Small communities affected by Harvey need our attention

Cecilia Gutierrez looked for clothes she could salvage from her mobile home which was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Harvey. (RESHMA KIRPALANI / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The nation – perhaps the world – is aware of the devastation Hurricane Harvey caused in Texas. Many know of Houston’s ongoing struggle to recover. Forgotten are the smaller towns along the coast and beyond that are also hurting from the destruction caused by Harvey.

The saga of how small towns have been overlooked has been the focus of an American-Statesman two-part series that concludes Sunday. Reporters Sean Collins Walsh and Jeremy Schwartz found that recovery efforts are nearly non-existent in areas receiving little to no attention from state and federal officials.

Experts in disaster recovery say it’s common for small communities to struggle to compete for state and federal relief funds.

For that reason, small communities should lobby their state representatives to urge Gov. Greg Abbott to tap into the state’s $10 billion savings account, the Economic Stabilization Fund (the official name of the Rainy Day Fund), for their recovery efforts.

Places like La Grange, with its population of 4,690, are in dire need of help. There, a wall of water made its way down the Colorado River, cresting at 54.2 feet and displacing more than 100 residents. In Columbus, population 3,625, an entire neighborhood experienced severe flooding, displacing most residents. In these and other smaller communities, natural disasters often affect a greater percentage of the population than they do in big cities, making it more difficult to get back to normal, Walsh reported.

Governments in small cities often lack the manpower or expertise to handle what promises to be years of seeking grants and recovery funds from the federal government. Unincorporated areas — where residents do not pay city taxes that provide services like street repairs, sewer maintenance and other social services — are at a higher risk of being overlooked when resources are distributed because they have no officials, like a mayor, advocating for them.

Shannon Van Zandt, a Texas A&M professor who has studied disaster responses, said such “nonentitlement jurisdictions,” must instead look to funds distributed by the county or local council of governments and “compete for what recovery money is left over from the entitlement jurisdictions and hope that it funnels some money their way.”

The choice to request relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a difficult decision for some small communities, like Seadrift City, which has a population of just over 1,500. FEMA requires a 10- to 25-percent match paid upfront from the requesting city, an amount not readily accessible to the town, Schwartz reports.

This brings us back to the Rainy Day Fund.

Experts, state officials and local leaders in affected areas have requested that Texas dip into the fund to help recovery efforts. Abbott rejected such a request made on Monday by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Now was not the time, Abbott said of Turner’s request. The state, Abbott said, will eventually tap into the Rainy Day Fund to help cover hurricane-related costs. But that won’t happen anytime soon — not until the next legislative session, which starts in January 2019.

That may not seem very promising. But small communities shouldn’t be discouraged by Abbott’s response, said Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp.

“One of the things that Abbott really seriously wanted was for us to pay special attention to the smaller areas and least populated areas, and make sure none of those were overlooked,” said Sharp, who was tapped by Abbott to lead the hurricane recovery effort in Texas. “I’m from probably the second-smallest town in the whole impacted area, so I’m really sensitive to that kind of thing.”

If true, that could be mean good news for folks in La Grange, Columbus, Bayside and other hard-hit small communities. It will be up to the people in those small communities to keep up the pressure and ensure they aren’t overlooked. It’s up to Texans to ensure these small communities know they aren’t forgotten.

Lack of offensive content can’t be the only measure for newly proposed Mexican-American textbook

In 2016, Texas State Board of Education member Ruben Cortez, Jr. speaks out against the error-prone Mexican-American Heritage textbook voted down.
RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

After rejecting a proposed Mexican American studies textbook that critics blasted as a racist portrayal of Latinos, members of the Texas State Board of Education have two months to review another book. If adopted in November, the new book will be added to a list of recommended textbooks available for use by Texas students next school year.

On Wednesday, the board was presented with the latest proposal, “The Mexican American Studies Toolkit,” written by Tony Diaz, a Mexican-American studies professor at Lone Star College and a Houston-area activist.

Diaz’s book, which was written in less than a year, is the second Mexican American studies textbook the board has considered since last September. Board members should proceed carefully with their review given how quickly the project was produced. Most academic textbooks take more than a year to write — sometimes longer — experts say. Last November, board members rejected another textbook that critics said was an error-riddled racist portrayal of Mexican Americans.

Last year, about 100 people filled the Texas State Board of Education meeting room to protest “Mexican American Heritage,” which referred to Mexicans as “lazy” and contained about 140 factual errors, according to Mexican American history experts.

“The Mexican American Studies Toolkit,” focuses on identity, race, culture and political issues facing Mexican Americans today.

In its preface, Diaz writes:

“Most media outlets can provide short answers to deep questions but there are not enough places where we can engage in deep discussion about identity, race, culture and other issues that not only influence one group of Americans but all of us. … This book is part of the answer.”

Diaz also writes that the book is intended to “dispel the illusion that Mexican American history and culture is foreign.”

Board Chairwoman Donna Bahorich, R-Houston, and Vice Chairman Marty Rowley, R-Amarillo, said they are optimistic they can adopt Diaz’s book in November, but the board still needs to ensure that the contents are error free and meet state requirements, the American-Statesman reported.

That’s encouraging. But the board should also ensure that the book shines a light on how the inspiring achievements of Mexican Americans are woven into the fabric of American history. That’s what experts and the Mexican American community expect. Board members should give serious consideration to feedback from those who have reviewed the book. When Diaz presented the book last week, he was the only person to comment on the book before the Texas School Board of Education.

A Mexican-American studies professor, Diaz has credentials to create a worthy book for Texas students.

“I haven’t seen anything or heard from anybody that leads me to think there is an area of concern. That’s good news,” board secretary Ruben Cortez, D-Brownsville, said Wednesday. Cortez was among many who were critical of the first proposed textbook.

That Diaz’s book has not produced any serious reasons for objection may be a good sign.

Texas students deserve an honest and complete representation of the role Mexican Americans have had in shaping our state and nation. Here’s hoping Diaz has delivered on what his book promises.

Big or small, efforts to help Harvey victims need accountability

The University of Houston Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, led by the football team and head coach Major Applewhite, held a Hurricane Harvey collection day.
(RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

It didn’t take long after the first images appeared of the destruction Hurricane Harvey caused for Texans to help those in need.

Good-hearted Americans quickly dug into their pockets and donated as much as they could. The options for donors have been plenty: from long-standing non-profits known for their relief work like the American Red Cross to new fund-raisers that popped up instantly and organically, like Houston Texans star J.J. Watt’s online efforts to raise money for the victims. The message to all donors is the same: No matter how small or large your donation, demand accountability from the organizations entrusted with your money to help those in need.

Accountability leads to trust. And trust encourages Americans’ willingness to give, especially after horrific disasters like the devastation experienced in Houston.

Hurricane Harvey killed 82 people and is estimated to have caused up to $160 billion in damage, impacting more than 100,000 homes and making it one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. President Trump has approved $15 billion in disaster aid for victims.

The will to help was so overwhelming that non-profit organizations working closely with Houston disaster relief efforts stopped accepting non-monetary donations for a host of reasons, including that they lacked space to store donated items and they couldn’t distribute food with short shelf lives fast enough.

Texans and anyone else wanting to help were asked to donate money to their favorite organizations with troops on the ground along the Texas Gulf Coast.

The response was impressive.

More than 50 local and national charities have raised over $350 million in the nearly three weeks since Hurricane Harvey struck, the Associated Press reported.

Non-profit organizations consider monetary donations practical. To start, money under the watchful eye of trustworthy organizations can be easily tracked, lending a degree of transparency. Non-profits are required to keep a record of how each dollar is spent.

Through monetary donations, organizations also can better determine how much they can spend to meet the immediate needs of victims and how much to put in reserve to help later with needs that emerge as victims begin to put their lives back together, Monica Maldonado Williams, the founder and editor of GivingCity Austin, told me recently. Long-standing organizations like the Red Cross, Maldonado Williams said, have the resources — though limited — and the experience to get the job done.

In recent years, however, news reports have led to a distrust of some large charities like the American Red Cross. The reports have cited the Red Cross’ slow and lacking response in its relief efforts, including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy and the Haiti earthquake. As a result, wanting to make sure that their money is well spent, many donors choose to give to smaller, local organizations.

Consider Watt’s online fundraiser: More than 200,000 people answered Watt’s social media call to raise money for Harvey victims. Watt initially set a goal of raising $200,000, but increased that amount incrementally as more and more people gave to the crowdfunding account he created on YouCaring.com.

Just hours before the site’s 5 p.m. deadline on Friday, donors had given nearly $35 million. Major corporations, athletes and celebrities made sizable donations. They included H-E-B ($5 million), the Houston Texans ($1 million), Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon ($1 million) and Rapper/songwriter Drake ($200,000), to name a few.

But it was the smaller donations — most under $100 — by thousands of people that drove the fundraiser’s success, Watt said.

Still, most of the money raised for Harvey relief has gone to the Red Cross, which has collected at least $211 million, according to the Associated Press. A Texas Department of Public Safety report showed that the Red Cross has already disbursed $46.4 million to 116,000 people, the Washington Post reported.

People want to feel that what they give will help those they see hurting, Maldonado Williams said. Even if the efforts are being led by a charismatic, well-respected celebrity, Texans need to ask the same questions they’d ask of larger charities, she said.

It is important for Texans and beyond to do their homework before they blindly donate. After all, disasters don’t just bring out the best in us, they also bring out the worst in those who exploit the misfortunes of others. For that reason, we should demand accountability from all organizations claiming to help victims.

How will the money be distributed? Does the organization have the infrastructure needed to get as many volunteers out to as many victims who need help? When will the money be distributed? How will the money be tracked?

These are some of the questions Maldonado Williams said should be asked of any charity organization.

She’s right.

As of Friday, Watt had yet to disclose a long-term plan for the nearly $35 million he helped raise.

Houston Texans communications director Amy Palcic told the Houston Press that a thorough plan with information on how people can apply for funds and how the money will be used, will be released soon. No date was specified.

What Watt has accomplished is truly remarkable. The sheer number of people who responded to his call to action is testament of the love people have for him.

How the work of the Red Cross, Watt and other organizations will ultimately help Harvey’s victims is a story still in progress. Americans will be watching and demanding accountability.

City Council trying to solve homelessness, parks and convention center puzzle

The Austin City Council meeting, August 29, 2017.
(RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

When it comes to the Austin Convention Center expansion, you might say the actions of the City Council are puzzling.

Yes, I know that is a play on words, given the name Mayor Steve Adler dubbed his plan to expand the convention center, boost financing for cultural arts and address the city’s homeless community that is concentrated downtown near tourist venues.

But with so many moving parts and seemingly contradictory decisions, the mayor’s proposal truly is living up to its name: The “Downtown Puzzle.”

Last week, in a meeting that at one point turned uncharacteristically hostile on the dais as some council members and the mayor fought over how to use a portion of the hotel occupancy tax (HOT), the council endorsed a proposal by Council Members Ellen Troxclair, Kathie Tovo, Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchen to steer a slice of hotel taxes to historic preservation of amenities in parks, such as Barton Springs and Zilker Park.

On the surface, that action seemed to kill Adler’s puzzle plan that also relies on hotel taxes.

But when the dust — and the flared tempers — settled, an amendment was added that won Troxclair’s proposal a unanimous vote – including a yes vote from Adler. But here’s the thing: It also keeps Adler’s proposal alive for another vote expected later this month.

The secret, soothing sauce it seems was an amendment that calmed what otherwise was a bare-knuckle brawl pitting parks preservation funding against designated, and unprecedented, funding for permanent housing and other services for people experiencing homelessness. Adler’s proposal is estimated to generate about $4 million to $8 million a year for homeless services for a total of $68 million over 10 years.

As adopted by the council, Troxclair’s proposal directs the city manager to divert $11.9 million of the city’s portion of the HOT to fund “operations/maintenance of city of Austin historic facilities and sites in accordance with Texas Tax Code,” and bond requirements, then fund other eligible historic restoration or preservation projects.

That money would be carved from the yearly budgets of the convention center and Visit Austin, the city’s visitor bureau and marketing arm. Together they received $55.9 million this year in HOT revenue, which would drop to $55.3 million next year. In all, the city’s share of the HOT is 9 percent of the total 15 percent. The remaining 6 percent goes to the state.

But the amendment Adler added gives the council flexibility to look at other options for spending the HOT, including on an expansion of the convention center. So, both proposals are alive, at least for now.

As its name implies, hotel occupancy taxes are generated by fees charged to visitors when they stay in hotels in the city. That is an important distinction in understanding Adler’s plan and why the business case in terms of bookings and losses is trumped by a more relevant, pressing issue: Whether the expansion can be leveraged to access tens of millions in new dollars for projects the Austin community cares deeply about but lacks money to address, from homelessness to music.

Keep in mind that the $400 million to $600 million needed for the expansion would not add a penny to either homeowners’ tax bills or city sales taxes since it would be financed by HOT revenue.

Consider that the convention center is financed mostly by the HOT. Even when revenues and bookings don’t cover expenses, the convention center operates in the black because it receives more than enough revenue from the HOT to cover losses and generate a healthy reserve fund. Similarly, HOT taxes would finance the expansion by raising it to its maximum 17 percent, or 2 percent more.

Adler’s plan would use the expansion to leverage $400 million to $600 million in bond money, more than needed to pay off debt. The extra would steer an estimated $162.3 million to historic preservation over 10 years and about $36.3 million to music. Another $59 million would go for other eligible projects, including historic preservation, and the mayor told me, Austin’s burgeoning film industry.

Because HOT revenue is restricted, city legal has deemed it to be off limits for permanent housing for the homeless, though Adler wants to revisit that decision. Instead, he is proposing a Tourism Public Improvements District, which permits downtown hotel operators to tax themselves through that mechanism, again by charging fees to visitors staying at their establishments. The city’s slice, amounting to 40 percent, would be designated for housing and other assistance for the homeless.

What is unknown at this point is whether Adler’s proposal can survive if Troxclair’s uses all or most of the $11.9 million the council took from HOT revenue.

Starting Monday, the public will get a sense of whether both proposals can go forward or just one — Adler’s or Troxclair’s — when the council starts voting on its budget for next year.

That is when the council is expected to match dollars with proposals, which could eliminate, delay or reduce the size of either proposal.

In other words, another puzzle.

 

Travis county DA’s new family violence policy shows promise

The Honorable Margaret Moore at the Heman Marion-Sweatt Courthouse Tuesday morning January 3, 2017. (RALPH BARRERA/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

There are myriad complex reasons why domestic violence victims stay with their abusers. In many cases, it is fear that the abuser will deliver on threats to hurt – or kill – the victim or people close to the victim, including children, friends and family members. Many of those reasons are also why – once police and courts are involved – many victims choose to reconcile rather than press charges against their aggressors.

Reconciliation not only keeps victims in dangerous relationships, it also makes it more difficult to bring charges that result in criminal convictions.

Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore may have found a way to reduce the opportunity of reconciliation with a new policy she instituted to contact victims within 48 hours of an arrest. The policy could be a game-changer in addressing one of the county’s most common felonies: family violence.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 20 people are physically abused by intimate partners every minute in the U.S. In Texas, one in three individuals will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes, according to the Texas Council on Family Violence.

Through June of this year, Travis County authorities filed 824 family violence cases, with more than half — 455 — involving intimate partners.

A victim knows well the extent an abuser will go to maintain control of the victim. Victims know that leaving is as dangerous a risk as staying.

A study of domestic violence-related homicides by the American Journal of Public Heath looked at 4,470 individuals killed in domestic violence–related incidents. Eighty percent were victims killed by their abusers.  The remaining 20 percent included family members, new intimate partners, friends, acquaintances, police officers and strangers.

Moore’s 48-hour contact policy replaces a grinding outreach through mailing letters — many of which went to old addresses, the American-Statesman’s Ryan Autullo reported.

The new policy also turns two part-time positions into a full-time intake attorney — yet another way to speed up prosecutions, the district attorney said.

To relieve an overflowing docket, Moore appointed a family violence prosecutor to each of the eight district judges’ courts. The move, Moore told me in an email, has resulted in fewer cases for family violence attorneys and more for trial division attorneys. Since January, family violence attorneys have drawn about 100-125 cases each, down from about 400 last year before the new policy was implemented. Trial Division attorneys have drawn about 180-259 cases each since January, up from about 146 last year.

All attorneys will continue to work at a fast pace under the new policy, though domestic violence cases are among the most time-intensive cases the office handles, Moore said.

That’s something to keep an eye on, especially if an increased number of cases adds stress to already overburdened Trial Division attorneys.

If so, Moore should revisit the policy, so that other areas serving Travis County aren’t negatively affected.

Right now, the new policy shows promise. Figures from the first half of 2017 show grand juries are hearing family violence cases, on average, 47 days after an arrest. That’s down from 77 days in 2016.

That’s good news. The longer it takes to investigate a case, the more likely a victim will reconcile with the abuser – and that makes it more difficult to bring an abuser to justice, allowing abusers to continue to hurt others.