get it all done in one day, so they need to come back.”

Bertka, who has completed his first two days in the role, comes to the Convention and Visitors Bureau at a time of transformation. The city council this summer approved a new leadership structure there to include a board of directors, and developers are responding to the city’s pursuit of hotels meant to drive convention business.

A board of directors with representatives of the local tourism industry, cultural initiatives, the city manager’s office, McLennan County, the Greater Waco Sports Commission and an at-large member of the public will confer on incentive requests, budgeting, marketing, financial statements, annual goals, booking policy, customer service and food and beverage options.

The structure was recommended by a consulting firm that studied the issue for the city, and the board has met a few times since its formation. Bertka said he worked in a similar structure in his most recent job in Virginia Beach, Virginia, as vice president of convention sales and marketing.

“So far, the commission has been super supportive, are really eager to work together, get around a table, roll sleeves up and look at opportunities and utilize those experiences and decide how best to guide the ship, so to speak, going forward,” Bertka said. “I think they’re really excited to be engaged.”

He has held positions at the Greenville, South Carolina, Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Hawaii Visitors Bureau and the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Bureau. He said he did not intend on leaving Virginia Beach, but the Waco position was too good to ignore.

Will Phipps, executive director of the Greater Waco Sports Commission, has yet to meet Bertka but expects to work closely with him to attract athletics events of all types to the city.

“I’m looking forward to getting to meet him,” Phipps said. “I’ve heard a lot of great things about him and seen his resume. And I hear he’s a sports guy, so that’s really encouraging. You know how big our sports tourism market is right now in Waco so, looking forward to him getting down here and us partnering up.”

A boom of new hotels will be an asset for Bertka. A downtown market study found that Waco should work with developers who build hotels for conventioneers. Three hotels are headed for Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and the downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone board, which funded the market study, is expected to cover public improvements for an Embassy Suites at 301 S. Second St.

The TIF Zone board was scheduled this week to hear a presentation from the Embassy Suites developers on Thursday and vote on a $4.9 million incentive package, but personal circumstances will delay the vote, said April Hull, program coordinator in the city’s economic development office.

“I am thrilled,” Bertka said. “Meeting and convention business has been my forte. So the value of meeting business and the facilities and the assets to accommodate meeting business is really critical in the sustaining notion of a year-round destination and one that is weatherproof.”

He also said it is important to make downtown a place for residents and tourists by identifying the needs of both groups and balancing interests.

Bertka and his wife of 25 years, Mindy, will soon search for a Waco home. In the meantime, he wants to live downtown and ensure his sons, aged 22, 19 and 18, are ready for the move.

“We are excited to have Todd Bertka in our community,” Assistant City Manager Deidra Emerson said. “Todd brings various levels of experience from other places. Based on our goals and where we want to see ourselves within the tourism industry and visitations to our community, we believe that Todd has the skills necessary to help us get to where we want to be and beyond.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Adam Moore is the founder of Analog, a storytelling group that specializes in “confessional storytelling.” After two events at Pinewood Coffee Bar, the third will be Friday night at downtown Waco’s Cultivate 7twelve.

Trump pulling all US troops from Syria, declaring IS defeat

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, officials announced Wednesday as the president suddenly declared victory over the Islamic State, contradicting his own experts’ assessments and sparking surprise and outrage from his party’s lawmakers who called his action rash and dangerous.

The U.S. began airstrikes in Syria in 2014, and ground troops moved in the following year to battle the Islamic State, or ISIS, and train Syrian rebels in a country torn apart by civil war. Trump abruptly declared their mission accomplished in a tweet.

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” he said as Vice President Mike Pence met with top leaders at the Pentagon. U.S. officials said many details of the troop withdrawal had not yet been finalized, but they expect American forces to be out by mid-January.

Later Wednesday, Trump posted a video on Twitter in which he said it is “heartbreaking” to have to write letters and make calls to the loved ones of those killed in battle. “Now it’s time for our troops to come back home,” he said.

A senior administration official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said Trump made the decision based on his belief that U.S. troops have no role in Syria beyond combatting Islamic State, whose fighters are now believed to hold about 1 percent of the territory they did at the peak of their power.

The president informed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of his decision in a telephone call, the official said. Turkey has recently warned that it would launch combat operations across its southern border into northeastern Syria against Kurdish forces who have been allied with the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State.

Trump’s declaration of victory was far from unanimous, and officials said U.S. defense and military leaders were trying to dissuade him from ordering the withdrawal right up until the last minute. His decision immediately triggered demands from Congress — including leading Republicans — for more information and a formal briefing on the matter. Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, just returned from Afghanistan, said he was meeting with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis late in the day.

Graham, typically a Trump backer, said he was “blindsided” by the report and called the decision “a disaster in the making.” He said, “The biggest winners in this are ISIS and Iran.”

The decision will fulfill Trump’s long-stated goal of bringing troops home from Syria, but military leaders have pushed back for months, arguing that the IS group remains a threat and could regroup in Syria’s long-running civil war. U.S. policy has been to keep troops in place until the extremists are eradicated.

The senior administration official said American forces would still work with allies to fight the Islamic State or other extremists in the country but gave no details on what that might entail.

Another official said it still is not clear to defense leaders whether U.S. airstrikes against IS insurgents will continue in Syria after the American troops leave. U.S. military officials worry that American-backed Kurdish troops will be targeted by Turkey and the Syrian government, leaving no ally on the ground to help direct the strikes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who remains concerned about Iranian efforts in the area, reacted in noncommittal fashion after talking with Trump by telephone.

“This is, of course, an American decision,” he said. No matter what, he said, “we will safeguard the security of Israel and protect ourselves from this arena.”

‘Grave error’

Leading Republican senators reacted with displeasure to the news.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said the withdrawal would be a “grave error” and that Kurdish fighters will stop fighting the Islamic State when they must confront Turkish troops crossing the border into Syria.

“This is a bad idea because it goes against the fight against ISIS and potentially helps ISIS,” he said, warning it could trigger a broader conflict in the region.

Just last week, the U.S. special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, said U.S. troops would remain in Syria even after the Islamic State was driven from its strongholds.

“I think it’s fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate, until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring,” McGurk told reporters on Dec. 11. “Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished. Defeating a physical caliphate is one phase of a much longer-term campaign.”

And two weeks ago Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. still has a long way to go in training local Syrian forces to prevent a resurgence of IS and stabilize the country. He said it will take 35,000 to 40,000 local troops in northeastern Syria to maintain security over the long term, but only about 20 percent of that number have been trained.

Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said in September that the U.S. would keep a military presence in Syria as long as Iran was active there. “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” he said.

James Stavridis, a former Navy admiral who served as top NATO commander, tweeted Wednesday that “Pulling troops out of Syria in an ongoing fight is a big mistake. Like walking away from a forest fire that is still smoldering underfoot. Big winner is Iran, then Russia, then Assad. Wrong move.”

The withdrawal decision, however, is likely to be viewed positively by Turkey, and comes following several conversations between Trump and Erdogan over the past several weeks. The two spoke at the G-20 summit in Argentina and in a phone call last Friday.

Erdogan said Monday he had gotten “positive answers” from Trump on the situation in northeast Syria where he has been threatening a new operation against the American-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Just hours before the withdrawal decision became public, the State Department announced late Tuesday that it had approved the sale of a $3.5 billion Patriot missile defense system to Turkey. The Turks had complained that the U.S. was slow walking requests for air defenses, and they had signed a deal with Russia to buy a sophisticated system in a deal that Washington and Ankara’s other NATO partners strongly opposed.

Completion of that deal with Russia for the S-400 system would have opened up Turkey to possible U.S. sanctions and driven a major wedge between the allies. It was not immediately clear if there was a connection between the Patriot sale and the decision on U.S. troops.

Although the withdrawal decision doesn’t signal an end to the American-led coalition’s fight against the Islamic State, it will likely erode U.S. leadership of that 31-nation effort. The administration had been preparing to host a meeting of coalition foreign ministers early next year.

“The bottom line is that the American withdrawal from eastern Syria will create a power vacuum that will lead to a new phase of international conflict in Syria,” said Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria expert at the Institute for the Study of War.

She predicted that the Russians, the Iranians, Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Turks will compete for the terrain and resources previously under U.S. control “at the expense of” the Syrian Kurds who have partnered with U.S. forces against IS.

Bosqueville man no-billed on murder charges in mall parking lot shooting
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

A Bosqueville man charged in the May 1 shooting death of a 32-year-old Waco man in a parking lot near Richland Mall was no-billed by a McLennan County grand jury Wednesday.

The grand jury heard testimony from Waco police Detective Kristina Woodruff Wednesday morning before determining there was insufficient evidence to indict Kenneth James Smith for murder in the death of Justin Wayne Bibles.

A no-bill finding does not preclude prosecutors from presenting a new case on identical charges if new evidence is provided.

According to records filed in the case, police found Bibles sitting in a red Hyundai with a gunshot to the head after they responded to a report of a two-vehicle crash in front of Red Lobster, 5925 W. Waco Drive.

Witnesses told police they saw a man shoot at the driver of the Hyundai, causing it to crash into a parked car, an arrest warrant affidavit states. The man who fired into the Hyundai then walked to a white pickup and left the area, according to the affidavit.

Smith, 26, has been free on bail since shortly after his arrest on May 7. He has felony indictments pending that charge him with felon in possession of a firearm and evading arrest with a prior, according to court records.

Smith’s attorney, Phil Martinez, said Smith has maintained his innocence in Bibles’ shooting death.

“I appreciate the state looking into the evidence,” Martinez said. “My client and I reviewed the evidence that was given to us and he and I both felt there wasn’t sufficient evidence that a grand jury would indict him on it. At this time he has other charges pending against him and we are still in the early stages of reviewing all the evidence in the indicted cases and haven’t made a decision just yet about how to proceed.”

The day of the shooting, police said the shooter was a passenger in the white pickup. Bibles died later that day at a local hospital.

According to the affidavit, a police investigation identified Smith as the man who shot into the Hyundai.

Smith was arrested at a trailer in the 9100 block of Rock Creek Road, police said.