Devine negotiating with trash collector, tensions over contract and service

Tony Gawlik, left, and Donovan Rodriguez, also standing, of Republic Services address the Devine City Council on Sept. 20 regarding a five-year extension of the company’s contract to collect solid waste locally. Seated from left to right is Denise Duff, city accountant, Dora Rodriguez, interim city administrator and city attorney Tom Cate. Photo by Anton Riecher

By Anton Riecher
Tension between the Devine City Council and trash collector Republic Services became obvious during a Sept. 20 council meeting to discuss a five-year renewal of the company’s contract.
At one point, Terry Gawlik, municipal sales manager for Republic, complained that it was difficult to maintain an “open dialogue” with city staff.
“I will tell you this, I’ve never had this experience before,” Gawlik said. “We do the best we can. We want to do the right thing.”
Complete video coverage of the meeting is available on the Devine News’ YouTube page at youtu.be/HxJhQUTGUpk.
Interim city administrator Dora Rodriguez said the city is restricting direct communication with Republic representatives unless City Attorney Tom Cate or the city council is present. That decision came after a recent letter sent to the city by a Republic attorney, she said.
No action was taken on the Republic proposal after the Sept. 20 discussion due to the many changes requested by council members, Mayor Cory Thompson said.
Republic Services took over the contract for the collection of residential refuse and recycling when it acquired Central Texas solid waste company ACI Recycling and Disposal. The new contract being offered by Republic involves substantial changes regarding residential and commercial trash collection.
One area of contention is that the new contract no longer allows for the collection of bags filled with yard waste. Instead, residential customers will be required to use a separate trash cart for yard waste with pickup limited to four times a year.
“People aren’t going to do that,” council member Debbie Randall said. “It’s going to sit out on the curb until your brush pickup.”
Gawlik said the transition away from yard bags is chiefly a safety measure.
“I know right now there is a labor shortage,” he said. “It’s hard to get people to help. But now you’ve got yard waste and you’re bending and twisting.”
Gawlik said most waste collectors are moving to this system. The benefit to the city is the rate for the extra yard waste cart has been steeply reduced. Those cost savings were challenged by Randall.
“We’re asking (residents) to raise their bill $5, $8 or $12 for the same service they’ve been getting until this new contract,” she said.
Standard brush pickup is going to quadruple because people will not pay to add the yard waste cart, she said.
“They are going to put it out there and they’re not going to care that it’s over your yard waste limit,” Randall said.
Another bone of contention was the length of time necessary for commercial customers to obtain either a temporary or permanent roll-off dumpster for trash collection. Council member Josh Ritchey said it took his business nearly two months to get a bulk trash pickup on at least two occasions.
“One or two weeks wiggle room okay but we can’t have the stuff one or two months because folks are calling code enforcement and making more work,” Ritchey said.
He asked for a guaranteed schedule for bulk pickups and for the delivery of roll-off units.
“I would like some kind of language that if a business owner contacts you more than three times and is unable to get the roll-off delivered within 45 days, within a reasonable time, they can go to a local service,” Ritchey said.
He did thank Republic for removing the fuel surcharge from its latest proposal.
Donovan Rodriguez, Republic’s manager for municipal sales, told the council that the contract extension delivered to the city August 18 included provisions for eliminating the roll-off franchise, billing non-profit organizations and churches at residential rates,
“I’m confident we can come to an agreement on the numbers,” he said.
Council member Angela Pichardo said that could offer the city two main incentives to negotiate – amount and frequency of waste collection.
“What are your solutions?” she asked. “What can you offer us?”
The volume of solid waste is measured in cubic yards. On average, the calculation is three pounds per person per day divided by 175 pounds per yard times seven days per week. That equals three divided by 175 times seven equals 0.120 cubic yards per person each week.
Donovan suggested increasing the allowed yardage to eight yards or more on bulk pickup with increased frequency of pickup and adding a community location where people can use a roll-off to save the cost of scheduling a bulk pickup.
When Gawlik brought up the issue of open dialogue, Cate countered that the city and the company were in the midst of such a dialogue at that moment. Gawlik said that during the work week it was hard to get clear direction from the city via email alone.
“I’d love to buy lunch, say thank you and find out the little details of what you need,” Gawlik said.
However, when Rodriguez asked if the staff was not answering his emails promptly Gawlik said that the city staff was “doing fine.”
Another issue during the discussion was Mayor Thompson’s insistence on a “no-fault” cancellation clause for either side in the new contract.
“No council in the future needs to be tied into any council decisions that are made today,” Thompson said. “This council got tied into decisions made more than a decade ago.”
Ritchey countered that if the contract includes such a cancellation clause “it’s not even a real contract.” However, Randall joined the mayor in support of a cancellation clause.
“The way it reads now we can say we are terminating and we have to wait four years before we can actually terminate,” she said. “We don’t want that anymore.”
Thompson said requiring cause as the basis for any cancellation would mean submitting the matter to a mediator for arbitration. Cate confirmed this when asked for his opinion.
“To be honest with you it can take a long time,” Cate said. “If we get into litigation it can take the time it took to fulfill the contract.”
Dora Rodriguez asked if it was possible to sign a two-year contract rather than five. Donovan Rodriguez said it would require recalculating the rates quoted in the contract.
An invitation by Gawlik for the council to attend a party held by Republic during the Texas Municipal League annual conference Oct. 5 through 7 in San Antonio met with a frosty response.
“Send us the information so we can make an informed decision on that,” Pichardo said.
Also tabled was a request from council member Ritchey to amend the city ordinance governing fowl kept within the city limits. Acting on the advice of Cate, Ritchey limited his remarks during the discussion since it was part of a business proposal that would provide him financial gain.
“I want to run poultry and (put) small houses in my 12-acre field?” Ritchey said.
The current city regulation limits the number of fowl to no more than 10 per residence with no roosters permitted. The ordinance also places strict provisions on such ownership regarding noise and odor nuisance.
Randall, who said from the outset that she would vote against the amendment, noted that “a lot of people have chickens that shouldn’t have them.”
Thompson noted that San Antonio has a blanket ordinance permitting eight chickens per residence. Fowl must be kept at least 100 feet from any dwelling or business.
He suggested tabling the matter until Ritchey can submit something in writing or designate someone to speak for him during the council session.
Cate complimented Ritchey for bringing the question before the council in the manner that he did.
“People are going to call me a lot of things but they’re not going to call me a liar,” Ritchey said.
The council turned down an application by church charity DFMA, represented by Michael Wilkinson, to install a soft drink vending machine at Briscoe Park as a fund raising operation. Although DFMA offered to install electricity to operate the machine, but the council rejected the idea out of concerns about liability and vandalism with all present voting nay.
The council met briefly with the city’s IT consultant, James Evans of Texas Technology, to discuss possible proposals to be made by Dora Rodriguez in a meeting with AT&T regarding cost cutting measures on communications for the city.
During a workshop on the upcoming 2022-2023 budget Rodriguez told the council that bond payments for the city airport have been moved from the general fund into the budget’s debt service. Thompson told the council that the action would help free up more money in the general fund.
Rodriguez said shifting the payments had been approved in advance by the city’s financial consultant.

Devine city tax rate cut discussed

By Anton Riecher
The only private citizen to attend the Sept. 8 Devine City Council workshop on the proposed 2022-2023 city budget voiced concern that a suggested cut in the tax rate might leave the city underfunded during financially risky times.
Fred Morales told the council that cutting taxes now might mean steeper increases in the future.
“I know everybody is super concerned about being conservative about how this (tax rate) number is set,” he said. “I just want to make sure everybody was putting a lot of thought into making sure there was going to be enough cash flow to accomplish the needs of the city.”
A complete video of the council session is available on the Devine News YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CiO7tQQKBnc.
He also asked if the city had a financial advisor, looking at how to set the tax rate, to which the answer was unclear.
The Devine City Council voted August 30 to set a preliminary 2022-2023 tax rate of $.4913 per $100 valuation, the so-called “split the difference” option midway between the current tax rate of $.5298 and the calculated no-new revenue tax rate of $.4527.
However, the new tax rate, based on a valuation of $274.1 million, depends on the city staff finding at least $200,000 in cuts to its proposed “wish list” budget submitted to the council for consideration.
If approved, the preliminary rate would be the lowest passed by the council since 1983, Mayor Cory Thompson said.
Thompson told Morales that the feedback the council got at the Aug. 30 meeting indicated that in view of the escalating property valuations issued by the county this year, a rate cut was in order.
“The feedback I’m getting is people are upset,” Thompson said. “Not just with us but the valuations from the county. They are just upset with all of it.”
Morales said that reading of public sentiment was “absolutely correct.”
“I can attest to that,” he said. But once the tax rate is cut increasing it to meet unforeseen future needs might become that much harder for the council,” Morales said.
“The reason I’m asking is I’m just concerned about how that fits in with the city’s needs and how you feel things are going to be moving forward,” he said.
A final decision on the tax rate remains pending.
“Everybody is having to make due with less,” Thompson said. Council voted to approve a public hearing to further discuss the budget scheduled for 6 p.m. Sept 20 at the city council chambers at city hall.

Devine council mulls over possible 2022 “no-new revenue” tax rate

Mayor Thompson, Deborah Randall and Josh Ritchey discuss the tax rate and budget at the meeting this past week.

By Anton Riecher
An unofficial majority of the Devine City Council favors a 2022 property tax rate of $.4527 per $100 of valuation based on increased taxable value of $274.1 million.
“The majority at the table wants to go with the no-new revenue tax rate,” Mayor Cory Thompson announced during an Aug. 16 regular session of the council.
Truth-in-taxation requires most taxing units to calculate two rates after receiving a certified appraisal roll from the chief appraiser — the no-new revenue tax rate and the voter-approval tax rate. The voter-approval tax rate — $.4866 – is the maximum rate the council can approve without a vote by local taxpayers.
The city’s current tax rate is $.5298 per $100 of valuation. By adopting the no-new revenue rate, the city will only gain $28,000 over the current tax rate.
With the increase in valuation, the no-new revenue tax rate amounts to a reduction for local taxpayers, District 5 council member Debbie Randall said.
“We still get a tiny, little bitty bump but it will be less taxes for the individuals,” she said.
The no-new revenue agenda item was not a final vote but simply a review in preparation for approving a final budget, Thompson said.
Two preliminary city budgets are being prepared for consideration based on a “wish list” compiled by the city staff, Thompson said. However, in preparation for the proposed budgets, District 4 council member Josh Ritchey asked for a list of all city job positions and their pay.
“My thought process here is every organization over five people has got some fat you can cut,” Ritchey said.
Randall replied that the city does not have enough employees to meet requirements now. However, she said she did agree with Ritchey that any pay increases for city employees should be based solely on merit.
“Technically, at my company there is no such thing as across the board,” Randall said. “You have to earn what you get.”
In other action, the council voted 3-0 to restrict all city council meeting to no more than four hours. Any agenda item not addressed in that time would be moved to a special session to be scheduled within two weeks.
The vote was taken on a motion by Ritchey seconded by Randall.
Initially, Thompson proposed a three-hour limit on any council session.
“If you can drive to Corpus in three hours you should be able to have a council meeting in three hours,” he said.
However, Randall argued that in her experience very few council meetings are able to work through a full agenda in only three hours.
“We would celebrate when it was done in three hours alone,” she said. “I’m thinking four maybe. We have been able to do it in a four-hour period.”
The proposed action came in the wake of complaints by city staff hard pressed to attend the lengthy council sessions, some lasting until midnight, and then putting in a full eight hours the next day.
“It’s hard on everybody,” he said. “Everybody has a job.”
Thompson noted that the council meeting in session had barely made quorum with only three of five council members attending beside the mayor. Under state law, a special session requires four voting members to establish a quorum.
The mayor said he would not support further restrictions on the time available for public comments during council sessions. However, those wishing to address the council might be better served by contacting their district council member.
“At the end of the day, the council person is the one that votes,” Thompson said.
Randall said she agreed that speaking to the district council member first can be more effective. But sometimes nothing can replace addressing the entire council.
“I tell them to bring their voices,” Randall said. “Sometimes we have to have them.”
The council voted to give city director of public works Robert Flores the authority to approve a certificate of occupancy upon the final inspection of the new Golf Clubhouse.
Action to set procedures for hiring a new city administrator was tabled.

City accepts $3.47 million bid for water system improvements
in Devine

New water pipes sit ready to replace asbestos lines in the City of Devine.

By Anton Riecher
The Devine City Council voted 3-0 to approve a $3.47 million bid by a Burnett County construction company for water system improvements during a regular session held Aug. 16.
Qro Mex Construction, Inc. of Granite Shoals won the project with the best of six bids submitted. Other bids ranged up to a high of $5.667 million.
“I want to say that Qro Mex is a very good company,” City Engineer Raul Garcia Jr. told the council. “We’ve worked with them and they are currently working on a project here in Devine right now. I think this is a very good bid for the council to consider.”
A motion to approve the bid was made by Josh Ritchey and seconded by Debbie Randall. Council members Angela Pichardo and David Espinosa were not present.
The contract is funded through a loan obtained from the Texas Water Development Board as part of the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. The fund, authorized by the Safe Drinking Water Act, provides low-cost financial assistance for planning, acquisition, design, and construction of water infrastructure.
Included in the project is installation of 20,343 linear feet of 8-inch water main, 3,327 linear feet of 5-inch water main, 6,613 linear feet of service line, plus various valves, hydrants and fittings.
Garcia told the council he has met with Qro Mex to review issues with previous improvement projects involving other companies “so that these issues don’t come up again.”
“We are confident they are going to follow our guidelines and work with us unlike our prior contractor,” Garcia said.
Work on the project is expected to begin in mid-September, Garcia said.
See article on tax rate and other council matters inside.

DYSA donates $42,350 to re-do basketball courts in Devine

Construction ongoing at the basketball courts on Warhorse Drive. The large donation and rehab of these courts is exciting for the community and local families who will enjoy playing ball here for years to come.

At the June 20th school board meeting, the board approved the funding donated by DYSA to re-do the basketball courts across from the Intermediate School.
A motion made by Chris Davis to approve the funding, seconded by Carl Brown, passed by vote of five to zero.
The board also approved a $42,350 donation by the Devine Youth Sports Association to renovate a basketball court near the intermediate school. Donations to the district greater than $2,000 must be approved by the board.
Work planned involves stripping off the old asphalt, adding curbing around the court and filling it with fresh asphalt. Future donations by the association would cover the cost of painting the court.
“Quite a nice donation for them to take care of that basketball court,” board president Nancy Pepper said.

Medina County revenues climb to over $23 Million

Angela Verduzco, CPA, with Pattillo, Brown & Hill, presents a draft audit covering Medina County government accounts for the 2021 fiscal year during the May 19 meeting.

By Anton Riecher
An early draft of an outside audit covering the Medina County government for the fiscal year ending September 2021 showed an ending general fund balance of $15,625,413, an increase of $4.3 million over the previous year.
Certified Public Accountant Angela Verduzco with Pattillo, Brown & Hill, L.L.P., reported to county commissioners during their May 19 regular meeting. The final audit is due June 30.
“The assets and deferred outflows of Medina County exceeded its liabilities and deferred inflows at the close of the most recent fiscal year by $52,270,583,” the draft report states.
The county’s overall fund balance stood at $24,187,241, a decrease of $13.5 million from the previous fiscal year, Verduzco said. She attributed the decrease to certificates of obligation issued to cover capital outlay expenditures for the courthouse annex and jail projects.
Verduzco directed the commissioners attention to deficits in the balances for three funds – health unit ($36,198), juvenile probation ($48,366) and grants ($46,262).
“County anticipates revenues in future periods will eliminate these deficit fund balances, or the County will transfer funds from the General Fund to eliminate these deficits.”
The county took in $2.9 million above its anticipated revenues of $23,609,346, the report states. Expenditures were $1.2 million less than the budgeted amount of $1,388,715.
“It’s all good news there,” Verduzco said.
Income from road and bridge funds represented an increase in the fund balance for all four precincts. Precinct 1 reported $1,819,486, up $337,326, while Precinct 2 reported $2,089,412, up $654,240. Precinct 3 reported $1,018,666, up $371,577, while Precinct 4 reported $1,004,776, up $512,043.

A look at Medina County’s $1.4 million investment in local broadband

Thanks to funding provided by federal COVID-19 stimulus legislation, availability of wireless internet in Medina County is expected to greatly improve before the end of the year.

Medina County Comissioners granted $700,000 each to two local broadband companies to assist in putting up more towers, as well as $25K to third company.

Sago Internet of LaCoste and R Networks of D’Hanis have been designated by the Medina County Commissioners Court to receive $700,000 each from an initial $5 million grant for the county through the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by Congress in 2021.
To date, each company has drawn $200,000 to begin work on the broadband improvements, said Joe Arnett, co-owner of R Networks.
“We’ve used that money to order equipment,” he said. “We’re going to be building towers all over Medina County in underserved areas.”
Likewise, Sago Internet is moving forward on expanding its service to Medina County residents, said Rodney Hitzfelder, president of Sago Internet.
“We’ve bought towers, antennas and radio equipment,” he said. “We’ve contracted with an installation company to come in and do the installations. It’s a long process to put these things up.”
The ARPA funds can only be used for capital expenses – towers, equipment, antennas or construction costs, Hitzfelder said. None could be used for salaries, computers, attorney fees, land or tower leases or tapping fiber optic lines. Sago accepted the grant knowing that while it was a large sum of money for the capital costs it would create ongoing costs to the company as the system was being built.
Both Sago and R Networks operate as wireless internet service providers (WISP) using a system similar to cell phone networks. WISPs are generally found in rural areas not covered by cable television or fiber optic telephone lines capable of carrying a high-speed internet signal.
“Our wireless systems at this time require line of sight, from the customer’s antenna location to an antenna on one of our towers,” Hitzfelder said. “Not all residences can be reached. Hills, buildings, and most especially trees complicate the lives of a WISP installer. However, with our modern equipment the reach of each towers radius can be up to seven miles. This means the service footprint of one of our towers is over 150 square miles.”
A third company, CASCOM, also known as Castroville Computers, received $25,000 of the ARPA internet funds. Unlike Sago and R Networks, CASCOM specializing in using a wide range of technology to provide customized internet service to customers beyond the reach of more conventional internet providers.
“The money given to the other two companies is going to be well spent,” CASCOM owner Robert Peterson said. “They’ll get to the areas that need service.”
Of the two major WISPs based in Medina County, R Network has the deepest roots. Founded in 2012 by Arnett and his wife Shanna, the company began operations as a cell phone provider serving western Medina County and points beyond.
“I’ve always been in the wireless business,” Arnett said. “I was working from home and didn’t have fast enough internet. I knew just enough to be dangerous. After I managed to get better service at home, my neighbors started asking me if I could do the same for them.”
A business was born, he said.
The proposal put before the commissioners called for adding new towers to expand R Networks’ reach from its primary tower in Hondo, Arnett said.
“We’ve already got two leases done for two new towers building from our Hondo connection,” he said. “We already have a fiber optic connection outside of Hondo. We’re going to feed the new towers from this connection to expand to the east back to Castroville.”
Even after the $700,000 in ARPA funds is exhausted, R Networks plans to continue expanding across the county using its own money, much as the company has in previous decade, Arnett said.
“I’m forecasting that eventually we’re going to be able to build 10 to 20 more sites,” he said. “Some are not going to be full blown giant towers but smaller secondary towers.”
Hindering progress on the expansion are the same supply chain issues being experienced by industries nationwide.
“We’ve got equipment on order,” Arnett said. “We have just now started receiving some of it.”
Like R Networks, Sago Internet grew out of frustration with the available internet service in Medina County. When he retired as public information officer for the San Antonio Fire Department several years ago, Hitzfelder lost the use of the high-speed integrated services digital network (ISDN) line at his LaCoste home.
“AT&T was up, down, slow or never did anything,” Hitzfelder said. “I went with VIASAT and it was the same thing. As soon as you ran out of high speed data they shut you off.”
When still another alternative failed, the internet expert Hitzfelder conferred with, gave him some advice that worked – “Start your own WISP.”
“The startup money was not huge,” Hitzfelder said. “So I decided to do it. Now I’ve got everything I want.”
Sago operates four towers ranging between 100 and 160 feet in height – one south of LaCoste, one near Pearson, one south of Chacon Lake, all guyed wire towers, and a monopole tower on Potranco Road. All are now complete and operational and we are adding customers at this time.”
“We were very fortunate to get the towers relatively quickly because they are in short supply right now,” Hitzfelder said.
Also, Sago Internet has been in negotiation for several months with a landowner north of Devine to use a pre-existing tower with its own fiber optic connection.
“We have to pay for that out of our own pocket,” Hitzfelder said. “The grant money is only for capital items. These are very expensive lines from AT&T that we have to get enough customers to pay for.”
If a deal cannot be made for the desired site, Sago is also in talks with a landowner south of Natalia, he said.
The next phase will be four to five towers servicing the Natalia, Devine and Castroville areas, the area between Rio Medina and Quihi, and possibly an area near FM1283 and FM 471. After this deployment, Hitzfelder believes Sago may be able to complete two more similar phases, covering over half of Medina County.
Both Hitzfelder and Arnett noted that the bulk of the business they hope to attract will be with conservatively priced packages offering speeds adequate to check email and the news rather than internet gaming and other high speed pursuits.
“We have packages for folks that don’t have 10 kids streaming at once or playing games,” Arnett said. “I think that’s where Elon Musk and Starlink comes in. I don’t see any of my $40 a month customers switching to him at $110 a month because it’s three or four times as fast.”
For Medina County internet customers who value speed and service at any price, the alternative to Sago and R Networks has been Robert Peterson’s CASCOM. The company has operated in Medina County for more than 15 years.
“Don’t come to me looking for a bargain,” Peterson said. “You come to me when all the other internet providers have failed to give you good quality broadband. When people visit our customers, they say ‘Wow, how did you ever get internet out here?’”
A U.S. Navy veteran, Peterson said he learned his trade by keeping ship in radio communication by using satellite technology.
“If I can do it on a ship that is bouncing up and down on the water I can do it on the land a whole lot easier,” he said.
CASCOM uses a variety of options ranging from cell towers, high-powered antennas, repeaters used to amplify signals via fiber optic communications and various other technologies.
“It’s really on a case by case basis,” Peterson said. “In some spots we can double the available speed. In some spots we are equal in price to the other services available. But it’s a very customized decision because of all the extreme conditions.”
Providing internet for the most difficult to reach clients is a relatively small outgrowth of Peterson’s computer repair business in Castroville, he said.
“They couldn’t get the computer support they needed because they couldn’t get any internet,” Peterson said. “When I solved their internet problems for them they told their friends and so on and so …”
Companies solely dependent on WISP technology must focus on areas with the greatest customer density, Peterson said.
“I go after everybody else,” Peterson said. “I go after the ones where there is only one customer every mile and it is not a good return on the cost of putting up a tower.”

By Kayleen Holder News Correspondent

Lytle and Devine Election Results

Gonzalez re-elected Lytle Mayor, Rodriguez to council, Ritchey wins Devine City Council seat, Davis and Frieda re-elected to Devine ISD board

City of Lytle…
Mayor Ruben Gonzalez was re-elected with 363 votes to challenger Tom Cate with 174.
Michael Rodriguez won the District 4 Alderman race 50 to 21 over Marshall Witter.
District 5 Charles Cate was unopposed.

Ruben Gonzalez was re-elected Mayor for the City of Lytle.
Michael Rodriguez was elected to Lytle City Council.

City of Devine
Josh Ritchey won the District 5 seat with 39 votes over Cassandra Maldonado 15 and Wilburn Woody Woodrow 3 votes. Councilman D1 Rufino Vega and D3 David Espinosa were unopposed.

Josh Ritchey was elected to Devine City Council.

Devine ISD
Trustees Chris Davis and Renee Frieda were re-elected to their At Large seats over challenger Brenda Burford. Davis had 246 votes, Frieda 206 and Burford 95. Trustees SD1- Ali Buvinghausen and SD2-Carl Brown were unopposed.

Renee Frieda was re-elected to the Devine ISD school board.
Chris Davis was re-elected to the Devine ISD school board.

Elections this Saturday, May 7 for City of Devine, City of Lytle, Devine ISD and Statewide

Four different elections are taking place this Saturday, May 7, 2022 in our area. City of Devine voters in District 4 can vote, all voters in Devine ISD can vote, and all voters in the City of Lytle can vote in those elections. Statewide all voters can vote in the Special Constitutional Amendment elections hosted in their county.

Continue reading “Elections this Saturday, May 7 for City of Devine, City of Lytle, Devine ISD and Statewide”