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Auditor addresses ARPA controversy

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ARPA Breakdown

By Chris Edwards
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WOODVILLE – During Monday morning’s meeting of the Tyler County Commissioners Court, County Auditor Jackie Skinner made two presentations, one of which provided a breakdown of how the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds were allocated.

The county received its first allotment of the ARPA monies last year, the first of two disbursements. The first one was received last July, in the amount of $2,104,766. The second round will arrive this July.

The funds, which were allocated through a federal grant program, were designated to address emergency needs relating to losses stemming from the pandemic.

Skinner made the presentation so that the public could see the documentation as to how the funds were distributed. She used commissioners court minutes, emails and other documents to demonstrate the timeline and the fund distribution. 

On some Tyler County-centered social media pages, posts have expressed concern about how the monies were disbursed, particularly with the distribution of $3,500 checks from the ARPA funds to elected officials.

All county employees were awarded premium pay from the funds, but the social media controversy hinges on the legality of giving the money to elected officials. 

According to a certification of funds statement from Skinner, the funds can be used to support public health expenditures, address negative economic impacts caused by the pandemic, replace lost public sector revenue, provide premium pay for essential workers and to invest in infrastructure

Skinner said that County Judge Jacques Blanchette had asked the commissioners to table the item during an August 30, 2021, meeting for further study, as he had reservations about awarding the money to officials. Skinner said there was no communication from Blanchette about those reservations or about asking for legal opinions until after the fact, nor was anything said in commissioners court about anything being illegal at a Sept. 13, 2021, meeting.

Before she began the presentation, Skinner referenced the classic TV show Dragnet, and said she wanted to present “only the facts” with the information to follow. 

Skinner said that last year when the county became aware of the funds, there was no understanding or knowledge of what the funds could be used for. “We wanted to get a jump on being ready to function and use this money to the best way we knew how,” Skinner said.

Skinner outlined the process from the commissioners approving a resolution to apply for ARPA to the acquisition of the funds, and how they were disbursed.

Skinner referenced a call from District Judge Delinda Gibbs Walker, during which Walker said Blanchette had alleged that Skinner had illegally allowed the officials to receive premium pay from the ARPA funds.

The interim ruling on ARPA funds, Skinner, said, provided no guidance stating that elected officials were not eligible.

“If I at any time I felt I was committing a criminal act, I never would have allowed it to happen,” Skinner said.

Following Skinner’s ARPA presentation, Pct. 4 Commissioner Buck Hudson spoke about the ARPA controversy, as well as Blanchette’s absence from the Commissioners Court meetings.

“I’m very disturbed at the way things have gone…I do know that empty chair there speaks volumes,” Hudson said.

Hudson also referenced the “bull crap” on Facebook being posted regarding the ARPA monies. “There really was no clear point on it,” Hudson said.

In further comments on Blanchette’s absence, he said “Why is this chair empty? It has been for three months, practically.”

In Blanchette’s place during Commissioners Court meetings, Pct. 3 Commissioner Mike Marshall has officiated.

Other Business

During its Monday meeting, the Commissioners Court also approved the following items:

  • Amending the county’s subdivision regulations to include a retainer for engineer review and filing fees.
  • The creation of a budget line item for subdivision

application filing fees.

  • The application of a variance for Caney Pines, a subdivision located on Morrell Road in Chester. The variance will affect lot #5 of the subdivision.
  • The approval of joint election agreements and ratification of contracts with other political subdivisions for an election to be held on May 7, namely the Woodville ISD for a bond election.
  • The appointment of Tyler County Historical Commission officers Chuck Davidson (chair); Kay Timme (vice chair); John Gazzaway (treasurer) and Barbara Worsham (secretary).
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A Toast to Texas

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Kids Singing

Heritage Village hosted its annual Texas Independence Day celebration, “A Toast to Texas,” last Wednesday, which commemorated the time and date in 1836 when a group of delegates gathered at Washington-on-the-Brazos to sign a Declaration of Independence from Mexico, which set forth the creation of the Republic of Texas. The event has been celebrated at Heritage Village each March 2 with a toast of locally sourced spring water. County Judge Jacques Blanchette was on hand to speak and give the toast, and the children from St. Paul’s Episcopal School sang songs about Texas. (Jim Powers/Tyler County Booster Photos.

Judge

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Property buyers snatching up Lakeland lots

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Lakeland developer Gates Walcott (left) and Gene Stock, a business partner, stand in front of a map outlining the Lakeland Ranch subdivision. CHRIS EDWARDS | TCB Lakeland developer Gates Walcott (left) and Gene Stock, a business partner, stand in front of a map outlining the Lakeland Ranch subdivision. CHRIS EDWARDS | TCB

By Chris Edwards
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HILLISTER – Lakeland Ranch property is already selling swiftly, with 66 of its first 94 lots sold, as of Sunday.

The subdivision, which will occupy the land that was Timberline Ranch for many years, represents “a step toward economic development in Tyler County,” said Pct. 1 Commissioner Joe Blacksher.

Blacksher, whose precinct is where Lakeland is situated, is involved with the project in every step of the way as an inspector. 

The development of a subdivision, as well as future subdivisions, was something that Blacksher said that Tyler County Commissioners Court saw coming and began last year to adopt regulations.

The Lakeland developers saw an opportunity when the ranch, located near Hillister, in the south end of the county, became available. It was the home of iconic East Texas attorney

 Walter Umphrey, who died last September.

Gates Walcott, one of the developers with Lakeland, said that in constructing the community, its famous former owner will be, in essence, memorialized. Umphrey’s home will stay, and eventually be put on the market, and the lodge building, which was used to entertain guests and visiting dignitaries, will serve as a sort of community center.

“We’re not cutting any corners with this project,” Walcott said. Walcott said he is experienced in the process of taking ranches and subdividing them into residential communities.

Lakeland and its owner Clayton Signor, are offering prospective buyers lots ranging from half an acre to 11 acres, and marketing the subdivision as a quality, rural retreat from city life. They first released properties for sale to the public in December and used the appeal of “wide open spaces” and the proximity to Houston and the Woodlands as marketing tools.

The first section of the development process contains the 94 tracts of land, but according to Blacksher, the developers are anticipating approximately 620 total tracts that will eventually comprise the entire subdivision. The developers are planning to add several more sections in the coming months.

The complete plat for the subdivision was approved in late January by the commissioners, and an engineer, hired by the county, has worked with the Lakeland developers to ensure that the county’s requirements were met.

When commissioners approved the plat, the application provided a schedule of work for Lakeland’s section one construction, which gives a Feb. 25, 2024 deadline, which is the expiration date on the letter of credit.

The plat also specified that Lakeland Ranch, LLC, is responsible for paying all of its water improvements to supply water from the county’s Special Utility District, as well as financial guarantees for maintenance measures.

Blacksher said that the regulations adopted by the county are meant in no way to regulate personal structure and how they are built in the subdivision, but to protect the county’s citizens and future citizens.

“The county subdivision regulations are minimum standards that ensure property owners have safe drinking water, approved human waste systems, proper drainage and rights-of-way for utilities and quality roads that emergency vehicles can safely travel upon, at the developer’s expense,” Blacksher said.

The benefit that the new subdivision poses for taxpayers will result in a lower tax rate, Blacksher said, as new construction helps to add to the overall valuation of properties in the county, thus a lower tax rate.

Overall, Blacksher sees several benefits coming to Tyler County with the subdivision. “People are coming to our county, and we need to be prepared. This will help build our community and encourage the type of growth our county desperately needs,” he said. 

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Trests named Mr. and Mrs. East Texas

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Trests

From the Dogwood Festival Publicity Committee

This year the Tyler County Dogwood Festival Operating Directors have made Dogwood history by selecting the first ever husband and wife team as the recipients of the prestigious Mr. and Mrs. East Texas Award. The 2022 honorees are Kerry and Belinda Trest from Sour Lake, Texas and are the owners and operators of KAT Excavation & Construction. The couple truly embodies the meaning behind the saying “a servant’s heart”.  It is evident in the way they give back not only in their hometown, but throughout Southeast Texas. Kerry is a fifth generation Hardin County resident and business owner and Belinda hails from neighboring Jasper County with ties back to our own Tyler County. Together, they have made it their mission to “go the extra mile” by putting their faith first, family second, and the belief that everything else will just fall into place. 

Kerry started his construction business in 1989 with the purchase of his first piece of equipment, a Cat D4 dozer, and started doing site work and land clearing just east of Beaumont. 

In 1996 Kerry saw an opportunity for growth and started buying dump trucks and went from a construction company to a dump truck company. By 2009, Kerry had 28 trucks and was hauling material for himself and other contractors in the area. However, when the recession hit, he had to make some tough decisions and downsize. “You can’t live on the promise of others, but we still have to live up the promises we make,” Kerry says. Kerry and Belinda, who stepped into the business full-time in 2013, have forged a business partnership they call TEAM KAT. The couple have worked hard to incorporate innovative and positive ideas that have produced success for their TEAM – not only professionally, but personally as well.

TEAM KAT believes in community involvement and giving back – everything from charity cookouts and community events to supporting community organizations including Texas High School Rodeo, Chamber of Commerce, 4-H, FFA, Special Olympics, The Texas Oilman’s Bass Classic, The American Cancer Society, and others.  Belinda has contributed to work specifically highlighting Tyler County by working with Christus to bring the Women’s Conference to the Jasper, Tyler & Hardin County area. She has worked as an advocate for senior healthcare services in Southeast Texas in various roles and has always looked for opportunities to promote “the hidden gems” of our area. The couple continues to work tirelessly in roles with Go TEXAN, the BBB of Southeast Texas, Hardin County Strong, Southeast Texas Food Bank Distribution, Texas Workforce Solutions, Gear Up for Game Wardens, Homes for Wounded Warriors, and many other civic and community organizations. 

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Citizens State Bank celebrating 102 years in business

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CitizensBank

By Chris Edwards
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WOODVILLE – A linchpin of the Woodville community is turning 102 soon, and has some changes in store, but promises it is committed to maintaining core values; values which are likely responsible for such longevity.

Citizens State Bank, which opened on May 8, 1920, is under new ownership, and its main branch in downtown Woodville is sporting some new looks, but according to Kimen Johnson, the bank’s Chief Experience Officer, the bank will always provide “the same look you in the eye and shake your hand type of service” it has always provided.

The bank’s new president, Harry J. “Johnny” Brooks, a 40-year veteran of the banking industry, sees the importance of the bank within the community. 

“For a community to be really vibrant, it should have three things, a good hospital, a good school district and a good bank. All of those things are essential,” Brooks said.

Brooks bought the bank on August 31, 2021. He said he saw an opportunity with a bank that had a good, strong business acumen, and most importantly, “some good folks,” Brooks said.

When Brooks seized the opportunity, he saw an institution that had the potential for growth. “My vision for the bank is I want it to become a leading bank in East Texas. I like to think we can grow this bank to a billion dollars, or more,” he said.

Brooks said there are some changes ahead, but changes that make good business sense. Aside from the Woodville branch, there are CSB locations in Marlin, Warren and now Kingwood, but the locations in Spurger and Colmesneil will close on May 20 of this year.

Brooks said those locations were not profitable, however, CSB customers in those areas have access to the full range of online banking services, and the ATMs will be kept up, with the ability to make deposits through them.

Johnson added that CSB has implemented more digital banking channels to meet the needs of the marketplace, and customers will be able to handle almost all banking functions online, from their smartphones or computers.

Another change that the public might have noticed is the implementation of a new logo. The logo features the letters “csb” in a stylized font, with stars and a trio of red swooshes. That particular bit of marketing/branding identity was important, according to Brooks, as the old CSB logo, which utilized a ram made Brooks think too much about a particular automobile manufacturer and its similar logo. Plus, there are several other banks with similar names.

The logo was a creation of the employees, and was voted on by the employees, Johnson said.

Citizens received its charter in 1919 and opened the next year. Johnson said that, originally, in 2020, the bank had hoped to celebrate its centennial, but the pandemic put the kibosh on all of that. 

Instead, this year, CSB will celebrate 102 years, complete with a party to follow the Dogwood Festival Queen’s Weekend parade on Saturday, April 2. The bank is inviting the public to come in and join the celebration at the Woodville branch, which will begin immediately after the parade’s conclusion.

The party will allow the public to see some of the interior renovations made to the bank, which include new flooring, a new paint scheme, new furniture and other accoutrements that help make the bank a place that Brooks said encourages pride in both its employees and customers. “It had languished,” he said. “I wanted to let the community know I was committed to Tyler County, and put my money where my mouth is to spruce it up,” he said.

CSB will also have a float in the parade, and as part of its participation in Tyler County’s annual springtime celebration, there might be a few neat surprises in store for festival attendees, Johnson added.

Brooks saw participation in the Dogwood Festival as hugely important. “Tyler County has a proud heritage, and us being a part of the Dogwood Festival is one of the best ways to show people what all our area has to offer,” he said. 

“We’re proud of being a part of Tyler County and proud to participate, and to show our potential for growth and exemplify the community’s needs,” he said.

Johnson spoke about Brooks’s business acumen and motivating presence to the employees. She said it is inspiring to listen to him talk about the bank and future goals, and noted his energetic and positive spirit. “He is great at being able to get people motivated and excited,” she said. 

Brooks said he is deeply committed to the county, as well as the bank, but most of all the people. The customers, Johnson said, are the bank’s most important asset, which is reflected in its very name. “Our core values have not changed,” she said. 

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