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Health officials: Record daily COVID case count shows efforts have fallen short
 06.15.20

Fifteen cases of COVID-19 were reported Monday in McLennan County, marking the highest single-day number yet and prompting warnings that the public’s efforts to contain the virus are insufficient.

The county has now had 178 cases of the virus, including 49 still active, 125 recovered and four deceased. The county had five cases Saturday and five Sunday, the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District reported.

“It wasn’t unexpected but it’s still shocking, still concerning,” health district spokeswoman Kelly Craine said. “To see it in black and white is startling.”

Craine said health district contact tracers are still investigating the newest cases, but so far there’s no evidence tying the cases to a single source, such as a mass gathering.

Dr. Jackson Griggs, CEO of the Family Health Center, said the increase is not yet exponential, but it is accelerating.

“There’s been a seven-day trend that suggests we are now seeing a second wave,” he said. “I don’t know if this is going to be a small wave or a big one, but after several days of climbing numbers, it does suggest that we are seeing the result of something that has changed in our interactions with each other, likely the impact of easing the economic restrictions that occurred during the month of May.”

The 46 cases reported in the past seven days represent more than a quarter of all cases of COVID-19 so far.

Still, Griggs said it’s not too late to keep McLennan County’s trend line under control. It will mean avoiding unnecessary gatherings and outings, maintaining distances, wearing face coverings and sanitizing hands and surfaces.

“We flattened the curve before,” he said. “We can do it again. We know what the right things to do are. ... If we aggressively put into place all the public health behaviors we have been discussing, we could flatten the curve that’s two weeks out.”

The state of Texas reported 1,254 new cases Monday, bringing the seven-day total to 13,492, representing a peak of cases since the pandemic hit Texas in early March. McLennan County remains on the low end of populous counties in cases per 1,000, even with the recent pattern.

The county has a rate of about 0.7 cases per 1,000.

As of the last reporting date on June 11, McLennan County had 13,787 tests.

Neighboring Bell County reported 17 cases Monday, bringing its three-month total to 598. Meanwhile, the state of Texas reported that as of Sunday, Coryell County had a cumulative 300 cases, Bosque County had 7, Hill County had 36, Limestone County had 39 and Falls County had 17.


Local
Tax appeals tumble
Appraisal protests decrease by a third this year amid COVID-19 upheaval
 06.15.20

Blame it on COVID-19 or a freeze on some home values, but whatever the reason, McLennan County Appraisal District has seen protests drop by about a third this year.

Appeals for residential and commercial values have dropped from 14,467 last year to 8,600 this year, with MCAD officials expecting another 1,500 appeals from those taxpayers who got their appraisal notices a bit later.

Appeal hearings before the Appraisal Review Board started last week, after MCAD staff appraisers resolved about 1,500 disputes from home and business owners without a formal hearing, said McLennan County Chief Appraiser Joe Don Bobbitt.

The appeals process was delayed by a month because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the panel hearings so far are being conducted via teleconferencing, which may have discouraged the technologically challenged. But Bobbitt said another reason for the drop was that home values that were changed through the process last year were frozen.

“The main thing I attribute the decrease in protests to is we left the residential ARB values alone,” he said. “If they came in last year and they were resolved in some way, we left those appraisals the same.

“So far what I have seen is residential is down and commercial appeals are up. That makes sense because residential was left alone and commercial was affected more because of the pandemic. There are a lot of people coming in and bringing that up as an issue, but the district is not really taking that into account, and so far, the ARB has not made any allowances for that.”

McLennan County homeowners saw an average 6.5% increase in the taxable value of their homes this year, compared to a 4.7% increase last year, 11.9% in 2018 and 5.9% in 2017.

However, 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 Jan. 1 market conditions. Homeowners wanting to rely on COVID-19-related evidence of why they deserve an appraisal decrease will have to wait until next year, Bobbitt said.

“We are only in June, so in the next six months the world could be completely different than it was in January. It could be better or worse, so we will have to gauge that when we get there,” he said.

MCAD offices are still closed because of the pandemic. But those who insist on in-person appeals can schedule a hearing with the ARB, starting June 29. Hearings will be held at Bell’s Hill Elementary School, 2100 Ross Ave., to allow for proper social distancing.

Bobbitt said the ARB appeals process started slowly at first to get the kinks out of the new teleconferencing system. Now, they are averaging about 100 hearings a day, he said.

“We are trying to be a little more lenient and put more weight on the evidence the taxpayers brought us,” Bobbitt said. “Before, we were going a little more by the book.”

Bobbitt urges those with upcoming teleconference hearings to call MCAD offices at (254) 752-9864 to make sure they are ready and have a valid phone number on file with the office.

Waco real estate agent Frances Pool said that while she hears frequent complaints about home appraisals, she said the local housing market remains “unbelievably strong” because demand is high and interest rates are favorable at 2.5% to 4%.

“Considering what is going on now and how hard it was to get into a house, people are buying and selling houses like crazy,” Pool said. “Interest rates are very good and if you are moving here or having to transfer for a job, you have to sell your house. The demand is there.”

Homes ranging from $175,000 to $300,000 are selling well and are fetching around 97 percent of the asking price, she said. However, more expensive homes, with their hefty tax bills, are causing some buyers to back away, she said.

“The taxes are causing those houses not to sell because they are so high,” Pool said. “People understand what they are paying for today, but they are concerned about what the appraisal district will do to them in the future.”

Pool said she represented a seller whose home was appraised at $625,000. After her MCAD appeal, it was lowered by $30,000, she said.

“I had the house listed at $519,000,” Pool said. “You can’t tax it for more than they are willing to take for it. I’m amazed at the people who don’t fight it. They think their appraisal value might improve the sales prices. Just because it is appraised on the tax rolls at a high price, that doesn’t mean you can get that.”

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said higher property appraisals in 2019 allowed the county to keep the same tax rate this year as last. He said he hopes a similar scenario can play out this year, even with the pandemic taking a drastic toll on revenues from sales taxes and hotel and motel taxes.

“What the governor would like to see is tax rates possibly being lowered because there is an increase in taxable valuations,” Felton said. “So the other piece of the formula is the tax rate, and to consider lowering those to soften the blow to the property owners. That would be our goal, but we are just now starting into our budget.”

To do that, Felton said, the county will try to keep the status quo by shooting for a “no-growth” budget with few, if any, employee increases.

“We haven’t gotten the numbers yet,” Felton said. “The sales tax is going to be lower this year, but next year it ought to be back to normal. We are going to be short in the budget this year because of the COVID-19, but in working on next year’s budget, it probably will be about the same or slightly less than what we actually budgeted this year.”


Local
SpaceX pursues local funding for $10 million upgrade to McGregor plant
 06.15.20

UPDATE: On Tuesday, commissioners agreed to allocate $1 million in Waco-McLennan County Economic Development Corp. funds to SpaceX, which plans $10 million in infrastructure improvements at its McGregor testing facility that employs about 500 people. Waco City Council also approved matching that $1 million.

Projects are not funded without approval from both the Waco City Council and the McLennan County Commissioners Court.

The original story is below.


Fresh from making history by sending a manned craft to the International Space Station, SpaceX is asking Waco and McLennan County for money to grow.

The rocket company launched by billionaire Elon Musk will spend $10 million on infrastructure improvements at its rocket-testing facility in McGregor. The upgrades will include “noise suppressors,” which should prove welcome to those within earshot of SpaceX’s rumbling, window-rattling rehearsals.

Waco City Council and McLennan County Commissioners Court will vote Tuesday on sending SpaceX $2 million from the Waco-McLennan County Economic Development Corp. fund, with each entity allocating $1 million.

Commissioners meet online at 9 a.m. Tuesday, followed by a 3 p.m. online council work session and 6 p.m. council meeting.

SpaceX, a privately held, commercial aerospace company headquartered in Hawthorne, California, also will spend money to establish a private office in Waco for use by key company personnel, according to the council packet.

“It’s good that we continue to invest in this site,” said Melett Harrison, city of Waco economic development director. “We want SpaceX operations to come through McGregor and Central Texas.”

SpaceX leases 4,280 acres in McGregor’s industrial district, where it employs about 500 people, McGregor City Manager Kevin Evans said Monday.

Harrison said SpaceX will spend no less than $10 million in infrastructure improvements with an eye toward making water and electric service more reliable and upgrading 1 Rocket Road, which serves the test site.

“We don’t have specifics on which buildings would be affected,” Harrison said. “We received a general request and were told SpaceX proposes spending at least $10 million on these improvements, and wondered if the Waco-McLennan County Economic Development Corp. could help.”

Harrison said SpaceX previously received a $3 million allocation from the city-county fund. She said improvements included a new rocket test stand.

Harrison said SpaceX will establish a permanent display at the Mayborn Museum Complex.

The complex on University Parks Drive last year hosted a special space-related exhibit titled “SpaceX: This is Rocket Science.”

It featured a rocket model and a thrust engine.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said Monday he expects the commissioners court to easily pass the resolution providing for funding.

“They are a great corporate citizen for the county and McGregor,” he said.

SpaceX is obligated to complete improvements by Dec. 31, 2022.

The company “will continually report on jobs, payroll, average annual wage, residency, health benefits and annual hotel room nights in Waco and McLennan County throughout the contract,” Harrison said in a report.

Harrison said she does not know if Musk will be among the executives using office space in Waco, though she did not rule out the idea. The controversial and outspoken entrepreneur, who has made it known his ultimate goal is space travel to Mars, makes regular visits to McGregor operations.

Harrison said she would expect prominent SpaceX officials who travel to Central Texas for days or weeks to use the office space.

Musk created a stir recently when he criticized California officials for their COVID-19-related restrictions. He was forced to shutter his Tesla electric automobile manufacturing plant in Fremont, California, and was not pleased, tweeting that health officials there are “ignorant” and threatening to relocate Tesla headquarters and operations to Texas or Nevada.

SpaceX’s other ties to Texas include a launch site in Boca Chica, near Brownsville.

Kevin Evans, McGregor’s city manager, downplayed SpaceX’s decision to enact additional sound-muffling measures at the industrial park.

“I haven’t had any complaints in a long time,” he said. “If they think it’s best to have more suppression, I guess there are others who want it too. But they do not come close to the decibel limits we have in place.”

Evans said McGregor also tries to control when SpaceX fires off rockets.

“They’re not supposed to after 11 p.m., and if they choose to test between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., they are charged a fee: $10,000 the first time, $15,000 the second time and $25,000 each time after that, with a reset each year.”

McGregor has used the money to install lights at community ballfields.

The commissioners court meeting can be viewed at https://tx-mclennancounty.civicplus.com/1121/Commissioners-Court-Online-Meeting-Infor.

The city council meeting will be streamed live at wccc.tv.


Local
Local workers likely ‘feel safer’ after Supreme Court says gay, transgender workers protected by law
 06.15.20

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a landmark civil rights law protects gay, lesbian and transgender people from discrimination in employment, a resounding victory for LGBT rights from a conservative court.

The court decided by a 6-3 vote that a key provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 known as Title VII that bars job discrimination because of sex, among other reasons, encompasses bias against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the court. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”

The decision was a defeat not just for the employers, but also the Trump administration, which argued that the law’s plain wording compelled a ruling for the employers. Gorsuch, a conservative appointee of President Donald Trump, concluded the opposite.

He was joined in the majority by Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s four liberal members. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s other Supreme Court pick, dissented, along with Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas.

“The Court tries to convince readers that it is merely enforcing the terms of the statute, but that is preposterous,” Alito wrote in the dissent. “Even as understood today, the concept of discrimination because of ‘sex’ is different from discrimination because of ‘sexual orientation’ or ‘gender identity.‘”

Kavanaugh wrote in a separate dissent that the court was rewriting the law to include gender identity and sexual orientation, a job that belongs to Congress. Still, Kavanaugh said the decision represents an “important victory achieved today by gay and lesbian Americans.”

The outcome is expected to have a big impact for the estimated 8.1 million LGBT workers across the country because most states don’t protect them from workplace discrimination. An estimated 11.3 million LGBT people live in the U.S., according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA law school.

Local reaction

Carmen Saenz, founder of Waco LGBTQ advocacy group InterWaco, said the decision was an important milestone, though one the city of Waco had passed in 2014 when the city amended its internal policy to bar discrimination against city employees who were lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

“I think it speaks well for the city of Waco that they adopted the nondiscrimination policy at the time,” she said. “It’s a feather in Waco’s cap we were so positive on this issue.”

The court’s decision expands nondiscrimination protection to the private sector, and that’s important.

“People should be employed for what’s in their skill set,” Saenz said. “It’s a great decision. If we weren’t in the middle of COVID, we’d be celebrating downtown tonight.”

The Rev. Charley Garrison, pastor of the Central Texas Metropolitan Community Church which has a sizable LGBTQ membership, thought that the ruling might not change much externally in Waco, but some employees would be breathing a little easier.

“I think there are LGBTQ people who feel safer being employed now,” he said.

At the same time, Garrison said the work toward full equality and protection isn’t finished, noting a change in White House policy last week that removes health care protections for transgender patients.

“We celebrate, we rest and get back to fighting for liberty and justice,” he said.

The court’s decision brought back Waco memories for Austin resident Chris Benfer, 42, a Waco native who in 2004 had been working at a local chain restaurant until he and his partner tried unsuccessfully to get a marriage license at the county courthouse.

Within days after media reports of that attempt, Benfer said, he was fired. He said his manager told him informally the decision had come from her superiors and was related to his public attempt to secure a marriage license. Benfer, 42, went on to work as a server trainer with the Waco restaurant Carino’s for several years before moving to Austin where he’s lived since 2010.

He added he felt less job discrimination when he served in the military when “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was in effect than when he finished his service.

Like Garrison, the Rev. Grant Dooley of Waco felt the court decision will provide a measure of peace for LGBTQ people, some of whom are still closeted for fear of employer retribution. Dooley, who identifies as non-binary with female and male characteristics and uses the pronoun “they,” serves as Lake Shore Baptist Church’s minister to children, youth and family. Dooley knows what it’s like to find one’s identity affecting where and how one works: It’s their first full-time ministerial post despite 10 years of work in the field.

“This is a big change for the queer community and one that should have happened years ago,” Dooley said. “It brings a sense of relief and peace to millions of Americans because they know their job is secure.”

Plaintiffs

Gerald Bostock, a gay county government worker from Georgia whose lawsuit was one of three the Supreme Court decided Monday, said no one should should have to be “fearful of losing their job because of who they are, who they love or how they identify. And the justices have now made sure that we won’t have to worry about that.”

John Bursch, who argued the appeal from a Michigan funeral home owner against a fired transgender employee, said, “Americans must be able to rely on what the law says, and it is disappointing that a majority of the justices were unwilling to affirm that commonsense principle. Redefining ‘sex’ to mean ‘gender identity’ will create chaos and enormous unfairness for women and girls in athletics, women’s shelters, and many other contexts.”

But Monday’s decision is not likely to be the court’s last word on a host of issues revolving around LGBT rights, Gorsuch noted.

Rights groups have said they will challenge the administration’s effort to roll back anti-discrimination protections for transgender people in health care. Lawsuits are pending over transgender athletes’ participation in school sporting events, and courts also are dealing with cases about sex-segregated bathrooms and locker rooms, a subject that the justices seemed concerned about during arguments in October. Employers who have religious objections to employing LGBT people also might be able to raise those claims in a different case, Gorsuch said.

“But none of these other laws are before us; we have not had the benefit of adversarial testing about the meaning of their terms, and we do not prejudge any such question today,” he wrote.

The cases were the court’s first on LGBT rights since Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement and replacement by Kavanaugh. Kennedy was a voice for gay rights and the author of the landmark ruling in 2015 that made same-sex marriage legal throughout the United States. Kavanaugh generally is regarded as more conservative.

Politics, politicians

The Trump administration had changed course from the Obama administration, which supported LGBT workers in their discrimination claims under Title VII.

During the Obama years, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had changed its longstanding interpretation of civil rights law to include discrimination against LGBT people. The law prohibits discrimination because of sex, but has no specific protection for sexual orientation or gender identity.

Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president, praised the decision on Twitter as “another step in our march toward equality for all. The Supreme Court has confirmed the simple but profoundly American idea that every human being should be treated with respect.”

In recent years, some lower courts have held that discrimination against LGBT people is a subset of sex discrimination, and thus prohibited by the federal law.

Efforts by Congress to change the law to explicitly bar job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity have so far failed.

The Supreme Court cases involved two gay men and a transgender woman who sued for employment discrimination after they lost their jobs.

Aimee Stephens lost her job as a funeral director in the Detroit area after she revealed to her boss that she had struggled with gender most of her life and had, at long last, “decided to become the person that my mind already is.” Stephens told funeral home owner Thomas Rost that following a vacation, she would report to work wearing a conservative skirt suit or dress that Rost required for women who worked at his three funeral homes. Rost fired Stephens.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio, ruled that the firing constituted sex discrimination under federal law.

Stephens died last month. Donna Stephens, her wife of 20 years, said in a statement that she is “grateful for this victory to honor the legacy of Aimee, and to ensure people are treated fairly regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The federal appeals court in New York ruled in favor of a gay skydiving instructor who claimed he was fired because of his sexual orientation. The full 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 10-3 that it was abandoning its earlier holding that Title VII didn’t cover sexual orientation because “legal doctrine evolves.” The court held that “sexual orientation discrimination is motivated, at least in part, by sex and is thus a subset of sex discrimination.”

That ruling was a victory for the relatives of Donald Zarda, who was fired in 2010 from a skydiving job in Central Islip, New York, that required him to strap himself tightly to clients so they could jump in tandem from an airplane. He tried to put a woman with whom he was jumping at ease by explaining that he was gay. The school fired Zarda after the woman’s boyfriend called to complain.

Zarda died in a wingsuit accident in Switzerland in 2014.

In a case from Georgia, the federal appeals court in Atlanta ruled against Bostock, a gay employee of Clayton County, in the Atlanta suburbs. Bostock claimed he was fired in 2013 because he is gay. The county argues that Bostock was let go because of the results of an audit of funds he managed.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Bostock’s claim in a three-page opinion that noted the court was bound by a 1979 decision that held “discharge for homosexuality is not prohibited by Title VII.”

Tribune-Herald staff writer Carl Hoover contributed to this report.


Politics
AP
Senate GOP to restrict police chokeholds in emerging bill
 06.15.20

WASHINGTON — Driven by a rare urgency, Senate Republicans are poised to unveil an extensive package of policing changes that includes new restrictions on police chokeholds and other practices as President Donald Trump signals his support following the mass demonstrations over the deaths of George Floyd and other black Americans.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the sole African American Republican in the Senate, has been crafting the package set to roll out Wednesday. While it doesn’t go as far as a sweeping Democratic bill heading toward a House vote, the emerging GOP legislation shares similar provisions as Congress rushes to respond.

With Trump set to announce executive actions on law enforcement as soon as Tuesday, the crush of activity shows how quickly police violence and racial prejudice are transforming national party priorities.

“I think we’re going to get to a bill that actually becomes law,” Scott said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Scott said the chokehold, in particular, “is a policy whose time has come and gone.”

The GOP package is one of the most extensive proposed overhauls to policing procedures yet from Republicans, who have long aligned with Trump’s “law and order” approach but are suddenly confronted with a groundswell of public unrest in cities large and small over police violence.

Over the weekend, the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks during a routine stop by a white officer in Atlanta led to an outcry, more protests and the police chief’s swift ouster.

The Republican bill would create a national database of police use-of-force incidents, encourage police body cameras and include a long-stalled effort to make lynching a federal hate crime.

Additionally, the GOP package is expected to restrict the use of chokeholds by withholding certain federal funds to jurisdictions that continue to allow the practice, according a Senate Republican unauthorized to discuss the pending bill and granted anonymity.

Democrats have said the GOP package doesn’t go far enough in the aftermath of Floyd’s death and the outpouring of protests and Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the number of black Americans killed at the hands of law enforcement.

In particular, the Republican bill does not address the issue of “qualified immunity,” as the Democrats’ bill does, which aims to enable those injured by law enforcement personnel to sue for damages. The White House has said that is a line too far. As an alternative, Scott has suggested a “decertification” process for officers involved in misconduct.

“This is not a time for lowest common denominator, watered-down reforms,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., a co-author of the Democratic bill, on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “It’s a time to stop the problem.”

Yet Democrats signaled a willingness to look at the Republican approach for areas of common ground.

“I never call anything a nonstarter,” said Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the House’s third-ranking Democrat.

Democrats face criticism over activists’ calls to defund the police, and party leaders in Congress have distanced themselves from that approach. The defund movement describes a range of options, from dismantling departments to shifting policing resources to other community services. The Democratic bill does not go that far, but would instead provide grant money to departments that want to consider new ways of policing.

“Nobody is going to defund the police,” Clyburn said. “We can restructure the police forces, restructure, reimagine policing. That is what we are going to do.”

The House Judiciary Committee is set to consider the bill midweek, and House lawmakers are scheduled to return to Washington next week for a vote.