Conroe - Montgomery Edition | May 2020

CONROE MONTGOMERY EDITION

VOLUME 6, ISSUE 2  MAY 20JUNE 16, 2020

ONLINE AT

BY ANDY LI Businesses strategize safe reopening amid outbreak

SUPPORT LOCAL JOURNALISM

May 8, barber shops and salons were allowed to open with some restrictions, and as of press time May 13, gyms were slated to be able to open May 18. “It’s hard to get rid of this virus because it is so conta- gious,” Abbott said at an April 27 press conference. “So we’re not just going to open up and hope for the best. Instead, we will put measures in place that will help businesses open while also containing the virus and keeping Texans safe.” CONTINUED ON 16

Restrictions on businesses and restaurants in the Lake Conroe area aimed to curb the spread of the novel corona- virus were loosened in early May, allowing some businesses to open as the early phases of Gov. Greg Abbott’s reopening plan went into eect. Abbott’s guidelines that went into eect May 1 allowed establishments such as malls and restaurants to resume in-person operations with 25% capacity limitations. By

Please join your friends and neighbors in support of Community Impact Newspaper ’s legacy of local, reliable reporting by making a contribution. Any amount matters. Together, we can continue to ensure our citizens stay informed and keep our local businesses thriving. Become a #CommunityPatron

“ALL OF US ARE GOING TODIE, BUT NOT ALL OF US ARE GOING TO LIVE.” JON BOUCHE, FORMER CANDIDATE FOR COUNTY CHAIR OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY

COMMUNITYIMPACT.COMPATRON

“IT IS INTERESTING JUST HOWMANY PEOPLE ARE NERVOUS ANDVERY CAUTIOUS EVEN THOUGHWE TALKABIG TALK ABOUTWANTING TO BE FULLYOPEN. ” SHANNAN REID, DIRECTOR OF MONTGOMERY AREA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE

BUSINESS INNOVATION

7

Some Conroe-area residents protested restrictions in early May, but many business owners said they were not yet ready to open. (Photos by Andy Li/ Community Impact Newspaper)

FACES CHALLENGES IN TESTING Montgomery County

Years of ongoing litigation are cost- ing local entities millions of dollars, directly aecting the cost of water that is being passed onto consumers across the county. Depending on how lawsuits pan out, the San Jacinto River Author- ity—an entity that sells surface water from Lake Conroe to Conroe and other CONTINUED ON 18 Legal fees driving up water rates across Conroe,Montgomery BY EVA VIGH

E X P E N S E S To pay for its legal fees in its Groundwater Reduction Plan division, the San Jacinto River Authority has had to raise its water rates several times. The city of Conroe has also spent over $1 million on litigation related to water issues since 2015, but city ocials declined to comment on how this aects taxpayers.

HEALTH CARE

12

CORONAVIRUS COVERAGE

CITY OF CONROE A S O F M A R C H 1 6

SJRA A S O F M A R C H 3 1

All content in this print publication, both editorial and advertisements, was up to date as of press deadline. Due to the fast-changing nature of this event, editorial and advertising information may have changed. Please visit communityimpact.com and advertiser websites for more information. Thanks for your support.

spent on legal fees for SJRA lawsuit $527.7K

spent on Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District lawsuit $1.3M

spent on legal fees $1.5M

budget for FY 2020-21 for litigation fees $2M

SOURCES: SAN JACINTO RIVER AUTHORITY, CITY OF CONROECOMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER

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COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER • COMMUNITYIMPACT.COM

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CONROE - MONTGOMERY EDITION • MAY 2020

Jack Pieniazek, D.O. Family Medicine

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COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER • COMMUNITYIMPACT.COM

THIS ISSUE

CONTENTS

HIGHLIGHTS FROMTHISMONTH

FROMEVA: By the time this paper hits mailboxes, the Conroe and Montgomery area will be in Phase 2 of Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to reopen Texas. As of press time May 13, this means most businesses can open in some capacity. Some businesses in Montgomery County opened their doors ahead of—and in spite of—the governor’s order. Others chose to stay closed even after they were given the green light. Our front-page story examines how individuals in Conroe and Montgomery reacted to these orders and, perhaps more importantly, why they reacted that way.

PUBLISHERS AND FOUNDERS John and Jennifer Garrett PUBLISHERHOUSTONMETRO Jason Culpepper GENERAL MANAGER Chrissy Leggett, cleggett@communityimpact.com EDITORIAL

EXECUTIVE EDITOR Joe Lanane MANAGING EDITOR Matt Stephens EDITOR Eva Vigh REPORTER Andy Li COPY CHIEF Andy Comer COPY EDITORS Ben Dickerson, Kasey Salisbury STAFFWRITER Andrew Christman, Ben Thompson ADVERTISING SALES DIRECTOR Tess Coverman DESIGN CREATIVE DIRECTOR Derek Sullivan ART PRODUCTIONMANAGER Tessa Hoee SENIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER Kaitlin Schmidt STAFF DESIGNER Caitlin Whittington BUSINESS GROUP PUBLISHER Traci Rodriguez CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER Claire Love ABOUT US John and Jennifer Garrett began Community Impact Newspaper in 2005 in Pugerville, Texas. The company’s mission is to build communities of informed citizens and thriving businesses through the collaboration of a passionate team. CONTACT US 8400 N. Sam Houston Parkway W., Ste. 220 Houston, TX 77064 • 2814696181 communityimpact.com PRESS RELEASES comnews@communityimpact.com SUBSCRIPTIONS communityimpact.com/subscriptions © 2020 Community Impact Newspaper Co. All Rights Reserved. No reproduction of any portion of this issue is allowed without written permission from the publisher.

BUSINESS INNOVATION 7 Businesses pivot to repurpose services during outbreak TRANSPORTATION 8 EDUCATION 9 CRIMINAL JUSTICE 11 Texas criminal justice advocates call jails, prisons ‘epicenters’ of coronavirus HEALTH CARE 12 Montgomery County faces challenges in oering free coronavirus testing REAL ESTATE 13 Montgomery County residents raise concerns over property appraisals during coronavirus outbreak

But even as the coronavirus takes center stage in our lives, other issues are still at play. Pandemic or no pandemic, bills must be paid, which is why our other front-page story delves into how years of litigation have raised water rates. Page 13 focuses on rising appraisal values, and Page 9 looks at a local school district’s budget decit. We hope you nd these hyperlocal stories valuable and important. These stories are often multifaceted, and our mission is to tell them in a way that takes into account dierent viewpoints. We welcome your feedback and perspectives. Eva Vigh, EDITOR

THIS ISSUE BY THE NUMBERS

Local sources 42

Business innovations 7

Transportation updates 6

Brewery with outdoor seating 1

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“THANK YOU each and everyone for your care during this difficult time. We do appreciate all of your efforts to keep us safe and happy.” — David & Jo M., Residents, 4/20/20 It’s not like home. It is home.

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CONROE  MONTGOMERY EDITION • MAY 2020

WE NEED TO SUPPORT THE BEST GOOD CAUSE OF ALL: EACH OTHER.

Our city is famous for its Big Houston Heart. But right now, Houston is under attack. It’s a virus.

At St. Luke’s Health, we know who’s defending us – the city’s Healthcare teams, EMS, Police, Rescue Workers, and Fire Fighters. And what supports them? It’s our collective commitment to the basics: washing hands, practicing social distancing, and staying home. Simple. But critical. Because if we don’t take care of the frontline, who’s going to take care of us?

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COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER • COMMUNITYIMPACT.COM

BUSINESS INNOVATION

Local businesses owners adapt to coronavirus restrictions

Businesses pivot to repurpose services

S ome businesses in the Lake Conroe area have adapted their services to meet the needs of the community during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Switching to sanitizer During the outbreak, several businesses changed their oper- ations to make and donate hand sanitizer throughout Montgom- ery County. Bartletts Distillery partnered with Cleveland-based Mission Chemical in early April to provide liquid hand sanitizer to customers, distillery owner Van Bracken said. Bracken said he connected to Mission Chemical to package and sell the sanitizer. He said he is buying in bulk and packaging and selling gallon jugs. “[We started] because every- one’s been asking us for it,” Bracken said. “But we just have not been making the volume of alcohol in order to make a large quantity of hand sanitizer. ... Once I got in contact with this company, ... I’m [now] able to buy it from them and repackage it for every- one who’s been asking for it.” The distillery returned to normal operations April 19 and opened for limited seating May 1. After ceasing production, Bracken said he sold 530 gallons of sani- tizer to the public. Inkjet Inc. repurposed the chemicals it uses to create industrial inks to produce hand sanitizer for industrial supply corporations, hospitals and rst BY ANDY LI

From left: Joe, Fidan and Nick Haliti run Joe’s Italian Restaurant. (Courtesy Joe’s Italian Restaurant)

J oe’s Italian Restaurant owner Joe Haliti said he began donating meals to rst responders, health care and government workers after county restric- tions shut down the restaurant’s dine-in options in March. He said he wanted to help rst responders working long hours. “I can imagine it’s not that easy ghting an enemy that you cannot even see or hear it or know where it is,” Haliti said. The restaurant is serving more than 48 departments, including the police departments of Conroe and Shenandoah and the Montgomery County Hospital District. Haliti said he is serving about 180 rst responders every day. “Everybody’s been very appreciative,” Haliti said. “But when you consider what they do for the community ... this is nothing compared to what they do. It’s just a small gesture.” When news of his meal delivery spread, Haliti said food provider Gordon Food Service reached out to him and oered to partner with the restaurant and help mitigate some of the costs. With the partnership, Haliti said the restaurant has been able to fulll its orders and donations. 1604 N. Frazier St., Conroe 936-760-9002 www.joesitalianconroe.com Restaurant serves rst responders BY ANDY LI

Roberds Pharmacy began making hand sanitizer for local hospitals and rst responders in April. (Courtesy Van Tran)

responders, according to a March 31 news release. “Our facility has the capacity to produce large quantities of hand sanitizer, and we are eager to help during these challenging times,” Chair Patricia Quinlan said in the release. Roberds Pharmacy also made hand sanitizer, donating to local rst responders and hospitals, according to an email April 30. The hand sanitizer is available for purchase from the public. Gaming together Kate Looney, the event coordi- nator for The Adventure Begins Comics, Games & More, said although the physical store is shut down, employees have been using social media sites to remain connected to their customers. “They’re family. It’s more of a community than it is a job a lot of the times,” Looney said. Brian McMeans, co-owner of

Space Cadet Gaming Gaming, said his store projected losing sales during the outbreak but has actually seen a slight uptick in purchases as customers have shown their support. “We [attribute this] to cus- tomers wanting to help insulate us in the event of a full closure,” McMeans said. Looney said The Adventure Begins is hosting tournaments and games online as much as it can. She said many game publishers —such as Wizards of the Coast, the publisher behind Dungeons & Dragons—are partnering with local game stores to help support them during the outbreak, and some publishers are oering prot- sharing for stores. Through Facebook Live auctions and other streams, McMeans said the store is still nding outlets. McMeans said the store is also organizing tutorial livestreams for those less familiar with the games.

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CONROE  MONTGOMERY EDITION • MAY 2020

TRANSPORTATIONUPDATES

2432

WILLIS

COMPILED BY ANDY LI ONGOING PROJECTS 1 Longmire Road widening

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75

830

4

FARRELL RD.

3

As of early May, city ocials said contrac- tor Larry Young Paving was pouring the driveways and sidewalks of a project to widen and upgrade about 3 miles of road from two to four lanes. Timeline: May 2019-November 2020 Cost: $12 million

E. WALLY WILKERSON PKWY.

LAKE CONROE

1

CONROE PARK W. DR.

POLLOK DR.

Funding source: city of Conroe 2 Rehabilitating Westview and Montgomery Park boulevards

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3083

1484

105

MONTGOMERY PARK BLVD.

WESTVIEW BLVD.

In early May, work had begun to reha- bilitate about 3,000 feet of concrete curb and gutter along Westview and Montgomery boulevards. Ocials said contractor Precise Services had poured some of the foundation and roadway. The project also includes installing sidewalks. Timeline: Feb. 25-Sept. 12 Cost: $3.15 million

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ONGOING PROJECT

Funding source: city of Conroe 3 Conroe Industrial North Park roadway extension

Flashing yellow lights The city of Conroe will activate ashing yellow lights by the end of May at 26 planned locations at intersections throughout the city. Tommy Woolley, the director of capi- tal projects and transportation for the city, said the lights will help mitigate confusion for drivers making left turns. Timeline: January-May Cost: $798,207 Funding source: city of Conroe

Work began in April to replace existing asphalt pavement with a four-lane con- crete pavement to the Conroe Industrial North Park. The project will also build a four-lane roadway extension from Pollok Drive to Farrell Road. Timeline: April 2020-April 2021 Cost: $12.95 million Funding source: city of Conroe 4 FM 830 repair The Texas Department of Transporta- tion’s project to repair FM 830 between Hwy. 75 and Lake Conroe as well as repair road markings was 93% complete in May and expected to be complete in the spring, according to TxDOT. Timeline: June 2019-spring 2020 Cost: $2.48 million Funding source: TxDOT COMPLETED PROJECT 5 FM 3083 railroad separation The project to add an additional lane to FM 3083 at the Union Pacic Corp. railroad in each direction with shoulders and a continuous left-turn lane was substan- tially complete in mid-May. This project is funded in part by the Texas Mobility Fund, which was created in 2001 to nance statewide transportation projects. Timeline: July 2016-second quarter 2020 Cost: $13.5 million Funding sources: Texas Mobility Fund, city of Conroe

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COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER • COMMUNITYIMPACT.COM

EDUCATION Montgomery ISD could face estimated $2.8Mbudget shortfall

BY EVA VIGH

$61.7 million in property taxes and about $10.9 million from the state. As for expenses, the district has spent $58.86 million of its original budgeted $77.16 million in FY 2019-20 as of April 30. “The expenditures are trailing that budgeted number; there’s been a lot of change in operations here over the last month and a half, so that has definitely helped keep those expenditures down,” Lynn said. Although FY 2019-20 expenditures were bud- geted at about $77 million, next year’s estimated expenditures are about $1 million more, he said. Most of the increase comes from added expenses for campus allocations, Lynn said. Lynn said since about 80% of the district’s budget accounts for salaries and benefits, the district should look for ways to reduce costs by not filling open positions and carefully planning raises. As of May 12, officials said salary increases had not been proposed. At the MISD board of trustees meeting April 28, the board approved a $500, one-time stipend for 675 employees in a 5-2 vote—a total of $337,500. The stipend will come from the district’s fund balance. Lynn said the district may have to make tough decisions, depending on what it decides to set for

Kris Lynn, who became Montgomery ISD’s new chief financial officer April 1, said he was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming the MISD community has been to him, but he said he does have one concern. “If there is a cloud forming in the distance in the otherwise sunny skies of MISD, it might be the bud- get,” he said at a May 5 board of trustees meeting. MISD could face a $2.8 million budget shortfall next fiscal year, Lynn said. However, this would be an improvement from fiscal year 2019-20’s deficit of about $4 million, he said. Having a budget deficit for multiple years can prevent districts from offering competitive salaries and lead to a loss of employees, Lynn said. The next budget workshop is June 1. Information about the proposed tax rate was not immediately available from the district. As of April 30, the district’s revenue for FY 2019-20 totaled $71.24 million, including nearly $59 million in property tax revenue and about $9.6 million from the state alongside $2.64 million from other sources. The adopted general fund for FY 2019-20 was $72.78 million. For FY 2020-21, the tentative proposed general fund revenue is $75.37 million, with an estimated

Montgomery ISD is on track to have less of a deficit in fiscal year 2020-21

than it did in FY 2019-20.

FY 2019-20

FY 2020-21*

$4M $72.78M

$75.37M $78M $75.37M $2.8M Property taxes

DEFICIT

GENERAL FUND

$77M

EXPENDITURES

$71.24M Property taxes

REVENUE

INCLUDING

$59M

$61.7M

From the state

From the state

*ESTIMATED SOURCE: MONTGOMERY ISD/COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER

$9.6M

$10.9M

Other sources

Other sources

$2.64M

$2.77M

its FY 2020-21 budget goal. “We’ve looked at what some other districts have done as well in terms of providing some type of assistance to instructional staff to offset some of the cost of setting up home classrooms,” Superintendent Beau Rees said.

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CONROE - MONTGOMERY EDITION • MAY 2020

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COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER • COMMUNITYIMPACT.COM

CRIMINAL JUSTICE Texas criminal justice advocates call jails, prisons ‘epicenters’ of coronavirus asmore than 3,000 inmates, sta test positive

CORONAVIRUS BEHIND BARS

COVID-19 has spread across Texas jails and prisons.

COUNTY JAILS STATEWIDE As of May 11

OFFENDERS

BY EVA VIGH

active cases

involving physical violence. “Such releases ... would not only gravely threaten public safety, but would also hinder eorts to cope with the COVID-19 disaster,” the order states. On April 19—one month after Abbott declared a statewide health emergency—Harris County Jail had 201 coronavirus cases, a jump from the two conrmed cases March 2, according to the TCJC. About 27 out of every 1,000 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus in the Harris County Jail compared to 1 out of every 1,000 Harris County residents overall and 15.9 of every 1,000 residents in New York City, according to the TCJC. The Harris County Sheri’s Oce did not return requests for comment. MontgomeryCounty initiatives On April 3, the rst inmate in the Montgomery County Jail tested positive for the coronavirus. Following the rst diagnosis, all jail sta and inmates have been required to wear masks, accord- ing to the sheri’s oce. Other eorts from the county jail to limit exposure include temperature and symptom screenings and quaran- tining new inmates for 14 days before being placed in the general population, according to the sheri’s oce. The sheri’s oce did not return requests for comment on how long masks are expected to last inmates and if there are any concerns of mask shortages.

“He has growing ulcers in his stomach,” she said in an email, adding she is worried about condi- tions in the facility and the spread of disease. According to GeoGroup, the pri- vate prison company that operates Joe Corley, all of its facilities are adequately supplied with clean water and soap, access to health- care and have issued a variety of new coronavirus-related protocols. Releaseof oenders Overall, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards reported a reduction of about 10,000 oenders fromMarch 1 to April 1 across the state’s 241 county jails, from 68,307 to 58,254. Harris County dropped from 9,050 to 7,859, while Montgomery County dropped from 955 to 623. Advocates of “compassionate release,” such as Jay Jenkins, Harris County project attorney for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said there is no eective way to social distance in jails and prisons. “In a pandemic, a jail is one of the most dangerous places to be,” he said, adding he is worried the Harris County Jail might become an “epicenter” of spread. But pushback has come from ocials who cite public safety concerns of releasing oenders on no-cost bail. On March 30, Gov. Greg Abbott released an order prohibiting the release of individuals in custody with a history of oenses

Statewide, coronavirus numbers in jails and prisons across Texas have continued to rise since the outbreak was rst reported in early spring, including in the Montgomery County Jail. As of May 11, 1,248 oenders in county jails statewide had active conrmed cases, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Among sta, 335 jailers had active positive results. There was one suspected and one conrmed death related to COVID-19 across Texas jails, according to TCJS. As of May 11, there were four inmates in the Montgomery County Jail with active positive test conr- mations, according to TCJS. As of May 3, a total of 413 Texas Department of Criminal Justice employees, sta or contractors had tested positive for COVID-19 across state prisons, and 1,151 oenders had tested positive, according to TDCJ. A total of 56 employees and 212 oenders had medically recovered, TDCJ said. Meanwhile, coronavirus has also spread in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, including the Joe Corley Detention Center in Conroe. As of May 11, there were 25 posi- tive coronavirus cases in Joe Corley, according to ICE. Nationwide, there have been 788 conrmed cases among ICE detainees as of May 11. Tina Chavez, the wife of a detainee in Joe Corley, said she is concerned for her husband’s weakened health.

pending test results

JAIL STAFF

active cases

deaths related to COVID-19, 1 suspected, 1 conrmed

PRISONS STATEWIDE As of May 3

OFFENDERS

positive cases

recovered

EMPLOYEES

tested positive

recovered

DROP INPOPULATION Jail populations across the state have dropped partially in response to eorts to curb coronavirus spread. 10K

8K 6K 4K 2K 0

9,050

7,859

2,218

1,638

MONTGOMERY COUNTY

955

623

March 1

April 1

SOURCES: TEXAS COMMISSION ON JAIL STANDARDS, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER

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CONROE  MONTGOMERY EDITION • MAY 2020

HEALTH CARE MontgomeryCounty faces challenges in oering free coronavirus testing

TRACKING COVID19 Testing in Montgomery County could increase as additional resources became available in May, ocials said. Increasing access Free coronavirus testing was not available in Montgomery County in the early weeks of the outbreak.

BY ANDREW CHRISTMAN, ANDY LI & EVA VIGH

Conroe and America’s ER at Woods Edge Community Church, located at 25333 Gosling Road in Spring were scheduled to begin accepting vouchers May 13, according to the county public health and hospital districts. The program is open for all symptomatic and asymptomatic residents, although only America’s ER will accept vouchers from those without symptoms, ocials said. Residents will be limited to one voucher each, and tests will be avail- able while supplies last, according to the health department. Residents can register for a single swab test voucher by calling the county’s COVID-19 call center at 936-523-5040 on weekdays between 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Once residents receive their results, the county will reimburse the cost of the test, Johnson said. The testing program was approved by hospital district board members at a cost of up to $314,000, funded through a $336,000 stimulus grant received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The cost covers 6,120 tests at a cost of $51.31 each. “I think [increased availability is] really going to be a big help in lling some more of the requests that we’ve gotten from local health departments or local governments that want to really step up the test- ing ... and then we’re expecting addi- tional shipments in the future,” said Chris Van Deusen, director of media relations for the Texas Department of State Health Services. Strategies emerge Before the new tests were made available, Willingham said the closest free testing site for Montgomery County residents was in Butler Sta- dium in southwest Houston, operated by the city of Houston. In addition to the city-led site, Harris County runs two drive-thru testing sites, which are free to anyone in the general public experiencing symptoms. In mid-May, although Montgomery County had more than 720 con- rmed cases, those did not include suspected cases that had not been

As coronavirus cases emerged in Texas this spring, Montgomery County lacked free COVID-19 site testing for those without insurance, but on April 28 ocials approved distributing about 12,000 free nasal swab tests through local sites for symptomatic residents beginning May 13. Ideally, there should be a free coronavirus testing center in every quadrant of the county, said Misti Willingham, the public information ocer for the Montgomery County Public Health District. As of May 12, 724 residents had tested positive for the virus in Montgomery County. However, due to limited resources, Montgomery County—which has a population of more than 600,000, according to July 2019 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau—had previ- ously been unable to secure enough testing kits to launch a free testing site due to limited supplies and a backlog on orders for testing kits. “Even though we have paid for them ... all of this activity is creating such a backlog ... that we’re still wait- ing and they get put o,” Montgom- ery County Judge Mark Keough said. Testing availability The tests became available when the public health district voted April 28 to use grant funds to obtain 6,120 tests for symptomatic residents for use at two sites through a voucher system. At Montgomery County Hospital District’s April 28 teleconference meeting, CEO Randy Johnson said an additional 6,120 nasal tests will be made available at the free testing sites for both symptomatic and asymptomatic county residents, bringing the total to more than 12,000. He said the testing initiative was developed after the county experienced diculty acquiring its own stock of nasal coronavirus tests. “We haven’t been able to get any tests. ... All this stu about, ‘There’s tests everywhere,’ that ain’t true. I’ve checked everywhere,” he said. Lone Star Family Health Center at 605 S. Conroe Medical Drive in

tests conducted in Montgomery County, or 1 per 69 residents *

cases reported in Texas*

41,048

8,815

538,172 tests administered*

607,391 Montgomery County residents

MAY 13

Free testing in Montgomery County with a voucher began

SOURCE: TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF STATE HEALTH SERVICESCOMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER *AS OF MAY 12

What to expect during testing Coronavirus testing is conducted with a self-administered nasal swab test. Here is what patients can generally expect when visiting a testing site.

2

3 The sample is placed in a refrigerated container.

The soft end of the swab is

inserted into a tube and returned to the health care professional.

1 The swab is inserted midway into one nostril, rotated twice and held it in place for 15 seconds. The process is then repeated in the second nostril.

4

The amount of time it will take to get a result varies based on location.

MONTGOMERY COUNTY RESIDENTS CAN CALL 9365235040 ON WEEKDAYS BETWEEN 8 A.M.4:30 P.M. TO REGISTER FOR A SINGLE SWAB TEST VOUCHER.

SOURCE: HOUSTON HEALTH DEPARTMENTCOMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER

conrmed by testing. Although Montgomery County announced the planned free testing sites in late April, numerous private entities have also opened testing sites in the county, including several drive- thru sites. America’s ER opened the county’s rst drive-thru testing site at Stonebridge Church in The Woodlands on April 4, and Lone Star Clinic Family Clinic in Conroe opened its drive-up testing clinic April 13. Mobile testing sites have also been available at several locations through

the DSHS and are updated on its website at www.txcovidtest.org. Willingham said the new swab tests will help to track coronavirus numbers more accurately, but she said she could not predict how many tests will be needed in the county. “We are hoping these tests provide some comfort to residents who need to be tested, and hopefully it will shed some light on the real impact of COVID-19 in our county,” she said. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY BEN THOMPSON

12

COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER • COMMUNITYIMPACT.COM

REAL ESTATE Montgomery County residents raise concerns over property appraisals

CHANGING VALUES The Montgomery Central Appraisal District assesses the value of property throughout the county every year. These assessments determine how much property owners must pay in taxes.

2020 VALUE

% CHANGE 2015-20

$500k

WOODLANDS TOWNSHIP

BY ANDY LI

did not issue a stay-at-home order until March 27, Vonas said the effect of the coronavirus outbreak was felt as early as January and should be reflected in the appraised value. Conroe resident Ralph Finnegan said his land value also increased in the last year from $11,110 in 2019 to $38,890 in 2020. Although several taxing entities, such as Conroe ISD, are considering lowering their tax rates for the 2020-21 tax year, Finnegan said a lowered rate does not mean lower taxes if the property values go up. Vonas said the outbreak also affected residents’ ability to pro- test their valuation. Because the appraisal district’s office is closed, residents had to protest over the phone or online, which he said hinders the conversation. State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, said the apprais- als hurt small businesses. “I haven’t heard a single person on the appraisal district board call on the governor to say, ‘Gov. Abbott, would you please let us use last year’s appraisal values?’” Toth said. “They haven’t done it. They don’t care. This is government at its worst.” Toth said he believes residents should push Abbott to allow districts to use 2019 appraisals for properties that increased in value in 2020. In mid-April, Toth said he and other elected officials are in conver- sation with Abbott on the issue. “[The appraisal district] should be absolutely standing up as leaders in

4%

$444,944

The Montgomery Central Appraisal District has sent out notices of appraised value for the 2020-21 tax year, and residents are criticizing the increase in values during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. Although Montgomery County Chief Appraiser Tony Belinoski said his office has not seen a dramatic increase in appraised value protests as compared to previous years, several residents said in late April they planned to protest the new values. The deadline to file a protest is 30 days after notices were mailed, or May 15—two days after press time. “The amount of money I’ve had to pay every year since I purchased the land and house I own has been too high from the beginning. And for them to raise the amount I have to pay every year is insane, to say the least,” Montgomery resident Michael Jordan said. Resident concerns Conroe resident Nick Vonas said his appraised home value dramat- ically increased in the last year. According to the MCAD’s website, Vonas’ home increased in value by about 6%, from $445,000 in 2019 to $471,810 in 2020. “I’ve never resisted paying my fair share, but in my view, this round of assessments, in the light of the hardships many residents are facing, is a thinly veiled money grab,” Vonas said in an email. Although Montgomery County

$400k

MONTGOMERY COUNTY

$297,640

17%

CITY OF MONTGOMERY

$300k

$268,638

29%

CITY OF CONROE

$242,970

23%

$200k

CITY OF MAGNOLIA

$188,243

28%

PORTER MUD

$100k

$174,096

24%

NEW CANEY MUD

$95,766

73%

$0

SOURCE: MONTGOMERY CENTRAL APPRAISAL DISTRICT/COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020

our community and demanding the governor goes back and comes back with a plan that does not raise taxes on small businesses,” Toth said. Legislative action needed Belinoski said the appraisal district is required to assign values to the property based on the state of the property as of Jan. 1. He said without legislative approval, the dis- trict cannot deviate from that date to take into account the coronavirus outbreak. However, any long-term effects still present in 2021 will be taken into account, he said. “We understand the hardships that property owners are going through,” Belinoski said. He said the appraisal district has been in communication with state entities, such as the comptroller’s office, Gov. Abbott’s office and other appraisal districts, to find ways to

ease the burden on property owners. However, Belinoski said all of those conversations pointed to legislative action as the solution. Although part of the appraisal process is determining the value of improvements, Belinoski said improvements do not reflect addi- tions to a property or structure but rather changes in market values and sales transactions for a structure. Belinoski said while there may be more frustration because of the tim- ing and the coronavirus outbreak, he encouraged residents to apply to protest their appraisal if they are not satisfied. “With the coronavirus impact hitting a lot of the property owners and taxpayers in Montgomery County that have been laid off or are not working, it’s just bad timing,” Belinoski said. “But this is the time of year we are required to do this.”

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CONROE - MONTGOMERY EDITION • MAY 2020

BUSINESS

Breweries adapt to coronavirus regulations

Southern Star Brewing Co. opened for outdoor seating in early May. (Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)

Industry changes Charles Vallhonrat, executive director of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, said in the short term, the industry has had to make some rapid changes to adapt. “We have seen people that typ- ically didn’t package beer ... are looking at their options or have quickly added things like they are bottling beer by hand or working a mobile canner to get beer canned,” he said. However, Vallhonrat said he believes all breweries will be closely examining their business models and possibly looking for ways to diversify even after coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

BY ANDY LI & EVA VIGH

“Craft beer had about 10% of the beer market share before all this hap- pened and in the last three weeks, they’ve dropped to about 2.5% of the market share,” Fougeron said. However, Fougeron said there has been a strong uptick in to-go orders during the outbreak. When businesses rst partially reopened, Fourgeron said the brewery opened for outdoor seating May 1 because it is much easier to social distance outside. As the county slowly returns to normal, he said the Conroe community is looking for its relationships again. “People are ready to get back to some semblance of normal I think,” Fourgeron said.

However, Abbott currently allows for alcohol to-go sales, a move that extended past the May 1 reopening of Texan businesses and may go on “forever,” according to Abbott. Socially distanced drinks Dave Fougeron, the president of Conroe’s Southern Star Brewing Co., said business drastically changed following the beginning of the outbreak. He said he closed the brewery’s outdoor beer garden and taproom quickly, which contribute to about 15% of the company’s revenue. In addition, Fougeron said sales in craft beer, which make up almost all of the rest of his business, dropped to almost nothing.

A survey in late March from the Brewers Association, a nationwide nonprot trade group beneting craft beer producers, found 98.9% of brew- eries across the U.S. have had their businesses aected by the outbreak of the coronavirus. Respondents reported an average loss of 58.9% of revenue, according to the survey. One-quarter of brewers said they have stopped production altogether. The Texas Craft Brewers Guild, a statewide advocacy group, sent a petition with 15,000 signatures to Gov. Greg Abbott, urging the state to temporarily relax laws prohibiting breweries from delivering and ship- ping beer and other measures.

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14

COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER • COMMUNITYIMPACT.COM

CITY& COUNTY

News from Conroe & Montgomery

City of Conroe sales tax revenue fromMarch drops compared to 2019

MAY SALES TAX REVENUE The city of Conroe saw a decrease in the amount of sales tax revenue from March that it will collect in May compared to 2019, but Montgomery’s and Willis’ revenues increased.

BY EVA VIGH

about $315,100 in sales tax revenue in May, which is an 11.32% increase from May 2019. According to the comp- troller, Montgomery has collected $846,429 this fiscal year, compared to $1.03 million in the same time period last year, which is a 17.95% decrease. “That is much less of a reduction than I was expecting from the quarter before, and I was not expecting an actual rise one year year-to-date,” City Administrator Richard Tramm said at a May 12 city council meeting. The city of Willis will collect 7.8% more in May than it did in May 2019— $358,939 compared to $332,954, according to the Texas comptroller. In this fiscal year to date, it has collected $1.42 million compared to last year’s $1.17 million in the same time frame.

would be $34.73 million. In an April 23 City Council meeting, Conroe Assistant Director of Finance Collin Boothe said better-than-ex- pected sales tax revenue for the first half of FY 2019-20 has cushioned most of the blow coronavirus could have on year-end numbers. So far, the city has collected about $21 million, according to data from the Texas comptroller. This is a 3.8% growth from last year in the same time frame. “Where it’s really going to hurt us is we start talking about next year’s budget is looking at next year’s sales tax number,” Boothe said. For FY 2020-21, the city could see a loss of $1.5 million, Boothe said. The city of Montgomery will collect

CONROE Data released by the Texas comptroller of public accounts May 6 reflects the sales tax revenue the cit- ies of Conroe, Montgomery and Willis will collect from sales in March, when coronavirus-related social distancing guidelines and business restrictions were put in place. The city of Conroe will collect $4.4 million in sales tax revenue in May, a 2.9% drop compared to what the city collected in May 2019, which was about $4.6 million, according to the Texas comptroller. The city of Conroe budgeted $35.04 million in projected sales tax revenue for fiscal year 2019-20, which began in October, but city officials estimated the actual total

2020 2019

CONROE $4.6M $4.4M

2.9%

$283,050 MONTGOMERY

11.32%

$315,100

$332,954 WILLIS

7.8%

$358,939

SOURCE: TEXAS COMPTROLLER OF PUBLIC ACCOUNTS/COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER

Montgomery City Council member to resign following budget debate

the full scope of the pandemic’s effects. “When we’re looking at how much our revenues are going to contract and what our cuts are going to have to be, I think we need to look at it in totality,” Huss said. The clash came to a head when the council voted to appoint Kevin Lacy to the seat left vacant by former Coun- cil Member John Bickford’s retirement. McCorquodale said Lacy is the only candidate running unopposed for the elections, which have been moved to November. Champagne suggested appointing an individual to Bick- ford’s seat selected by the council. After that, Champagne would resign, and Lacy could be appointed to Champagne’s seat, which is the seat he is running for in November. Huss said the council members are elected at large, not representing any specific area of the city, so there is no benefit to trying to get Lacy into Champagne’s seat. “Whether you leave or whether you stay, I think having him be around with people who have more experience is better,” Huss said. The council approved Lacy’s appointment 3-1 with Champagne voting against it.

Meetings may be held by video conference. Montgomery County Commissioners Court meets at 9:30 a.m. May 26 at 501 N. Thompson, Ste. 402, Conroe. www.mctx.org. Conroe City Council meets at 9:30 a.m. June 11 at 300 W. Davis St., Conroe. 936-522-3010. www.cityofconroe.org. Montgomery City Council meets at 6 p.m. May 26 and June 9 at 101 Old Plantersville Road, Montgomery. 936-597-6434. www.montgomerytexas.gov/ citycouncil. Willis City Council meets at 5:30 p.m. June 16 at 200 N. Bell St., Willis. 936-856-4611. www.ci.willis.tx.us. MEETINGSWE COVER

BY ANDY LI

WHEN You ORDER Online or on OUR Mobile app before 5pm * Delivered Same day Liquor &Wine MONTGOMERY In a meeting April 28 that ended in a statement of his intention to resign, Montgomery City Council Member John Champagne clashed with Mayor Sara Countryman and Council Member Rebecca Huss over the city’s budgetary response to the coronavirus outbreak. The conflict began when Assistant City Administrator Dave McCorquodale asked the council whether the city should move forward with a partnership with Montgomery County Precinct 1 to repave several streets. McCorquodale said City Administrator Richard Tramm, who was absent, was planning on waiting until the long-term effects of the pandemic on the budget are clear. Champagne said he believed any essential work already approved and in the budget should be done. Huss dis- agreed, saying Tramm’s strategy would allow them to see

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15

CONROE - MONTGOMERY EDITION • MAY 2020

UNEMPLOYMENT UPSWING Nationwide, the coronavirus outbreak has left millions of people without jobs. The Texas Workforce Commission has released specialized data for unemployment claims during the outbreak from March 25 to April 25. The Texas Workforce Commission collects and reports unemployment insurance claims by weeks. ALL DATA IS ACCURATE AS OF PRESS TIME. SOURCES: TEXAS WORKFORCE COMMISSION, 2018 AMERICAN COMMUNITY SURVEY 5YEAR ESTIMATESCOMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER

be fully open,” Reid said. “They are curious about safety measures that businesses are taking.” Safe service On May 5, Abbott announced barbershops and salons were allowed to open May 8, and gyms were expected to be permitted to open May 18, after press time. Restaurants were potentially allowed to expand from 25% capacity to 50% capacity by May 18 as well. “No one is being required to open up,” Abbott said at a May 5 press conference. “Every owner of every salon should use their own best judgment about when it is going to be best for them to safely reopen.” Marisa Philipello, the owner of Phil’s Roadhouse in Montgomery, has been oering to-go and deliv- ery services throughout the closure. However, Philipello said she would not reopen to 25% capac- ity because a quarter of her usual 130-people capac- ity is simply not enough to warrant bringing her sta back on-site. “For the safety of the sta ... and the safety of our customers, we want to wait,” Philipello said. Even though the nancial pressure for both her- self and her employees is growing, Philipello said she wants to see how other businesses handle opening. One of those businesses is the Southern Star Brewing Co. in Conroe. Dave Fougeron, the brew- ery’s president, said he will not open the indoor taproom but used the 13.5 acres the brewery sits on to eectively social distance customers. “A taproom … has traditionally provided a place for people to sit and relax and hang out with each other and a sense of community especially,” Fougeron said. “So we’re anxious to open back.” Brandon Pollock, the owner of Plus-Forty- Fitness in Conroe, said he was frustrated his gym was closed at all. He said as a private gym, he only works with one guest at a time. “I’m pretty frustrated by the whole thing and ready to work,” Pollock said. “I’ve advertised for years that I am the cleanest facility in Conroe. … So we’re ready to go right now.” Although he has received some support through the Payroll Protection Program and Small Business Administration loans—components of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act—Pollock said the loss of income from the clo- sure has been signicant. Montgomery County Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack said at a May 12 Commissioners Court meeting he felt the 25% capacity rule was not su- cient for most businesses to justify opening. “Most restaurants can’t aord to operate on 25% capacity,” he said. “Some of the rules that go along with opening are so arduous that it makes it not even worth it.” Government grievances When Abbott initially ordered restaurants could open at 25% occupancy May 1, Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough said in an April 28 Commis- sioners Court meeting that he interpreted Abbott’s order as meaning all businesses may open May 1, but individuals should use their discretion on visit- ing salons, gyms and other nonessential businesses.

MONTGOMERY COUNTY UNEMPLOYMENT

MARCH 21APRIL 25 2019:

MARCH 25APRIL 25 2020:

UNEMPLOYMENT CLAIMS FROM MARCH 25APRIL 25

WORKFORCE POPULATION 15,001+ people

77318 590 claims

77536 933 claims

10,001-15,000 people 5,000-10,000 people

45

77303 695 claims

1097

77304 1,410 claims

105

149

77301 1,187 claims

77306 408 claims

105

77316 897 claims

336

1485

45

1314

MAP NOT TO SCALE N

77302 677 claims

CONTINUED FROM 1

These restrictions have led to widespread unemployment across the state. According to the Texas Workforce Com- mission, 1.04 million people

led unemployment insurance claims between March 25 and April 25. In the Conroe and Montgom- ery area, there were 6,857 unemployment insurance claimants, which accounts for roughly 7.2% of the area’s total workforce. Local reactions to Abbott’s orders were mixed. Some Montgomery County businesses have hesi- tated to open for customers, while other residents and county ocials have pushed for opening the county even ahead of Abbott’s orders. Shannan Reid, the director of the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, said she has been urg- ing businesses that are opening to go through certain steps toensure the safetyof their staand customers. “On the community front, it is interesting just how many people are nervous and very cautious even though we talk a big talk about wanting to

16

COMMUNITY IMPACT NEWSPAPER • COMMUNITYIMPACT.COM

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