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Tuesday, October 4, 2022
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Wharton City Council approves COVID-19-related measures

Wharton City Council members met at 7 p.m. Tuesday to approve several COVID-19-related measures, including the extension of the disaster declaration, acceptance of state funds and the implementation of collecting on delinquent utility accounts, in addition to other agenda items regarding ongoing projects.

‘It is my opinion that this disaster is nowhere near over … so we need to keep our guard up.’

Following a report from City of Wharton Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Coordinator Steve Johnson, council voted to extend the Declaration of Disaster signed on March 16 to July 30.

“It is my opinion that this disaster is nowhere near over and I would ask that this be extended until at least July 30,” Johnson told council members. “If something miraculous happens before that, we can rescind the declaration, but I don’t anticipate that happening at this time.”

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His report came on the heels of a spike in new COVID-19 cases in Wharton County following the Memorial Day weekend.

“The scary thing about this particular pandemic is there are so many people we are aware of here in town that have tested positive that aren’t sick, so we need to keep our guard up,” Johnson said. “I recommend we extend (the declaration), so if there’s something we need to do, Mayor Barker can take extraordinary measures to do what’s appropriate.”

‘We aren’t past the pandemic, but it’s time to reinstate payment plans.’

Following a unanimous vote to extend the declaration, Wharton City Council approved a measure that would take action on a policy for delinquent utility bills.

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“We aren’t past the pandemic, but it’s time to reinstate payment plans,” finance director Joan Andel said, explaining that delinquency would be considered more than one month late on payments, with some of its 76 delinquent accounts being three or four months late.

Andel laid out the policy and steps to implement collection, starting with the establishment of a payment plan for customers that cannot pay in full on delinquent accounts.

The city will also reinstate a 5% late fee on accounts due June 15, as well as all cut-offs and penalties effective June 24 on those delinquent accounts in which the customer has not set up any type of payment plan.

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“We need to really make people aware that if you have not contacted us about a payment plan or what your situation is, you will be cut off,” she said.

In relation to the pandemic, Wharton City Council also approved a resolution to accept funding from the Texas Department of Emergency Management Coronavirus Relief Fund in the amount of $474,870.

According to Gwyn Teves, community development director, the first 20% of allocated funds have been advanced, with the mayor signing the terms and conditions to begin this process.

The money, she said, will be used to “offset un-budgeted medical personnel costs incurred by the city.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, the city added a fourth emergency services crew specifically for COVID-19-related instances, PPE, sanitation equipment for the fire department and EMS, including two fogging systems to decontaminate equipment after use. 

The money would also go toward any additional staffing for the Boys & Girls Club, Just Do It Now food drives, with strict guidelines on appropriations.

“As of right now, there is no leeway on funding,” Teves told council members. “We have made requests to the state and to the governor to loosen the guidelines, but it is strictly tied right now to state rules for funding, which can only be for medical and personnel expenses tied to COVID-19 that were not budgeted.

“We’re still researching whether the money can be used for grant funding. Right now, we are tied to the stipulations. We are hoping it will loosen up and the state will allow additional funding for items. Right now, we must be able to justify that (entities and organizations) cannot cover those expenses themselves.”

An update was provided on the city’s grant programs, which have also been affected by the coronavirus.

“We received word at the end of this month that there was not a second round of funding due to COVID-19, but they have put us on a preferred list for the next round of funding for 2020-21,” Andel reported. “We will be recommended before any other applicants next year.”

Wharton City Council members also heard updates on several projects and voted to approve accompanying resolutions, in addition to other agenda items, including:

  • City of Wharton 2020 Street Improvement Project:
  1. Update on the City of Wharton 2020 Street Improvement Project.
  2. A resolution of the Wharton City Council approving an Engineering Services Agreement between the city of Wharton and BEFCO Engineering Inc. for the City of Wharton 2020 Street Improvement Project and authorizing the mayor of the City of Wharton to execute all documents related to said project.

“We have begun the city portion, working the west side and making pretty good progress,” City of Wharton Public Works Director John Plaia told trustees. 

The project, he explained, will be implemented in three phases ― the west side, the east side and south to north, with a projected completion date in May.

“We are right on schedule and the specs are looking really good,” he said. “We have planned a month for each of the three phases. We were right on schedule for phase 1. Phase 2 is not quite as critical or bad and phase 3 is even less so. We’re getting better as we go.”

  • FEMDA DR-4332 Public Assistance: 
  1. Bid tabulations.
  2. A resolution of the Wharton City Council awarding a contract for the city hall structural repairs and authorizing the mayor of the City of Wharton to execute all documents related to said contract.  

According to city manager Andres Garza Jr., city hall sustained foundation damage as a result of Hurricane Harvey.

Council accepted a bid totaling $28,000. 

  • City of Wharton Financial report for April 2020.

Andel reported that the city received $141,033 in sales tax during the month of April. In the same period last year, sales tax totaled $121,541.

“We are up on that amount,” she said, adding that “pandemic binge-buying is more than what we had anticipated. However, binge-buying could be over. The June payment will be an indication of what we will be experiencing in the next few months.”

  • Request from the Wharton Farmers Market to use Guffey Park.

According to Teves, Guffey Park was used for previous farmers markets in 2009 before moving to the location at Wharton County Junior College.

“The board felt they got more traffic at that intersection and it offers more shade,” Teves said. “We discussed that with the farmers market and will make improvements to Guffey Park.”

The farmers market will run from May 30-July 11 and Oct. 24-Dec. 12, with the first market of the season from 9 a.m. to noon this Saturday.

  • Annual Drinking Water Quality Report – Consumer Confidence Report (CCR).

According to the city, the 2019 report is published and ready for distribution, with a link to the website. If utility customers do not have a computer, they can receive a report from the front desk at city hall or by mail. It will also be distributed in both English and Spanish to apartment complexes.

“We must (publish) this report every year,” Andel said.

Wharton City Council is scheduled to meet again at 7 p.m. on Monday, June 8 at city hall, 120 East Caney Street.

For more information, visit the City of Wharton website.

Natalie Frels-Busbyhttps://www.thecountygin.com
Natalie Frels-Busby is the former editor-in-chief of The County Gin.

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