As the city’s budgeting process nears its conclusion, public safety, roads and city employees take center stage.
The city’s current budget proposal anticipates more than $152 million in general fund expenditures, a steady increase over last year’s general fund, which was budgeted at $144 million. City of Waco budget director Laura Mendoza presented the proposal during a budget and audit committee meeting Tuesday.
“We had your priorities in mind as we put together the budget,” Mendoza said to the committee. “We echoed it, repeated it to management. So, every time we met with a department director, we communicated what we had heard from you.”
Like last year, the city council listed infrastructure, employee compensation, employee benefits, public safety and code enforcement as their budget priorities. This year, they expanded the list to include strategic economic development and equitable practices. The budget also has a built-in contingency fund of $1.7 million to offset the inherent unpredictability of sales tax revenue.
$618,000 would go toward hiring five new police officers and two new detectives. Waco Police Chief Ryan Holt said the five officers will cover existing beats, while the detectives will cover personal crimes, including family violence, special crimes or crimes against children.
The proposal also sets aside $350,000 for employee retention efforts, something the city has struggled with for the last several years. City Manager Wiley Stem said he would have a more detailed employee retention plan at the committee’s July 9 meeting.
“We may end up looking at a little bit of a different number, but we’ve got a number of things that we need to address,” Stem said.
Proposed funding for the city’s pavement management program, which received $17.1 million in 2018-19, has been boosted to $21.9 million. The increase is necessary to keep Waco’s roads from falling into disrepair that would be even more expensive to correct down the road, said Jim Reed, the city’s public works capital improvement program manager.
The committee also discussed a four-year plan to fund Waco’s capital improvement program. The proposal would designate almost $36 million for airport, convention, parks, streets and facilities improvements next year.
The city’s parks improvement program would receive $2.6 million for improvements. Interim parks director Jonathan Cook said $600,000 would go to improvements at neighborhood parks like Pioneer Park and Buena Vista Park.
“Beautiful park, however that playground is in dire need of replacement,” Cook said of Buena Vista Park in South Waco. “We recently did a park inspection, and it’s below our criteria for the needs for that park.”
$1 million would go toward relocating the Challenger Little League field, which is being moved as part of a county project to overhaul the Extraco Events Center fairgrounds. The other $1 million for parks improvements would cover the design and first phase of construction for an all-inclusive playground the department has been planning for two years.
The budget office will file the proposed budget July 12, after one last meeting July 9.
A relic of Waco’s transportation past came to light Monday as crews were working toward Elm Avenue’s future.
Workers with Barsh Construction uncovered a well-preserved train track and wooden cross ties as they cut through pavement in a $950,000 project to rebuild curbs, gutters, drainage and sidewalks in the 700 block of Elm.
The tracks running down the north side of the road were entombed in concrete that had to be jackhammered away, but they will be left in place and paved over again for now.
“It’s just a minor conflict we’ve worked around,” said Jim Reed, city of Waco public works capital improvement program manager.
But as the city prepares a $4.4 million project to upgrade the remainder of Elm Avenue from Quinn Campus to the river, Reed said engineers may have to contend with a possible rail line extending the length of the project.
Reed said the rail line was not entirely unexpected, but he did not expect to find it so close to the curb.
A bit of research in old Waco maps indicates the tracks belonged to the Texas Electric Railway, an interurban line that ran from downtown Waco to Dallas and beyond between October 1913 and December 31, 1948.
The railway extended into a downtown endpoint via a steel bridge on the Brazos River, of which only a series of pylons remains. In the other direction, it ran up Elm Avenue to Hillsboro Drive, then north to Lacy Lakeview, Elm Mott, West and Hillsboro.
Waco train buff Bradley Linda said the Elm Avenue tracks also served the local citywide streetcar system, which closed around the same time as the interurban service.
“Not a lot of people realize we had streetcars crisscrossing downtown and out into the residential areas,” Linda said. “It’s neat to periodically see these bits of the past come up.”
He also explained why the tops of the newly exposed tracks rise more than a foot over the wooden railroad ties: Streetcar lines were designed to allow for a layer of brick paving to come flush with the rails, obscuring the ties.
Megan Henderson, who works across the street at City Center Waco, walked over to check out the rails during a phone interview Tuesday.
“It really is cool,” Henderson said. “It’s not nearly as far below the pavement as I would have expected.”
She said the challenge of bringing a 19th-century street into the 21st century is dealing with layers of “underground systems over underground systems.”
The city and the downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone board have taken on the 700 block of Elm as a “demonstration project” to show how streetscape and infrastructure improvements can transform a once-decrepit commercial district.
“Jim’s dream is if we could just do one block it would let people see how much impact it could have and then there would be some excitement about making these improvements up and down Elm,” Henderson said.
The public work dovetails with private building renovations on the block that will create a restaurant, food market, shops and dance studio.
The project includes wide sidewalks with wheelchair-accessible ramps, lighting, landscaping and new curbs and gutters. The street pavement will get a mill-and-overlay treatment to extend its life span, and storm sewers will be upgraded with a spray-in liner.
“We’ve had to do a lot of work to the storm sewers,” Reed said. “We were surprised at the poor conditions we found.”
Work on the demonstration block is expected to wrap up next month, and in the meantime crews are trying to finish enough sidewalk work so Saturday’s Juneteenth parade can pass without obstacles.
The 700 block is just the beginning of a series of planned infrastructure upgrades in the Elm Avenue corridor that will cost a total of more than $10.6 million.
In September 2020, the city will bid the $4.4 million streetscape project from the Brazos River to Garrison Street that will create wide sidewalks, lampposts, benches and bike lanes, as well as delineated parking in the area. The project, up from an initial estimate of $3.8 million, is funded by the Texas Department of Transportation, the TIF Zone and the city.
The city is also planning water, sidewalk and pavement improvements along Elm Avenue to Clifton Street and similar improvements leading to new hotel developments near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Henderson said some of the improvements have been in the works for years, before Elm Avenue started to attract significant developer interest. Now ground has been broken on three hotels and an apartment complex, while entrepreneurs are busy turning old buildings into retail businesses.
Not that long ago, Elm Avenue advocates were looking at public improvements to entice future development, Henderson said. Now they are just trying to catch up.
“We actually can’t get it done fast enough for the development that’s happening,” she said.
Two Waco attorneys who have fought for years for a former Clifton school principal they believe to be wrongfully convicted and a Houston attorney who represented six Twin Peaks bikers for free and recruited other attorneys to do the same have won statewide awards.
Waco attorneys Walter M. “Skip” Reaves and Jessi Freud and Houston attorney Paul Looney each have been named the Charles Butts Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year by the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. The three will receive the honor Thursday during a banquet at the 31st annual Rusty Duncan Advanced Criminal Law Course in San Antonio.
Reaves and Freud have spent at least 1,000 hours each trying to exonerate Joe Bryan, or at the very least, win him a new trial based on a number of issues related to his Comanche County murder trial in the 1985 shooting death of his wife.
Reaves, an attorney since 1981, has written appeals that have overturned the convictions of dozens of defendants, including the exoneration of Calvin Washington and Joe Sidney Williams in the 1986 murder of Juanita White in Waco.
Reaves teaches an Innocence Project clinic at Baylor University Law School, and Freud got involved with Bryan’s case while in law school there. She was licensed four years ago and has been working with Reaves ever since in their efforts to prove Bryan was wrongfully convicted.
“What the award represents is much more important than any individual recognition,” Freud said. “It signifies what we as criminal defense lawyers can and must do to serve those who are trapped in the criminal justice system as a result of not having the resources necessary to have a real voice in it. Since 2013, after too many years of being unheard, it’s been my privilege to have helped give Joe a voice in the system again. Our work won’t be done until he is home and exonerated.”
After two application for writ of habeas corpus hearings in Comanche County, a senior judge denied Bryan’s request for a new trial and rejected his innocence claims in December. The judge’s findings were forwarded to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin, which will have the final ruling.
Bryan, now 77 and suffering from congestive heart failure, is serving a 99-year sentence in the death of his wife, Mickey, an elementary school teacher in Clifton. Bryan was convicted by two juries, one in Meridian and one in Comanche, after his first conviction was overturned on appeal. He has maintained his innocence and recently was denied parole again.
Reaves and Freud found experts who said Bryan’s trials were marred by errors and flawed testimony about blood-spatter evidence. And they convinced an investigator in the original case to admit at the hearing that he botched his initial interpretation of crime-scene blood patterns and was wrong.
“It is an honor to be selected for something like this,” Reaves said. “Pro bono work is one of the things that lawyers are expected to do, and this is sort of the ultimate award recognizing that. I would like to think it was for work over a career, but Joe’s case is certainly one I felt the most strongly about.”
Looney represented at no charge six bikers arrested after the Twin Peaks shootout that left nine dead. He was one of the most vocal detractors of how the cases were handled, the mass arrests of about 200 bikers and the identical counts they were charged with.
Looney also recruited a dozen or more attorneys across Texas to represent other bikers pro bono. Only one biker, Jacob Carrizal, went to trial, which ended in a hung jury and mistrial. The charges against every other biker ultimately were dismissed, leaving no one accountable for the deaths not attributed to police gunfire or for the people wounded in the melee.
“I don’t think we’ll ever have a chance again to help so many people in such great need even if I practice law until I’m 150,” Looney said.
The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association award also recognizes Looney for the free legal clinics he conducts weekly at his Hempstead office and at a bakery in Bellville.
Last year, the association gave its Percy Foreman Lawyer of the Year Award to Dallas attorney Clint Broden, who also represented Twin Peaks defendants, and to Houston attorney Casie Gotro, who represented Carrizal at his Waco trial.
This year’s three honorees for the pro bono award are vastly deserving, said Austin attorney David Botsford, who is chairman of the association’s awards committee, a past president and a member of its Hall of Fame.
The State Bar of Texas does not require pro bono work by its attorneys, but it is encouraged, Botsford said.
“I think it is very important because of the lack of resources that many, many citizens have,” Botsford said. “The criminal justice system doesn’t move swiftly most of the time, and it can be extremely time-consuming. I have spent as many as 4,000 hours on a capital murder case before.
“It’s important not only to the citizens but also to the counties, because the counties otherwise would pay for court-appointed attorneys and pro bono work saves taxpayer dollars. There is a tremendous benefit all the way around from people who do pro bono work. It is a definite indication of somebody’s high moral character.”
The Mart City Council hired Marlin police Officer Albert Cavazos on Monday to take the reins of the Mart Police Department, which saw all of its members resign last month.
Council members voted unanimously to select Cavazos, 49, over two fellow finalists: West school resource officer Michael Keathley and Marlin Independent School District Police Chief John Simmons.
Cavazos will start in 10 days at an annual salary of $48,500. Councilman Zac Byrd was not at the meeting.
“I am at a point in my career were I feel like I am experienced enough with my training as to where I feel like I am a good candidate for this position and I am ready for this next chapter in my career,” Cavazos said after the meeting. “I would like to stay here until my career is done. I feel like I have another 20 years, if God is willing.”
Cavazos, a Kingsville native who lives in Marlin and plans to relocate to Mart, has a master peace officer certification with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.
Council members interviewed the three finalists in behind closed doors for more than three hours before returning to open session about 10:10 p.m. and voting to hire Cavazos.
Mayor Len Williams told a small crowd who lingered that the new chief is ready to get to work and the transition will start soon.
“It didn’t take long for him to figure out we didn’t have any police on Texas Avenue, did it?” Williams said. “They were running about 60 mph through there, so we are working in a right direction and I feel very confident in what we are fixing to do here.”
The city has been without a police force since former Police Chief Paul Cardenas resigned late last month, a few weeks after all of the department’s four patrol officers resigned, citing dissatisfaction with city leadership and payroll issues.
Cavazos said he is not intimidated by coming into a department with no officers.
“I am looking forward to that, because actually I look at it as a positive way,” he said. “We are starting out at ground level, and I can bring on the people I believe are going to be community-oriented to serve the community here in Mart. I’ve been doing this business for a little over 20 years. I currently hold a master peace officer’s certification, so I know what to look for in a new officer.”
The council also interviewed Simmons, who lives in the Waco area, and has an advanced peace officer certification and FBI Command College leadership training. He has served as Marlin ISD police chief since October after leaving as a police captain with Marlin Police Department.
Keathley, also a Waco-area resident, is the West Police Department’s school resource officer and code enforcement officer. He has been a law enforcement officer and firefighter since 1979. He also has an advanced peace officer certification with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.
Cavazos, who returned to Marlin for a patrol shift after the Mart meeting closed at about 10:20 p.m., said he plans to make the move to Mart soon and become engaged with the community.
“The only thing we can do here is grow, so that is what I want to do,” he said. “Like I told the city council members in the interview, we are a family and we are going to be a team here.”
Jumping into what already has become a cramped Republican primary field, Waco attorney Susan Kelly formally announced Tuesday that she is entering the race for judge of 19th State District Court.
Kelly, 57, announced her plans to succeed Judge Ralph Strother before a large crowd on the steps of the McLennan County Courthouse, where Kelly worked as an assistant district attorney and a staff attorney for the 10th Court of Appeals before going into private practice 21 years ago.
As she spoke, Kelly held a plastic bag containing two old courthouse keys. She was given them when she worked for the intermediate appellate court, and she joked no one ever asked for them back when she left. She said she hopes the voters will put the keys to the courthouse back in her hands.
“It would give me great honor to be given the opportunity, at least metaphorically, to have the keys to the courthouse again, and I will have a dedication and devotion to justice like you may not know, because that is the most important thing to me in life,” Kelly said.
Kelly spoke reverently of Strother and his predecessor, longtime Judge Bill Logue, and talked of lessons learned from them and other judges, including former 10th Court justices Frank McDonald, Bob Thomas, Vic Hall, Bill Vance and Terry Means.
“Those are enormous shoes to fill, but I promise you if I have the chance to do that, you may disagree with me, probably people will regularly as there are always two sides, but I won’t go to bed at night without knowing that I tried to do the right thing under the law,” she said.
Kelly read what is known as the 1910 arena speech by Theodore Roosevelt, which says, in part, “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood … who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
With a goal of “justice for all,” Kelly said her experience on the appellate level, as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney make her the uniquely qualified candidate.
“I don’t know why I have a fundamental sense of fairness,” she said. “I may not have sense for a lot of other things, but I know when something is not fair. And you put that with my 33 years of experience, and I think that makes me qualified as judge of the 19th District Court.”
As a McLennan County prosecutor from 1992 to 1998, Kelly handled felony cases and was named the State Arson Prosecutor of the Year. She said she also received state recognition for her work handling child injury cases.
Strother’s court is one of two courts in the county that preside primarily over felony cases. Kelly, who is certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, said she “brings to the table vast experience in criminal law and real courtroom experience.”
While in private practice, Kelly said she has devoted herself to her clients in a variety of areas. She also has been appointed special prosecutor in other counties when other prosecutors were recused from handling cases.
Kelly, a Baylor University Law School graduate, is president of the Waco-McLennan County Bar Association. She will be joined in the judicial race in the March 2020 Republican primary by Waco attorney Thomas West, 54, a former prosecutor who formally announced his candidacy in April, and Waco Assistant City Attorney Kristi DeCluitt, 48, a former prosecutor and a former justice of the peace, who has said she will make a formal announcement later.
Strother, judge of 19th State District Court for 20 years, will retire at the end of his term in December 2020.