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Government
Homeowners see average of 6.5% increase as appraisal notices arrive
 05.07.20

McLennan County Appraisal District notices are hitting taxpayers’ mailboxes this week and carrying with them an average increase of 6.5% in the taxable value of their homes.

That increase compares to a 4.7% increase last year, 11.9% in 2018 and 5.9% in 2017. This year’s appraisals do not include any potential effects on home values caused by the COVID-19 crisis, because MCAD officials, as required by state law, made appraisals based on how things were Jan. 1.

MCAD Acting Chief Appraiser Joe Don Bobbitt said a few notices of appeals started trickling into the office Thursday, and he knows more will be coming as appraisal notices reach their destinations.

In McLennan County, the average taxable value of a home increased to $154,784, up from $145,389 last year, while the average home in Waco hit $164,589, a 6.4% bump from $154,646 last year. The taxable value of homes in the Waco Independent School District increased from $106,860 to $117,823, up 10.3%.

In Woodway, taxable home values increased from $275,454 in 2019 to $286,995, a 4.2% hike. In Hewitt, taxpayers will find an average 3.1% increase, from $157,811 last year to $162,779. Values in the Midway school system increased an average of 4.1%, from $224,863 to $233,977.

Those in China Spring ISD will experience 6.8% increases, with an average home going from $222,616 to $237,847, while average home taxable values in West went from $143,661 last year to $157,264, a 9.5% increase. In Bellmead, taxable home values increased 7.7%, from $85,623 to $92,214.

 2019 taxable value2020 taxable value% increase
McLennan County$145,389$154,7846.5%
Bellmead$85,623$92,2147.7%
Hewitt $157,811$162,7793.1%
Lacy Lakeview$115,443$121,8475.5%
McGregor$119,191$130,8839.8%
Waco$154,646$164,5896.4%
West$143,661$157,2649.5%
Woodway$275,454$286,9954.2%
<b>2019 taxable value</b><b>2020 taxable value</b><b>% increase</b>
China Spring ISD$222,616$237,8476.8%
Connally ISD$125,980$133,5866.0%
La Vega ISD$70,531$78,65511.5%
Midway ISD$224,863$233,9774.1%
Waco ISD$106,860$117,82310.3%

Bobbitt said protests of home appraisals will be conducted differently this year because of social distancing and other restrictions in place because of the coronavirus.

Property owners able to file a protest online are encouraged to do so, including submitting evidence such as photos or repair estimates to support their claims for lower appraisals. Appraisers will review the online appeals and attempt to resolve them before they reach the hearing stage, Bobbitt said.

Homeowners who won appraisal reductions from appeals last year or who entered into settlement agreements with MCAD officials last year will not receive notices this year. Their appraisals will stay the same as last year, Bobbitt said.

MCAD offices remain closed because of the pandemic, so formal hearings with Appraisal Review Board members will be conducted by teleconference. There will be public links on the MCAD website to allow homeowners appealing appraisals to listen to others’ appeals to get an idea of how the hearings are handled, Bobbitt said. Hearings should start in two to three weeks, he said.

On the commercial side, Bobbitt said MCAD appraisals looked at the impact ongoing Interstate 35 construction might have on property values.

“It is a fairly small area being impacted, and even then, it is mainly impacting the store owner or businesses more than the real estate value,” Bobbitt said. “Some are owner-occupied, and for them it is difficult. But overall, based on what we are required to do, based on Jan. 1 market values, there isn’t much of a pattern. For now, we aren’t seeing enough of a significant impact.”


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Business
A rose amid the thorns: Waco florists see Mother's Day as break from gloomy news
 05.07.20

Come heck, high water or COVID-19, Waco is sending flowers to mom this Mother’s Day weekend.

Local florists buffeted by bad news this spring, as coronavirus eliminated gatherings and special events, say that for this week, at least, business is coming up rosy.

“We have at least 100 deliveries scheduled Friday, which is going to be a big day. We’re moving in that direction for Thursday as well,” said Debbie Reed, who owns Reed’s Flowers on Austin Avenue, established in 1930.

Reed and other owners and managers of flower shops have seen hard times since late March, as local and state shelter-in-place orders limited gatherings and put the crimp on weddings, funerals and graduation ceremonies.

Florists say they struggled to reconcile mixed messages from state leaders who flip-flopped on assigning essential status to flower shops. At last the state lumped florists with essential agriculture, assuring owners they could remain open.

Confusion reigned as florists planned for their busiest season.

Obstacles never known in the industry began to surface. For example, some facilities for vulnerable seniors restricted flower deliveries out of fear of contamination.

“Some nursing homes would not let us make deliveries at all,” Reed said. “Some put the flowers in quarantine. That’s what they told us, that they would place our deliveries away a few days before giving them to residents.”

Pausing, Reed said, “It’s been a strange year, period.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Ashley Dallas with Reed's Flowers works on an arrangement.

But Mother’s Day could make up for lost time, and sales.

The National Retail Federation said nearly 80% of those it surveyed “say that celebrating Mother’s Day is important to them this year given the current state of the coronavirus.” Consumers also intend to spend about $8 more on gifts and celebrations than last year, ringing up a $205 total.

“Our retail orders are probably going to be up 35% from last year,” said Tom Wolfe, president of Wolfe Florist on Primrose Drive, a retail and wholesale enterprise whose patriarch, also named Tom Wolfe, served as president of the Texas State Florists Association in 1917, three years after it was founded.

In an eerie coincidence, Wolfe said, the devastating Spanish flu arrived in 1918 to infect an estimated 500 million people, a third of the world population.

“For the season, I’d be embarrassed to tell you how much our revenue is down,” said Wolfe. “Fortunately, we’re paying our bills and keeping people on the payroll. It certainly could have been much worse.”

While layoffs have hit the nation hard, said Wolfe, unemployment checks and stimulus benefits have kept cash in most consumers’ pockets.

“They have money to spend, and they can’t spend it in restaurants, so obviously they’re spending on flowers,” said Wolfe. “They’re bright and cheerful. Roses are always popular, and the spring bouquet is trending.”

Though a relatively small wholesaler, Wolfe Florist has a loyal following, with clients within a 90-mile radius of Waco. It receives flower shipments from Columbia, Ecuador, Holland, Mexico and California. Those from South America are flown to Miami and trucked to Dallas, where Wolfe retrieves them.

“There is no good way to fly flowers into Waco,” Wolfe said.

Like flowers, greeting cards are Mother’s Day staples.

The Hallmark shop on Richland Mall resumed operations on a curbside basis April 27, and manager America Ramirez said timing was great.

“You can go online, at hallmark.com, see what we have available, and we either run it out to the parking lot or the customer can walk up to the gate at our storefront, and we’ll hand it over,” said Ramirez.

“Yes, sir, we are getting a lot of orders,” she added.

Coming Home to Waco sells metal flowers, not real ones, from space at 600 Franklin Ave. It also retails artwork, magnets, flags for the garden and Tabletop Collection collectibles, said spokesman Josh Overton. His parents, Rob and Julie Overton, opened the shop 18 months ago, and last Friday moved its showroom “one suite over” to its current address.

La Vega Flower Shop owner Ruth Ann Matus shuttered her 40-year-old shop March 23 through last Wednesday, “enjoying much needed time off,” she said with a laugh. She confessed COVID-19 had much to do with the break.

“We didn’t know what to expect when we came back, with everything going on,” she said. “Luckily, we were able to get orders filled from our wholesalers — Greenleaf, DWF and Botanica — all in Dallas. Now it appears this is going to be a pretty good Mother’s Day for us. We’re still getting orders, had more than 100 at last count. We’re small, a two-person operation, but we can crank them out.”

Wolfe said his family’s shop secured assistance from the federal Payroll Protection Program to keep his work force intact.

“Laying people off and rehiring them at a later date is not a strategy that works well in our industry,” he said. “People with good floral experience are few and far between. Recruiting online has been our best approach.”

Lauren Prather manages Baylor Flowers on Speight Avenue, literally on campus. She said COVID-19 required her, the owner and the staff to rethink almost everything they knew about selling flowers.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

Baylor Flowers employee Emma Mansur places a card on an arrangement.

“We were in a weird limbo zone,” she said. “On top of the pandemic, we had our domain name stolen. We had to get that sorted out.”

Bottoming out, filling two orders a day, Baylor Flowers decided enough was enough and sent its seven employees home. Baylor was forced to cancel classes, special events and graduation ceremonies that typically would have generated business for the shop. The school became deserted.

The city’s shelter-in-place orders forced the shop to close.

“We just came back last week,” said Prather. “The flower industry took a huge hit all over the world, from farms to wholesalers to retailers, nothing but upheaval. Normally customers get specific about their arrangements when ordering online or over the phone. But we’ve had to ask them to trust us with a ‘designer’s choice,’ in which we pick the flowers, you pay the price. We had to trim the color palettes, the style. The variety was just not there.”

Mother’s Day, she said, has been a breath of fresh air.

“We’ve been delivering for the occasion all week,” Prather said.

“It’s been a huge guessing game,” she said. “Just about all the flowers we had are sold, which is a good thing and a bad thing. We probably did not order enough, but had no way to predict what people would want.”

Colors of Texas, which grows and sells flowers on North Lacy Drive, gambled and won when applying for stimulus money under the Payroll Protection Program. But it is far from breaking even, owner Renee Davis said.

Springtime means she will send 80,000 flats packed with petunias, geraniums and other products to landscapers, retail shops, college campuses and even casinos in Texas and Oklahoma. It’s jackpot time, said Davis, and missing it means counting on a fall season that pales in comparison.

Flats fetch $14.95 to $24.95 wholesale, depending upon the flower.

“This spring, we’re looking at 50,000, which means we’re very dependent on retail, which is finally kicking in,” Davis said. She relishes the arrival of Mother’s Day and being able to hire back five of the 20 staffers she laid off.

“I’m not whining. I feel for those without the options we have,” she said.


Photo gallery: Today’s top pics — Virus outbreak and more

Today’s top pics: Virus Outbreak and more

Education
Waco ISD surprises winners of teacher of year awards
 05.07.20

Lake Air Montessori Magnet School teacher Jonathan Cambambia thought he was going up to his school to sign some paperwork. He even had a pen in his pocket.

But the ruse quickly fell apart when Cambambia saw the cameras and staff from Lake Air with Waco Independent School District administrators on the school lawn, including Superintendent Susan Kincannon, who were all there to congratulate him on being selected Waco ISD’s Elementary Teacher of the Year.

Cambambia was stunned. He did not expect to receive such an honor Thursday morning.

Waco ISD administrators and teachers surprised him and three others with Teacher of the Year awards Thursday, creating a different ruse for each teacher that brought them to their respective campuses for a socially distanced celebration of their work.

Waco High School teacher Julie Richardson won Secondary Teacher of the Year, and the two Virginia DuPuy First Year Teacher of the Year awards went to West Avenue Elementary School teacher Cassandra Benjamin and University High School teacher Charidy Lee. Named for the former Waco mayor and public education advocate, the Virginia DuPuy awards recognize one elementary and one secondary teacher who just started their education careers.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

Lake Air Montessori Magnet School teacher Jonathan Cambambia smiles with Superintendent Susan Kincannon looking on after district staff surprised him with the news that he had been selected Waco ISD Elementary Teacher of the Year.

Cambambia started working as a teacher six years ago at Lake Air, where he teaches English, reading and social studies for fourth, fifth and sixth grade students. He said he believes he received the award because of his hard work, and he plans to show his students how his perseverance and determination led him to meet his goal.

“Hopefully, this can show my students that they can accomplish what they want,” he said.

Initially, Cambambia did not want to be a teacher, until he started substitute teaching and realized how important teachers are. He remembered his days in Waco ISD schools and the educators who made an impact on him.

“I realized teachers can have impactful moments with students and make a difference,” he said. “I just want to empower my students.”

Waco High special education teacher Julie Richardson went to her campus Thursday, expecting to collect donations for a fellow teacher whose child is sick. When another teacher asked her to talk outside, Richardson followed her out, where she saw a crowd gathered, cheering for her Secondary Teacher of the Year award.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

Waco High School special education teacher Julie Richardson reacts as Superintendent Susan Kincannon congratulates her as Waco ISD Secondary Teacher of the Year.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

Waco High School special education teacher Julie Richardson gets a hug from a friend as she is recognized as Waco ISD Secondary Teacher of the Year.

Richardson said she was shocked and humbled and that it is a huge honor to receive the award because her work as a special education and credit recovery teacher is to help students who may have behavioral issues or who may not perform well on state standardized tests, which earn schools recognition for high scores.

Sometimes, her students grow frustrated in the classroom because they do not learn the same way as many of their peers and they act out. Richardson’s students retaking a class for credit often need extra motivation to complete a class they have taken before, so she tries to show them new ways to understand the material and increase their self-confidence.

“I work really hard with the kids. I’m very passionate,” she said. “I form relationships with the students and with their families, and I let them know I’m in there for the long haul.”

Richardson has taught for 14 years, almost five of those at Waco ISD and 10 years at Bruceville-Eddy ISD.

Although her job can be difficult and unrewarding, Richardson said she keeps coming back each day because she loves the students she works with and wants to see them succeed. Educators must have thick skin because some days are going to leave them feeling like a rock star and other days will leave them feeling defeated, but they keep coming back to work, she said.

“Because it’s not about you,” Richardson said. “It’s about the child succeeding.”


Crime
Local authorities arrest 2 Cossack bikers wanted in Smith County shooting death
 05.07.20

Three men affiliated with the Cossacks Motorcycle Club, including two who live in McLennan County, were arrested this week in the shooting death of a fellow club member in Smith County last weekend, police said.

Jeffrey Ryan Griffin, 30, of Hewitt, and Joshua Ray Tibbits, 29, of Waco, were arrested on murder charges Tuesday in the Saturday shooting death of of Brandon Edwards, 33, of Ben Wheeler. A day later, Jose Antonio Valenzuela, 31, of Longview, also was arrested on a murder charge in the shooting.

The three suspects were not among those arrested in the May 2015 shootout between Cossacks and Bandidos bikers in Waco that left nine people dead and 20 injured.

According to police, Edwards was shot while riding his motorcycle and wearing a vest depicting him to be a member of the “1%er Cossacks Motorcycle Gang Rose City Chapter.”

Court documents allege Valenzuela was in charge of ensuring fellow members and prospects follow the “original Cossack way.” The shooting was related to a sexual affair one member was having with another member’s wife, affidavits state.

Surveillance video links the three suspects to the area where Edwards’ body was found, according to court documents. Affidavits state gunshots were heard before a vehicle matching the description of Valenzuela’s truck was seen leaving the area.

According to court records, evidence from 9mm and .40-caliber handguns was found at the scene, indicating there was more than one shooter, affidavits state.

A search of Valenzuela’s home and witness statements identified him as a possible suspect. Additional search warrants for Griffin’s home in the 500 block of Connie Drive and Tibbits’ home in the 3900 block of Charlton Avenue were executed Tuesday night.

Texas Department of Public Safety troopers and Hewitt police worked together to stop and detain Griffin and Tibbits at separate locations Tuesday, Hewitt Police Chief Jim Devlin said.

“We have always been aware that there are members of motorcycle clubs and outlaw motorcycle gangs that have resided in the city of Hewitt, and that has never changed, even before Twin Peaks,” Devlin said. “We have no previous history with either one of the individuals that were arrested.”

Valenzuela was arrested Wednesday afternoon in Cisco. Officials believe he fled with his family after Griffin and Tibbits were arrested, Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith said.

Each suspect was taken to the Smith County Jail and remained there Thursday with bond listed at $2.5 million.

Smith said the case required coordination and cooperation between several agencies, including those involved in arrests, the Longview Police Department and officials at the Texas Anti-Gang Center in Tyler.

“I continue to be amazed at the tenacity, cohesiveness and never-quit attitude of all of these law enforcement entities that are working so well together. No one is concerned with who gets the credit, only that justice is served,” Smith said in a statement. “This is one of the more complex investigations in which we were able to join local law enforcement with the Texas Anti-Gang Unit since its inception.”

A state-funded Texas Anti-Gang Center also is being developed in Waco.