Pandemic, winter storm dominate; events bring visitors to city
There’s no doubt 2021 was a year highlighted by partisan politics and the ongoing pandemic.
Just six days into January, activist supporters, including a Wylie man, stormed the Capitol killing one police officer, destroying property and injuring over 100 people. A few weeks later, on Jan. 20, a new president, Joe Biden, quietly took office along with the country’s first female vice president.
In Texas, the 87th Legislative session opened Jan. 12 with increased security after the riot in Washington, D.C.
The presumptive speaker of the house nominee coming into the 87th legislative session, state Rep. Dade Phelan, was elected as speaker having earned the support of 140 members of the House.
During his remarks to the House chamber after taking his oath of office, Phelan urged members to get to know each other and engage in discourse when they disagree over an issue.
“The Lone Star State has overcome tough challenges before and with the grace of God and the pioneer spirit that made Texas the beacon of our nation, we can and will do it again,” Phelan said. “We must all do our part – not as Republicans and Democrats – but as Texans and Americans.”
In May, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting governmental entities in Texas – including counties, cities, school districts, public health authorities or government offices – from mandating mask wearing. Public schools could continue following current mask-wearing guidelines through June 4, but afterward, students, staff and others can’t be required to wear a mask while on campus.
The 87th Texas Legislative session ended May 31 after Texas Democrats staged a walkout that dissolved the quorum needed for a vote, killing Senate Bill 7, known as the Election Integrity Protection Act.
After the session Abbott signed several bills into law.
House Bill 1900 freezes property tax revenues for cities with a population over 250,000 that defunds the police department.
SB 23 requires voter approval for counties over one million in population to reduce law enforcement budgets. HB 9 increases the penalty to a state jail felony for anyone who knowingly blocks an emergency vehicle or obstructs access to a hospital or health care facility. HB 2366 enhances the criminal penalty for using a laser pointer and creates an offense for the use of fireworks to harm or obstruct the police.
The governor also signed HB 1927 into law, along with several other pieces of legislation that aim to protect the rights of gun owners in the state, including SB 19, SB 20, SB 550, HB 957, HB 1500 and HB 2622. These bills make Texas a Second Amendment Sanctuary State by protecting Texans from new federal gun control regulations.
“These seven laws will protect the rights of law-abiding citizens and ensure that Texas remains a bastion of freedom,” Abbott said.
Abbott went on to convene three special sessions to tackle redistricting, election integrity, bail reform, border security, CRT, abortion and much more.
After House Democrats walked out of the Capitol in July and boarded two planes to Washington D.C., they remained in Washington throughout the first called session and much of the second called session.
While many Democrats held out, three returned to the state, allowing lawmakers to return to work.
The third called session of the Texas Legislature ended with the lawmakers addressing most of Gov. Greg Abbott’s concerns.
Except for a ban on vaccine mandates, increased penalties for illegal voting and a constitutional amendment allowing courts to deny bail to defendants charged with certain types of crime, the Legislature adjourned in the early morning hours of Oct. 19 after considering Abbott’s priority agenda items.
Collin County happenings
The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) launched the Texas Rent Relief Program – the first statewide rent and utility assistance program for qualifying Texas households. The program was created to administer $1.3 billion allocated to Texas through the latest COVID-19 stimulus bill. The TDHCA began accepting applications from tenants and landlords Feb. 15.
A Future Mobility Study meeting was held May 6 at the Lavon City Hall Community Gym to highlight the future of roads and traffic. At the meeting, residents were able to provide their input for the study, which is partnering with cities and adjacent counties to help ensure a comprehensive approach to transportation planning within the region.
Protesters hit the streets in March calling for justice after Allen resident, Marvin Scott III, 26, became unresponsive and later died at a hospital after being arrested by Allen police.
Scott, a Black man with mental health issues, was pepper-sprayed and his face was covered with a spit hood while jailers attempted to strap him to a restraint bed.
Collin County Medical Examiner Dr. William Rohr listed Scott’s death as a homicide and said the cause was, “fatal acute stress response in an individual with previously diagnosed schizophrenia during restraint struggle with law enforcement.”
After a grand jury declined to indict eight officers in the death of Scott, the county commissioners court voted to explore options to accelerate building a new jail infirmary with over 300 new beds for those needing mental healthcare. The sheriff’s office responded by planning future training for officers which will include advances in use of force in a jail and to enhance jail staff’s mindset and skill in meeting their duty to intervene.
Use of force, use of restraints and use of less-lethal force policies in the county jail are also being reviewed.
Property values continue to climb in Collin County. The county’s chief appraiser, Bo Daffin, said there are several reasons for the increase, including jobs, quality of living, schools, public services and other amenities.
Collin County’s overall certified value was $167.4 billion, up 6.62% from $157 billion in 2020.
In Farmersville, certified values showed $325.8 million, a 11.53% increase from $292.1 million in 2020. Average market price home in Farmersville is $190,459, up from, $170,960 last year. In Farmersville ISD, the average market price of a home rose from $220,212 to $239,981. New construction was valued at $9,737,511 for the city of Farmersville and $33,293,316 for Farmersville ISD.
In February, Winter Storm Uri blew into Texas, causing an estimated $195 billion in property damages and claimed the lives of as many as 700 Texans. Not only did Gov. Greg Abbott declare a state of emergency, but President Joe Biden also declared a federal emergency after Abbott requested the president do so.
In Farmersville, which operates its own electric service, the situation was much better than most places the day after the President’s Day storm.
City Manager Ben White said no one was permanently without power within the city, but what they did have was ERCOT’s required rolling blackouts, referring to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. They had on the order of 1,700 to 1,800 meters, “of which 200 blackouts stay anywhere for between two and three hours at a time”, White said in February. “So, we’re rolling through that as we’re asked to do it. Otherwise, our system is pretty normal.”
The city’s water and sewer water systems were fine, but the city’s garbage trucks couldn’t roll because of the streets’ conditions.
A warming station opened at First Baptist Church in Farmersville and First United Methodist Church was on standby to open if needed. Farmersville School District also contacted the city and offered to open a station.
White and Mayor Bryon Wiebold also heaped praise on the city utilities department for the stellar work staffers performed during the February freeze.
“The freeze changed a lot of things,” White said, “but the electrical department handled it well.”
Wiebold also offered praise for the way staff “stepped up” during the freeze to help keep the lights on in the city.
“We’re a small town but we’re going through some growing pains,” Wiebold said, “but we are handling the pains quite well.”
Progress, projects continue
Farmersville City Hall had its share of ups and downs during 2021, according to City Manager Ben White. The positive elements were a result of dedication by city staff, he said, while laying the blame for some of the setbacks on factors far beyond human beings’ ability to control them.
“I was pleased that we got the Collin Parkway project done around the Collin College campus,” White said. “The college completed their goals” by building the campus, he explained, “and we helped with the road work around the college.”
The weather got in the way of the project being completed on time, White acknowledged, citing the terrible February freeze, which stopped construction along the parkway. The coronavirus pandemic also hindered progress, as supply chain issues developed. “We ran out of concrete,” he said.
All told, the city manager expressed pleasure at the many infrastructure projects they managed to complete or make substantial progress on during the year. He cited the trickling arm project related to the city’s wastewater treatment operation. “The trickling arm got installed,” he said of the project that aids the city in turning wastewater into potable water. The project was the subject of considerable debate among council members. The city also was able to increase its rating to allow it process as much as 1 million gallons of water daily, up from 750,000 gallons.
“Lakehaven was a really big show,” White said of a major residential development that is getting underway. He said the city finalized a development agreement, “and it got platted.” He said the project will begin developing roads and water-sewer projects this coming year. “Right now, we’re expecting about 1,800 homes” to be included in Lakehaven, White said.
Then there’s the home rule charter election that city council called for next May, White said, adding that state law prohibits him and other city officials from “saying too much about it.” The state prohibits public officials’ comment on election issues. “I’ll just have to leave that to the politicians,” White joked. The city was able to determine it had more than 5,000 inhabitants living in Farmersville, which would enable the city to call for a home-rule charter election; a home-rule charter would replace the “general law” stipulations set by state statute that the city uses to govern itself.
Many of the annual activities returned in 2021, although the city was forced to cancel its Audie Murphy Day celebration over COVID-19 concerns.
Mayor Bryon Wiebold talked about “the sense of community” he said developed in Farmersville during 2021. “We have the Farmersville Lights program, the Sister City program and a lot of things that called attention to Farmersville,” he said.
The mayor signed a Sister City agreement this year with Holtzwihr, France, a small community on the border with Germany. The communities have one individual in common: the late World War II hero Audie Murphy, who hailed from Farmersville and who in early 1945 saved the French community virtually single-handedly by battling a German armored unit. Murphy’s heroism earned him the Medal of Honor.
Wiebold lauded the progress made by most of the boards and committees that work for the city, citing the 4A economic development board and the grants that the city is seeking to help pay for economic development projects. “We have hired a great grant writer,” Wiebold said, “and we’re getting approved for lots of grants. It is in the millions of dollars.”
The pandemic continued into 2021. As of July 26, Collin County had 1,049 active COVID-19 cases and nearly 94,000 recoveries. Health officials warned that the Delta variant is more contagious and could cause severe illness and possibly hospitalization.
As far as the challenges that confronted city officials during the year, White spoke of a personal challenge he faced when he contracted the COVID-19 virus, which hospitalized him for several weeks during the summer and early fall. “But it’s had a good effect on me, too,” White said, explaining that he came out of the illness with an understanding that “I have choices to make. I used to be a little sensitive.” He said he approaches each day with a little greater sense of optimism than he had prior to becoming seriously ill.
The COVID pandemic also forced City Hall to limit public access and it forced many employees to work from home.
Collin College opens Farmersville campus
After years of waiting, the Farmersville campus opened its doors to welcome students with a soft opening Monday, March 22, offering a smattering of online courses and in-person classes.
Two months later, on May 22, the college celebrated with a formal opening which included a ribbon-cutting, an open house and a community gathering to celebrate. The 52,000-square-foot campus, located at 501 S. Collin Parkway near the intersection of Audie Murphy Parkway (U.S. 380) and State Highway 78 in Farmersville. The college will provide greater access to higher education for the residents of eastern Collin County.
The campus can serve up to 1,250 students when fully utilized, with seven classrooms, three computer labs, two science labs and a dedicated health sciences workforce lab. Student-focused amenities include a career center, a library, a testing center, student services, and tutoring at the Anthony Peterson Center for Academic Assistance. The campus offers educational opportunities for traditional, dual credit and continuing education learners, with both academic transfer courses and workforce training options.
FISD takes growth, pandemic in stride
The Farmersville Independent School District faced its challenges head-on, with faculty and support staff stepping up to deal with the ongoing impact of the pandemic.
All in all, though, 2021 was a year of enormous triumph in the eyes of FISD Superintendent Micheal French.
“We managed to expand our college and vocational programs, working with Collin College,” French said.
But the “best highlight” of the year was the approval in May of the $65 million bond issue that will do many things to help FISD cope with its enormous growth, said French. Voters approved the bond with a 78% endorsement of the package that calls for massive reconstruction and expansion of the high school, expansion of Tatum Elementary School, the intermediate school and the junior high school.
French said the district likely will accept bids on the high school work in February.
“We have had tremendous growth,” French said, “and that brings challenges.” He said FISD has grown 8% percent during the academic year to date in student enrollment; he said FISD currently has 2,030 students enrolled, and that number, he said, is sure to keep growing.
French alluded also to the opening this year of the Engineering Academy that is going to help prepare students to succeed in high-tech careers. “It’s going to be transformational for the kids,” French said. The district purchased an abandoned grocery store for $570,000 and outfitted it with high-tech equipment that educators will use to teach FISD students.
As the district awaits the bids it will receive on the work that voters approved earlier this year, French said it must cope with escalating costs of materials. “The cost of steel is up 40% and that’s a problem,” he said, adding that the much-discussed “supply chain” of goods and products caused by the COVID pandemic will present even more concern. “Time is money,” he said, noting the cost increases associated with delays in construction.
Then there’s the COVID-related issues involving remote learning for FISD students. “I am so proud of our teachers and support staff for how they performed in the face of COVID,” French said. He said teachers were forced to “double prepare” to teach their students, some of whom were at home while others sat in the classroom. French said teachers had to prepare separate lesson plans to accommodate students’ particular needs. “The kids couldn’t do some things at home that others could do while sitting in class in school,” French said.
“Hey, we we’re not happy being happy,” French said, adding that “We cannot accept the status quo. We will push constantly to get better. We must not lose our momentum.”
Community gives back
Charitable giving organizations continued to collect money and assorted essential items for those in need during the past year. Whether affected by the monstrous February freeze or the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, churches, civic organizations and neighborhoods throughout Farmersville rallied to aid those in distress.
Judy Brandon runs Farmersville Outreach Alliance, and she said this year produced a surprise or two for her. The Alliance manages the Angel Tree gift-giving program and the food pantry. “We had more requests for gifts this year than in previous years,” Brandon said, “and we also had more donations.”
The food pantry “stayed the same. We didn’t see a big uptick” in requests for food from Farmersville residents, she said. “But we did see an increase in donations.”
The Outreach Alliance helps residents pay their utility bills, rent and other household expenses, Brandon explained. “We were able to branch out a bit with that kind of assistance,” she said.
As for the February freeze, “That stopped everything,” Brandon said. She added that the city helped people by delaying payments due for utility bills.
“All in all, the community is a great supporter of the Farmersville Outreach Alliance,” she said, “and it is so very much appreciated.”
What’s in store for 2022? Brandon said she is reluctant to make a prediction. “Sometimes I think I can predict what can happen,” she said, “and then I get surprised.”
John Kanelis also contributed to this story