A small milestone in James Gonzales’ long recovery came recently when he attended his son’s second birthday party sober.
A $20.5 million project to convert a section of West Highway 84 around Speegleville Road into a freeway design is about three months ahead of schedule, officials said.
The centerpiece of the project is a diamond interchange with two bridges carrying eastbound and westbound Highway 84 traffic over Speegleville Road, replacing a signalized intersection where traffic has increasingly backed up over the years.
Also, the existing frontage roads on Highway 84 are being extended on the west end of the project area, which runs 1.9 miles from the South Bosque River to Harris Creek Road.
Ultimately, the goal is for all of Highway 84 from Waco to McGregor to reflect a freeway design, with continuous frontage roads, on and off ramps and overpasses, said Chris Evilia, Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization director.
“Since we don’t have nearly enough resources to convert all that at once, especially for something not labeled Interstate 35, we have to kind of take that piecemealed,” Evilia said.
The intersection of U.S. Highway 84 and Speegleville Road also first needed addressing due to safety concerns, he said. About 22,000 vehicles a day traveled on Highway 84 in 2015 while another 6,500 drivers approached the highway from Speegleville Road, Evilia said. Currently, the intersection at Speegleville Road and U.S. Highway 84 is the only traffic signal between Waco and McGregor and the posted speed limit on the highway is 60 mph. Essentially it’s a freeway design with a signal, he said.
“If you pay attention to skid marks you can find out some really interesting things and there was a lot of rubber there,” he said.
The multi-phased project is designed to increase safety and efficiency, said Ken Roberts, Texas Department of Transportation Waco District spokesman.
Work began in April 2018 and is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2020, weather permitting, Roberts said.
Big Creek Construction, LTD. of Hewitt is contractor for the project.
The Metropolitan Planning Organization has had the project in its Metropolitan Transportation Plan since 2000.
Evilia said the creation of the overpasses brings it more in line with other intersections on Highway 84, such at the crossings at Ritchie Road, Hewitt Drive and Texas Central Parkway.
“If we didn’t do something different there was going to be a problem,” he said. “We’re always happy to hear ahead of schedule.”
A fire destroyed the 108-year-old Mooreville United Methodist Church building late Thursday night, Falls County Sheriff Ricky Scaman said.
Authorities received word the historical church building, about 15 miles south of Waco, was on fire at 10:32 p.m. Several volunteer fire departments, the Heart of Texas Fire Corps and Falls County Emergency Management responded.
The church was empty, and there were no injuries, Scaman said.
He said it took two hours to contain the fire. Wind fueled the fire, and a steady supply of water was tough to maintain, he said. The sanctuary, classrooms and offices were destroyed. The nearby fellowship hall and neighboring homes were not damaged.
The church celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2017 and just last weekend had a fundraiser to assist ongoing remodeling of the building, which has a state historic marker.
“It’s considered a small church with a big heart,” Scaman said.
He said there is no reason to suspect the fire was set intentionally.
Falls County Judge Jay Elliott has attended the church with his grandparents since 1974. Both of his children were christened there, and it has played a major role in his life and the community at large, Elliott said.
He said about 120 people make up the congregation, and between 70 and 100 people attend every Sunday.
“There’s been plenty of tears shed over it,” Elliott said.
The church will rebuild and do whatever it needs to move forward, he said.
“God doesn’t want us sitting on our hands crying,” he said. “He wants us moving.”
The congregation formed after the Civil War. In 1866, Methodists living 3 miles west of Chilton in an area called Mooreville started gathering, and a year later, the Rev. Howell Taylor formally established a congregation, the Tribune-Herald reported in 2012.
The first structure was built on land donated by Edward Hanrick, an Alabama-born son of an Irish immigrant who came to the United States in 1829.
Its second church at the current site was built in 1882 on land donated by Edward McCullough, another son of an Irish immigrant and a Virginia native. Seventeen of the 18 founders of the church are buried there, according to the 2012 report.
The structure that burned on Thursday was built in 1911. In the last few decades, stained glass windows designed by Waco-based Stanton Studios and restored, century-old pews were added to the sanctuary.
Stanton Studios owner Bryant Stanton said he was sad to hear the news and reminisced on the history of the building and his own work on it some two decades ago.
The windows depicted the parable of the sower, in which Jesus says a seed falling on good soil becomes the most fruitful.
“It seemed a little innocuous at first, but then you think about it, it’s a farming community,” Stanton said. “Farmers plant seeds and farmers harvest.”
McLennan County Court-at-Law Judge Vik Deivanayagam said he should have known something was up when officials from the Texas Center for the Judiciary asked him to step back into the main room during the annual DWI-Drug Court advanced conference last week.
They wanted the judge to be present because the McLennan County DWI-Drug Court Deivanayagam presides over was awarded the outstanding program of the year for the state of Texas.
For the 47-year-old Deivanayagam, who relishes his role overseeing the DWI-Drug Court, it was an unexpected but fitting way to celebrate his second anniversary on the county court-at-law bench and an honor for the DWI-Drug Court team that is dedicated to changing lives and breaking the cycle of addiction.
Deivanayagam was appointed in February 2017 to replace the retiring Judge Mike Freeman, who started the DWI-Drug Court 11 years ago and turned it into a successful, life-changing program for people committed to freeing themselves from the grips of substance abuse. As a defense attorney for 20 years, Deivanayagam saw first-hand many of his clients trapped in the revolving door of the criminal justice system because of substance abuse.
So after he took the bench, he embraced the mission of the DWI-Drug Court, putting his own polite and respectful, easy-going stamp on the program.
“What we do here every week is hard work, but it is so satisfying,” he said. “I feel like we actually change lives for the better.”
A small milestone in James Gonzales’ long recovery came recently when he attended his son’s second birthday party sober.
Laura Weiser, a retired Victoria County court-at-law judge who is now the judicial resource liaison for the Texas Center for the Judiciary, said Deivanayagam has a knack for “connecting” with the participants in the program.
“McLennan county has had a very successful program,” Weiser said. “When Judge Freeman left, there is a tendency when a new judge comes in for the program to be diminished or even go away. But Judge Vik really took that program and not only kept it going, but I think improved it. Every judge has a different style, and he really connects with the participants. He really has a way of talking to them and getting through to them. They really listen to him and look up to him.
“The program takes on the flavor of the judge because the judge is the focal point of the team. Every judge has their own style and own way of doing things, but because he came from a defense attorney standpoint, he can really relate to them. He really gets to them in a good way.”
The DWI-Drug Court team includes probation officers, a defense attorney, a prosecutor, a chaplain and substance abuse counselors. Offenders selected for the intensive-supervision program, mostly those on probation after multiple arrests for substance abuse violations or other nonviolent offenses, learn ways to turn their lives around for the better through treatment and counseling.
Weiser said an important factor that sets the McLennan County program apart from the other 30 or so DWI-Drug Courts around the state is the local program’s unique affiliation with Baylor University’s psychology department and the doctoral students who provide valuable resources.
“One thing is that we have a great team of committed professionals,” Deivanayagam said. “The consistent remark I get from the visitors who come and observe is how surprised they are about how much we struggle over the decisions we make. When we are discussing participants and whether or not to sanction them for violations or reward them, the visitors are always surprised. We really worry. If we put somebody in jail for the weekend, is this going to cause them to lose their job? Are they going to be separated from their children? What is clear is that everyone on the team is really trying to make a better life for the people in the program. It is not just checking boxes.”
There normally are from 20 to 30 people in the program, which takes a year or more, depending on successes and setbacks. About 120 people have graduated from the program during its 11-year run.
Team members Ron Cole, a licensed professional counselor, and Michelle Ramirez, a licensed professional counselor and licensed chemical dependency counselor at Cenikor, a substance abuse treatment provider, said the key to the program is its focus on treatment and rehabilitation.
“I saw one of the clients yesterday, and he said this program focuses on rehabilitation instead of punishment or retribution,” Ramirez said. “Its focus has helped him, in his words, plan for a better future and set the foundation for such rather that just going to jail, doing time and coming out institutionalized. He said he has learned new skills to actually prosper in society.”
Deivanayagam said he called Judge Freeman last week to tell him about the statewide award and to share it with him.
“He set this all in motion,” Deivanayagam said. “His leadership 11 years ago to start the DWI-Drug Court program is what led to these moments. I have been fortunate to bear the fruit from the seeds of the tree he planted.”
More than in any legislative session since the Great Recession, Texas lawmakers are signaling a willingness this year to dip into the state’s massive savings account.
As the Legislature debates costly investments in property tax reduction and public schools, and with big bills coming due for retired teachers’ pensions and Hurricane Harvey recovery, Texas’ Economic Stabilization Fund is taking center stage in budget negotiations.
Left untouched, the savings account, also known as the rainy day fund, would reach an unprecedented $15 billion over the next two years, according to official estimates.
State lawmakers have proposed an ambitious and expensive legislative agenda for 2019, and with economists raising concerns that an oversized savings account will lose value over time and weigh down the economy, Texas’ Republican leadership appears eager to dip into the piggy bank.
“I think we all are realistic that we may have to tap into the rainy day fund for one-time expenditures, more than we have in the past,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said at a recent hearing.
A proposal in the Texas Senate would spend $2.5 billion from the fund this year in a “supplemental” budget covering unfunded expenses from last session. The money would go toward a variety of purposes, including hurricane recovery-related costs for school districts, teacher pensions and school safety improvements.
Spending $2.5 billion at once would rank among the largest withdrawals in the fund’s history, behind only a $3.2 billion expense approved by the Legislature in 2011 following a national economic downturn. That year, lawmakers nonetheless slashed public programs, including cutting billions from public schools.
The Texas House, meanwhile, recommends spending $633 million from the fund in 2020-21, but that number will probably grow after the chamber unveils its supplemental budget for unpaid bills coming due this year.
When the Legislature created the Economic Stabilization Fund in 1987, no one expected it would grow as large as it has, said Dale Craymer, who helped draft the proposal as a staffer for then-House Speaker Gib Lewis. Craymer is now president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association.
In the 1980s, the Texas economy wilted amid an oil and gas downturn. Lawmakers raised taxes and cut public programs to dig themselves out of a budget shortfall. They created the stabilization fund as a way for the state to set aside money, earned when oil and gas revenues were robust, to be spent during times of economic hardship — effectively insulating public programs from whiplash as oil and gas prices rose and fell.
Starting in the early 2000s, as drilling technologies allowed companies to access new fossil fuel reserves, the state raked in tax revenue and the fund swelled. Meanwhile, the growing balance became a point of pride for some conservative lawmakers, and the Legislature became more reluctant to make large withdrawals. But that may be changing this year, Craymer said.
“It was created to be a tool, not a sacred cow,” he said. “At some point you have to ask the question, ‘How much is too much?’”
The fund has $11 billion, enough money to cover 10 percent of all state funds Texas currently spends in a two-year budget.
Policymakers have floated radically different ideas about how much money the state should keep in savings, and Republican politics have evolved about what “rainy day” expenses are considered acceptable.
In 2015, the Legislature diverted about half of the money that would have flowed into the savings account to go instead to the state highway fund. By doing so, it slowed the rate at which the Economic Stabilization Fund could grow.
This year, Gov. Greg Abbott has discussed diverting more oil and gas tax revenue from the savings account to “build a sustainable education fund.” Critics worry such a proposal could lead schools to be too dependent on a volatile revenue source while further limiting the savings account’s ability to grow.
Comptroller Glenn Hegar has asked the Legislature for more authority to invest part of the savings account in an endowment so that it earns more money over time. Hegar has suggested using the returns on that investment to pay for long-term liabilities, such as public employees’ pensions, that the Texas Legislature chronically neglects.
Under current law, much of the fund must be kept available to be spent on short notice, limiting the fund’s ability to maintain its value. As of August, most of the fund’s balance is kept in short-term investments yielding returns of about 2.1 percent, a rate not high enough to keep pace with inflation, Hegar said.
Another large downtown Waco property could hit the market if McLennan County chooses to relocate its archives to the site of a proposed new county garage.
County commissioners are studying a four-acre county-owned site near Loop 340 and Marlin Highway for the garage, replacing the current garage at 623 Washington Ave., which Magnolia Vacation Rentals LLC recently bought along with the nearby Grand Karem Shrine building.
They are also considering whether to build facilities at that site for county archives now housed at the McLennan County Archives Building, 824 Washington Ave.
Commissioners this week agreed to Langerman Foster Engineering Company’s proposal of $19,700 for geotechnical services for the four-acre development site behind the Shepherd Mullens Correctional Visitation Center.
“That property has probably very little value to anybody else,” County Judge Scott Felton said.
Soil samples and drainage evaluations are still needed, but the geotechnical services is a start to see if building there is even a possibility, Felton said.
The county in November sold Magnolia the Karem Shrine building for $930,000 and the county garage for $500,000, agreeing to a one-year lease back to allow time to relocate affected departments.
Meanwhile, the archives building either needs an investment to address roof problems and deferred maintenance or it needs to be sold, Felton said. While county leaders weigh their options, they will explore the Marlin Highway site, Felton said.
“It makes sense for us to maybe sell (the archive building) now that the downtown economy is good,” Felton said.
A newly constructed building could triple the county’s archival space, Commissioner Kelly Snell said.
“Basically the one that’s downtown is just an old building that’s not really suited for storage,” Snell said. “We have limited weight on some of those floors without going in and spending a lot of money, and the fire system, air conditions system, all that kind of stuff is kind of iffy.”
The county bought the downtown building on South Ninth Street and Washington Avenue in May 1994 for $5,000, County Administrator Dustin Chapman said. Part of the property formerly served as the Southwestern Bell headquarters.
The archives building was appraised at almost $1.28 million in 2018, according to the McLennan County Appraisal District website.
Langerman Foster’s site testing is based on the assumption that the county would build two separate buildings on the Marlin Highway site. The
The vehicle maintenance facility would include a 9,000-square-feet, one-story, pre-engineered metal building with maintenance bays, storage spaces, restrooms, and offices.
Meanwhile, the archival storage building would be a 84,000-square-foot, one-story structure with an interior mainly containing rolling storage and rack storage.
The engineering firm told the county that the site appears to contain former gravel pits that have been filled in with broken concrete, asphalt, soils, and other materials that the state considers landfill materials.
Commissioner Ben Perry said the county needs a garage designed for vehicle maintenance.
“The one we have downtown has been piecemealed together over the years,” Perry said. “A more modern facility that will make our guys’ jobs a lot more easier. Plus, we don’t have a choice.”
The county has operated its garage downtown since 1987, when it bought the former Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. for $135,000, according to county documents. The county garage was previously on South 20th Street. Employees at the location maintain county vehicles and radios, among other duties.