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Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

La Vega’s Terrance Hogan (left) gets the handoff from Sol’Dreveon Degrate in the 4x200 relay, the Pirates’ second relay win of the day. La Vega ran 1:25.80, beating second-place Liberty-Eylau by 0.77.

editor's pick
Local leaders carry on with budgeting despite uncertainty of state property tax reform
 Brooke Crum  / 

While state legislators duke out the details of bills that would cap property tax revenue growth, Waco area leaders are proceeding with business as usual, having been through this type of uncertainty before.

As it stands, Senate Bill 2 requires cities, counties and emergency service taxing districts to gain voter approval before raising 3.5% more property tax revenue than the previous year. Voters may salivate at the thought of the cap, but legislators have said it does not lower anyone’s property taxes, only makes the process more transparent.

Both the House and the Senate have passed versions of the bill, which is set to go to conference committee to iron out the final contents of the legislation. The bill is tied to school finance reform measures also percolating in the Legislature.

But local leaders have expressed their opposition to the property tax reform, saying it will hamper taxing entities’ ability to provide taxpayers with adequate infrastructure, public safety services and other essentials.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said he wrote the state lawmakers who represent the area about his opposition to the property tax cap. He said with it the county will not be able to provide the same level of public safety people expect or an economic development fund.

The county has cut its property tax rate four times in the past five years primarily because of higher property values, despite the escalating costs of providing services, Felton said.

Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver has called the cap “arbitrary” and said the measures do not provide municipal tax relief to residents.

City of Waco spokesman Larry Holze said the city is moving forward with preparing its budget without taking the proposed legislation into consideration. He said the city council is aware of the bills but that no major decisions or alternate plans are being made.

“It’s business as usual,” Holze said.

State legislators said property owners often complain about how high property taxes have risen. Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, said many property owners have downsized or moved out of their homes because they could not afford the taxes. He voted for the property tax reform bills.

“In a booming economy, we need to allow cities and counties to prosper and do what they need to do while also funding the schools,” Anderson said. “We have to try and see if we can be more fair to property owners, and I think these bills are a step in the right direction.”

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said in a boilerplate statement that voters have demanded property tax reform and that Senate Bill 2 will have a “significant effect on curtailing the rapid growth in property valuations.”

“SB 2 strengthens voter-approval and provides a balance between both fast-growing, more suburban counties like McLennan and the northern counties that abut the DFW metroplex, as well as the more rural counties in the district,” according to the statement.

Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, did not return a request for comment. Both Kacal and Birdwell voted for the measures.

Waco Independent School District Chief Financial Officer Sheryl Davis has been paying close attention to both property tax and school finance reform. As the May 27 end of the regular legislative session draws closer, she said she finds relief in the fact that the school district never changed its fiscal year to start on July 1 instead of Sept. 1.

Under the Senate version of the school finance bill, Waco ISD would bring in about $9 to $10 million more than it does right now, with $5 million going toward salary increases, Davis said. The House version would add about $13 million and would leave the district with more flexibility on salary increases.

“We generate less local revenue than we currently do because we’re compressing the tax rate, and that revenue is made up from state coffers,” she said. “Our state share is going up while our local share goes down.”

But Davis said there is some concern that neither bill is adequately funded.

“It’s too good to be true,” she said. “We have not had any new funding for a long time.”

Robinson ISD voters willing to wait to build new school, pay off debt
 Brooke Crum  / 

Robinson resident Cameron Whyburn knows the city of 11,600 needs a new junior high school. He graduated from Robinson High School in 2004.

But the 33-year-old pharmacy technician believes the Robinson Independent School District needs to pay off its debt before asking voters to approve a $31.5 million bond to overhaul the current junior high school, and most voters in the May 4 bond election agreed with him.

Almost 1,220 voters cast ballots against the bond issue in the May 4 election, five years after passing a $19.5 million bond to build a new intermediate school. Just 535 people voted for the bond this year.

The 2014 bond package passed only after two failed attempts, in 2011 and 2013.

The school district would have used the bond money to update its multi-building junior high campus, erected in the late 1960s, that serves students in seventh and eighth grades. The plan included significant new construction, demolition of a classroom wing and renovation and repurposing of original buildings that would remain. The bond also would have paid for expansion of the high school agricultural facility.

If voters had approved the bond, Robinson ISD would have the second-highest amount of debt among school districts of its size, according to the state comptroller’s website. Wimberley ISD, outside San Marcos, has the most debt with $62.3 million.

Robinson ISD has $23.7 million in debt. The district will pay off a 2005 bond series in 2024, according to its 2017-18 financial report.

That is the soonest Whyburn would be willing to vote for another bond package. Proponents of the bond issue have said waiting would cost the district even more money because construction costs would increase, placing Robinson ISD in more debt.

The district could lower its expenses considerably by paying off one of its outstanding bonds before securing more debt, said Michael Granof, Ernst & Young Distinguished Centennial Professor in Accounting at the University of Texas. He compared it to buying a car.

“The analogy would be a car payment and you want to buy another car,” Granof said. “If you buy another car, you’d have two payments. If you wait until the first car is paid off, you would have only one payment.”

But Granof said he could not say whether the school district could afford to go into more debt, whether that would be sound financial policy, and he did not know how great a need for a new school there is. He also said interest rates are at an all-time low right now.

“They’re not going to be lower,” he said. “That’s a pretty good bet.”

Whyburn said he understands the need for a new school, but the failed bond issue would have been just a “Band-Aid” solution. In five years, Robinson ISD could build a brand new school instead of doing significant construction on the 50-year-old junior high campus, he said.

“It has to be addressed, but it’s just not the right time or the right plan,” Whyburn said.

Robinson ISD board member Kevin Kenny said the school district would get the “best bang for our buck” by renovating most buildings with the bond.

“It’s really not something we can wait on,” Kenny said. “It needs to get done so we can secure our school. I doubt anything would happen in Robinson, but we just don’t know.

“Every time you turn around, there’s a school shooting.”

The junior high campus is comprised of multiple buildings connected by open-air corridors. The bond package would have paid for construction to enclose those corridors and build a front office where visitors would have to check in.

But Whyburn said he does not see how that construction would make the school safer when the biggest threat to students is school shootings, which are usually perpetrated by students.

There were two school shootings in recent weeks, in Colorado on May 8 and at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte on April 30.

editor's pick
Appraisals climb steadily across McLennan County
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

While the Texas Legislature continues debating whether to cap property appraisals, and at what level, in its push for tax reform, McLennan County’s preliminary appraisal values show a slower but steady increase in property values.

According to 2019 McLennan County Appraisal District figures, the appraised value of total properties in the county, including residential and commercial, is $17.95 billion, an increase of 5.8% over 2018 appraisals totaling $16.97 billion.

Wednesday is the initial deadline for most property taxpayers to file an appeal of their appraisals with MCAD. Those who got their notices a bit later have 30 days from the day they received them to file an appeal, MCAD Assistant Chief Appraiser Joe Don Bobbitt said.

As of Friday, 5,364 people had given notice of appeal, down from 6,053 who had filed appeals as of May 10, 2018, when taxpayers saw a 12% median increase in their appraisals, compared to 4.8% this year.

Bobbitt said he expects about 13,000 taxpayers to protest their appraisals this year, down from about 15,000 protesters last year.

“The market is still growing, but not growing as fast as last year,” Bobbitt said. “I believe the reason for the market slowdown this year compared to last year is because the Fed (Federal Reserve) increased interest rates, and when interest rates are increased, that typically knocks people out of the market.”

MCAD figures actually show the 2019 total net taxable appraised value at $18.67 billion. However, Bobbitt said the $17.95 billion figure MCAD released to taxing entities takes into account the millions of dollars worth of valuations MCAD officials estimate will be changed through appeals to the Appraisal Review Board or lawsuit settlements.

MCAD will turn over its certified appraisal rolls to the McLennan County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office on July 25, but MCAD wanted to give taxing entities estimates of appraised values so elected officials can start preliminary budget discussions.

According to MCAD figures, the city of Hewitt (9%), the city of McGregor (8.7%), China Spring ISD (10.5%) and McGregor ISD (9.6%) had the largest increases in appraised values in the current year.

Bobbitt said the larger increases can be attributed to new subdivisions that were not on the books last year in McGregor and new housing tracts and new businesses in China Spring. Also, homes in McGregor and China Spring that sold in the past year were bought on average for 15% more than their 2018 appraised values, Bobbitt said.

MCAD is required by law to appraise homes and other properties at 100% of fair market value.

In Waco, appraisals increased 5.6%, from about $10.10 billion to $10.67 billion, while appraisals in Waco ISD increased 6.4%, from $5.80 billion to $6.17 billion.

In Woodway, appraisals increased 6% from 2018, from $1.17 billion to $1.23 billion, while Midway ISD increased 4.8%, from $4.75 billion to $4.98 billion.

The residential real estate market is “still very strong” and is still considered a seller’s market. But that is primarily because of the amount of inventory available, said Frances Pool, senior real estate specialist at Keller Williams Realty.

“I think it is leveling off,” Pool said. “Everybody is all worried that there is a shift in the real estate market, but the shift they are talking about is only 3%. It is really just a natural correction. I think we have seen that our sellers are wiser because they price their houses properly and they sell quickly and they usually get about 96% of the asking price if they are priced correctly. And correctly means what the market shows it will bear.”

According to Greater Waco Multiple Listing Service figures provided by Ashton Gustafson, owner of A.G. Real Estate and Associates, the average list price for an area home in April was $219,207, while the average sales price was $212,978, an average of 96% of the list price.

There were 288 single-family homes sold in April, with an average price per square foot of $103. The average home for sale stayed on the market 72 days, according to Waco MLS statistics.

In April 2018, the average list price for a home was $212,235, with an average sales price of $206,611, or 97% of the list price.

There were 285 homes sold in April 2018, with an average price per square foot of $105. Homes for sale stayed on the market an average of 91 days in April 2018.

Pool said she understands why people are lining up to appeal their appraisals at MCAD. She said some houses are selling at below appraised value, including one Pool is listing for $529,000 that MCAD appraised at $625,000.

“It’s a very nice house, but the amount of taxes on a home of that value frightens people, especially if you are afraid your appraisal will go through the roof and you don’t know how much your taxes are going to be,” Pool said. “It’s the fear of the unknown that bothers people.”

Gregg Glime, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Commercial, said that while the area is experiencing strong growth, increases in property appraisals and related tax burdens have started to affect rental rates on commercial properties.

“The taxes have increased so much and so drastically that it is really putting a strain on new tenants and making new tenants more concerned and are affecting the rental rates we are getting,” Glime said. “While we are in a strong market and seeing values increase, the increases in taxes have inhibited the rental rates we have been able to get over the last three years.

“Whereas tenants are paying as much or more in rent, it is making it very difficult for the new construction, and even existing properties, to reach palpable rents with these tenants we are working with.”

Glime thinks rental rates will stabilize and the market “will adjust out.” However, he said it is important for property owners to be conscious of appraisals and to ensure they are near fair market value.

“I have seen many that are fair and I’ve seen other properties that have increased so significantly, and I don’t have the data to support some of the values that have come out this year,” he said.

 2017 values2018 valueschange, 2017-18% (2017-18)2019 preliminary valueschange 2018-19% (2018-19)
McLennan County$15,476,710,204$16,966,251,291$1,489,541,0879.62%$17,954,976,362 $988,725,071 5.8%
Bellmead$422,737,820$456,548,836$33,811,0168.00%$467,492,714$10,943,878 2.4%
Hewitt$842,794,668$936,909,734$94,115,06611.17%$1,021,505,557$84,595,823 9.0%
Lacy Lakeview$339,763,301$363,195,409$23,432,1086.90%$380,935,079$17,739,670 4.9%
Lorena$111,348,532$117,815,452$6,466,9205.81%$121,943,203$4,127,751 3.5%
McGregor$361,301,290$388,606,253$27,304,9637.56%$422,460,090$33,853,837 8.7%
Robinson$786,480,615$864,871,756$78,391,1419.97%$925,563,024$60,691,268 7.0%
Waco$9,249,863,059$10,099,447,126$849,584,0679.18%$10,665,596,616$566,149,490 5.6%
West$169,747,546$182,965,009$13,217,4637.79%$193,627,457$10,662,448 5.8%
Woodway$1,071,816,278$1,165,499,928$93,683,6508.74%$1,234,854,457$69,354,529 6.0%
China Spring ISD$692,926,545$787,819,164$94,892,61913.69%$870,478,814$82,659,650 10.5%
Connally ISD$610,650,280$665,021,790$54,371,5108.90%$702,114,128$37,092,338 5.6%
La Vega ISD$786,349,725$882,683,346$96,333,62112.25%$922,338,799$39,655,453 4.5%
McGregor ISD$396,882,314$414,657,990$17,775,6764.48%$454,609,461$39,951,471 9.6%
Midway ISD$4,407,721,099$4,747,996,307$340,275,2087.72%$4,975,829,535$227,833,228 4.8%
Robinson ISD$557,008,684$611,912,747$54,904,0639.86%$655,723,071$43,810,324 7.2%
Waco ISD$5,294,059,798$5,802,357,927$508,298,1299.60%$6,173,852,493$371,494,566 6.4%
West ISD$375,413,901$412,156,309$36,742,4089.79%$438,236,160$26,079,851 6.3%

editor's pick
Waco girls on path to Eagle Scout rank for 1st time in group's history
 Carl Hoover  / 

A half inch of rain the day before may have soaked the Robinson pasture where Waco’s first girls troop of the Boy Scouts of America — part of the national organization’s new Scouts BSA program — camped out last week, but it did not stop the scouts from pitching tents, setting up a campfire, cooking over coals, fishing, hiking and sleeping under the, well, clouds.

In short, camping is a major reason many of the 16 female scouts in Troop 308 gave for deciding to join. As Willow Alexander, 11, explained at a troop meeting later in the week, camping is what separates the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in her mind.

“They’re way different,” Willow said. “I don’t want to say anything bad about Girl Scouts, but their camping is more like a sleepover. It’s in cabins and there’s air conditioning. But the Boy Scouts, it’s just wilderness.”

Or, as she and fellow scouts discovered first-hand last weekend, “Mud. Mud and ticks.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Troop 308 assistant Scoutmaster Shaelynn Conk (left), scout Willow Alexander and assistant Scoutmaster Flip Alexander fold up the American flag.

But still, it is camping. Senior patrol leader Jillian Nemec, a 16-year-old Midway High School student, said the trip had all the essentials.

“It was fun,” she said. “We got to cook our food, set up a tent and make a campfire.”

For 11-year-old Meg Morrison, granddaughter of the first woman to serve as BSA National Commissioner, Ellie Morrison of Waco, the camp out was mission accomplished.

“I led the hike,” Meg said. “I went to see my goats. I got a lot of skills and I signed them off in my book.”

In the troop’s “roses and thorns” post-mortem discussion, Morrison’s rose was remembering to bring her hammock, and her thorn was water in her boots.

Troop 308 Scoutmaster Melody Terrell, a veteran leader of Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Campfire Boys and Girls, remembers a thorn for the troop: No one remembered to pack snacks for the first day. That meant no snacks, a lesson in responsibility learned for future camping trips and one of the reasons the 62-year-old retired school teacher and academic language therapist finds herself in scouting.

“It’s something I enjoy terribly and believe in,” Terrell said.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Meg Morrison (left) and Mira Goodsuhm assemble their tent poles during their camping trip.

The seed that led to Waco’s Troop 308 for girls was planted in 2017 when the Boy Scouts of America announced it would allow girls to join its Cub Scouts program, and then it would replace its flagship Boy Scouts program with Scouts BSA, allowing girls to work up to the top rank of Eagle Scout.

That led to discussions among leaders in Troop 308, chartered by the First United Methodist Church and the oldest continuously serving troop in Waco. It was not controversial, said Mike Stone, the church’s contact with the scouts.

“The church is all about serving youth, and we just asked to see if there was interest in it,” Stone said.

Last fall, Cub Scout Troop 308 for girls was started, with the older Scout Troop 308 for girls launching in February. The Waco girls troop is the first in the Indian Nations district and one of 30 in the 23-county Longhorn Council. Nationally, there are 1,980 BSA female troops with a total of 14,670 scouts.

Since its founding, the Waco troop has grown from 10 to 16 scouts, expanding from two patrols to three.

That is gratifying for Scoutmaster Terrell, who got involved in Boy Scouts more than 10 years ago when looking to get her grandson, Evan Strot, involved in something worthwhile. She had been involved with the Boy Scout Exploring program when she was in high school and remembered it favorably.

The Exploring program, now an independent BSA affiliate, has been open to boys and girls since the ‘70s.

“I looked for something to help me raise this child into a man,” Strot said.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Kaylee Cooper (left) Jillian Nemec and Jaylynn Merrell stake out their tent site at their weekend camping trip 

She agreed to volunteer if a Cub Scout troop at its enrollment limit would make room for him. It did, starting a journey that would lead to Evan earning the rank of Eagle Scout and Terrell serving for years in scouting leadership roles.

Terrell had agreed to help staff several National Jamborees and was not surprised when she was asked to lead the new girls troop. While her scouts may see camping and skill acquisition as major reasons to join, she believes in the group’s leadership training and character building.

She makes her patrol leaders run the weekly troop meetings, plan outings and lead projects, with as little oversight as necessary.

“The best meeting is me sitting at the back of the room,” Terrell said.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Scoutmaster Melody Terrell helps scout London Mims tie the friendship knot on the troop's blue and white neckerchief.

And grouping scouts into same-sex troops merely acknowledges that girls and boys mature at different rates, the former classroom teacher said.

For 18-year-old Shaelynn Conk, a McLennan Community College student aiming for a civil engineering degree, leadership was a takeaway from her time as a Venture Scout, a co-ed Boy Scouts of America program for high schoolers. It was created in 1998 as a spin-off of other co-ed programs that date to BSA’s early days.

Conk’s Venture Scout group in Temple eventually disbanded, but the scouting philosophy of peer leadership proved valuable, she said.

“(Scouting) is a great place to fail,” she said. “You turn to your fellow scouts to solve the problem.”

Conk presently serves as an assistant scoutmaster for Troop 308, where her sister Aubree, 13, is a scout and her father, Matthew, an Eagle Scout, also is assistant scoutmaster.

The Conks are not the only connected family in the troop. Willow Alexander’s parents Sam and Flip are assistant scoutmasters, as is Meg Morrison’s father, Evan. Multiple scouts also have brothers who were or are Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, and a few Troop 308 Scouts are also Girl Scouts.

In fact, the lines between Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts may be blurrier on the ground than to the adults running the organizations. Boy Scout enrollment of girls in the last two years has not seemed to affect the Girl Scouts of Central Texas, said Hannah Bruno, the Girl Scouts of Central Texas marketing director.

“Fortunately, we haven’t seen any kind of decrease. In fact, we’ve seen a little bit of an increase,” Bruno said.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Jaylynn Merrell hammers a tent post into muddy ground during a recent Troop 308 camping trip.

While both organizations work with similar age ranges and cover many of the same subjects and skill training, Bruno said the Girl Scouts focus on empowerment in “the four pillars:” entrepreneurship; science, technology, engineering and math; life skills; and the outdoors.

“What’s unique about Girl Scouts is that it’s girl-led,” she said.

Boy Scout leaders asked to compare the two organizations declined to comment.

For the scouts of Troop 308 for girls, there is more pressing work at hand: skills mastered for merit badges, advancement from tenderfoot to Eagle Scout, community service, organizing hikes in Cameron Park and, weather permitting, camping every month.