By Will Johnson

Messenger Reporter

HOUSTON COUNTY – As the Houston County Commissioners Court meeting neared its conclusion on Tuesday, Dec. 27 and agenda item concerning the acceptance of a donation from Zilkha Biomass Energy was re-addressed by the court.

The matter was previously tabled during the Dec. 13 commissioners court meeting and pertained to the company’s transfer of ownership of the 13.125 acre wood pellet fuel manufacturing facility to Houston County. The facility has been vacant since Zilkha closed the plant earlier this year.

During the Dec. 13 meeting, Precinct Two Commissioner Willie Kitchen expressed his belief the company wanted to donate the facility to the county in order to receive a free pass on their tax liability.

In that same meeting, Houston County Tax Assessor Danette Millican indicated if Zilkha was able to close the deal before Jan. 1, 2017, they would not owe taxes on it for 2017.

In the Dec. 27 meeting, County Judge Jim Lovell explained Zilkha owed nearly $300,000 in taxes for 2016 “… of which $75,000 are county taxes. If we considered accepting the donation, the $75,000 would have to be taken care of.”

Attorney Tab Beall with the firm Perdue, Brandon, Fielder, Collins and Mott had been requested to attend the Tuesday meeting to help further explain the county’s options in regard to Zilkha. Beall serves as the county’s delinquent tax and collections attorney.

“The first statute in the tax code – there are actually two of them – provides for the medium of payment and the medium of payment is money,” Beall said. “You really aren’t supposed to accept property in lieu of taxes. The idea being that the county budget is based on paying your employees and vendors with money, not giving them bartered goods.”

He said the second provision allowed for the exchange of property in lieu of taxes but said the statute called for the property to go to the entity with the biggest tax levy. In this instance, Beall explained that entity would be Crockett ISD.

“Houston County shouldn’t even accept the property. The school could then convey it from the county and then you would have to essentially buy it from the city and the school district,” he said. “My legal advice to you, if you want to acquire the property, is to buy it outright. Go into executive session and discuss the purchase of real estate. Don’t accept it as a gift because it poses all types of problems.”

Beall further said Zilkha had filed suit against the Houston County Appraisal District challenging the market value of the property.

“This is just another ‘x’ factor out there in terms of deeding the property to you. It would also have the potential of them setting the standard which would allow them to recover attorney fees from you for the suit they filed against the appraisal district,” Beall said.

The court voted unanimously to decline the donation.

After the meeting had been called to order, Lovell recognized several guests who were present for the court session. Among those recognized was Homestead 4-H member Christina McElhaney.

County Extension agent Mandy Patrick introduced McElhaney and said she had been honored as a Houston County’s “Healthy Lifestyles Ambassador.”

“There are 12 in the whole state of Texas. She has an opportunity to go national and she is going to tell you a little bit about what she does as an ambassador and this opportunity that is coming up,” Patrick said.

Patrick added public speaking was a part of the Lifestyles Ambassador program and requested the court to provide an audience for McElhaney.

“I’m a senior in the Homestead 4-H Club and a Healthy Lifestyles Ambassador,” McElhaney said. “I am going to be talking to you about my trip to Washington, D.C. in February.”

She explained she would be representing the state at the Youth Summit on Healthy Living and added she would be traveling to the nation’s capital on Feb. 16 and would be returning on Feb. 20.

“At the summit, we are going to be sharing with other youth what all we have learned regarding healthy living, physical fitness and things like that.”

The cost of the trip is expected to be over $1,000 and includes the plane tickets, registration fees, food and lodging and transportation.

“The money is due on Jan. 15,” McElhaney added. “While I’m there, I hope to be able to expand my knowledge on things I have learned especially on the emotional well-being of our youth. Donations for this trip are greatly appreciated and thank you for allowing me to come speak.”

Patrick said donations would be accepted at the County Extension Office located at 716 Wells St. in Davy Crockett Park. For more information contact the extension agency at 936-544-7502.

According to the 4-H website, “The purpose of the 4-H Healthy Lifestyles Ambassador Program is: promote the purpose and goals of the 4-H healthy lifestyles program; empower youth by giving them the opportunity to provide leadership to the 4-H healthy lifestyles program; provide educational experiences that will enable 4-H members across the state to become knowledgeable and skilled in the healthy lifestyles subject matter; coordinate educational events that will provide learning opportunities for the development of leadership and effective citizenship related to the healthy lifestyles projects; and help each ambassador experience personal growth and achievement, as well as be of service to others.”

In other matters brought before the court:

  • The commissioners approved the minutes from the Nov. 8 meeting.
  • The payment of bills and expenses incurred by the county were approved.
  • The County Treasurer’s Report and Compensatory Time Report were accepted as information by the court.
  • A contract with Unifirst Uniform was tabled for further consideration.
  • A contract with Texas Imaging for a new copier was approved by the court.
  • Billy Horne, Dan Huff and Susan Rowden were re-appointed as Commissioners for Houston County Emergency Services District #1.
  • A resolution to submit a Texas Community Development Block Grant application to the Texas Department of Agriculture was approved.

The Houston County Commissioners Court normally meets the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month at 10 a.m. in the County Courthouse Annex. The public is welcome and invited to attend.

Will Johnson may be reached via e-mail at wjohnson@messenger-news.com.