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Posts published in April 2008

Highlands residents air concerns over game rooms at town hall meeting

By BOBBY HORN JR.
HIGHLANDS—They are seen along Main Street in Highlands. Buildings with no signs, blackened or boarded-up windows and seemingly abandoned. Or are they?
Last week during a Town Hall Meeting hosted by Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia Highlands-Lynchburg Area Chamber of Commerce President Jessica Woods stepped forward and told the assembly that she could point out seven game rooms operating within a two-mile radius of her pawn shop on Main Street.
The existence of game rooms drew serious discussion during the meeting with several people speaking to the issue. “Why can’t you find out where they are and shut them down,” asked Kent Nelson to representatives from the sheriff’s office and constable’s office.
Nelson said that the community is being hurt by the businesses and he wanted to know why they were allowed to continue operating.

Chris Montemayor, a vice officer with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, said that shutting down the businesses is not as easy as it sounds. Once a complaint it filed, he said, surveillance and undercover operations must take place. Operating a game room, he noted, is not illegal. However, if there are suspected illegal operations going on such as narcotics trafficking or illegal use of 8-liner machines, then they can become involved.
Operation of 8-liner devices in Texas is governed by a law commonly referred to as the “Fuzzy Animal Act” which was designed to legalize video arcades which give tickets for prize redemption and crane games that are commonly seen in restaurants and grocery stores and award a winner with a stuffed animal.
The law limits the payout for users of the 8-liners to not more than 10 times the amount charged to play the game or device once, or $5, whichever is less.
Even if a raid is successful, he said, there is little reason for owners to shut the operation down. “The problem is these game rooms bring in $30,000 cash-money each week,” she said. “An arrest is sometimes seen as part of the cost of operating. They get a day in jail and a $500 fine.” He noted that citizens should call their representatives in Austin and push for harsher penalties. “We can only do what the law allows,” he said.
Montemayor said that the department is looking at ways of joining with federal agencies that can pursue money-laundering cases.
While they may be operating legally, there are those in the community who want the game rooms to leave.
“From a moral standpoint, said First Baptist Church Pastor Tim Edwards, “They offer an enticement to those who are in desperate need financially. The game rooms offer a false sense of financial security, they foster an addictive behavior, they are not productive and not the kind of image that we want for Highlands.”
Edwards said that it is a well known fact that game rooms have been linked to other criminal activity and that he is concerned that it is bringing a bad element into Highlands. “Why are they coming to Highlands?” he asked.
“If a visitor comes to Highlands and sees these businesses are they going to want to stop and shop here, or keep driving to another town.”
Edwards said that he has not spoke about gambling and game rooms from the pulpit directly but that he believed that the church’s role was to give the community something to place their trust in other than the game rooms.
Woods said that the chamber of commerce has not taken an official stance on game rooms but that personally she did not like having them in Highlands. The best way to fight them, she said, is for business owners to monitor those whom they rent to.
Garcia told the assembly that the best way to fight the game rooms is to call the sheriff’s office if they suspect illegal activities are occurring. “This is called demonstrating a need. You have to create a paper trail.”
Capt. Michael Talton, with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, said that he has been working in the Wallisville office for three years and he could not recall a single complaint made against a game room. This surprised Woods. “I could not believe no one has called to complain,” she said. “People are talking about the issue. I guess we need to take our concerns to the sheriff’s office.”

Cotten seeks another term on school board

By BOBBY HORN JR.
HIGHLANDS—Weston Cotten knows Goose Creek CISD.
He has seen the school district from the perspective of an employee, a parent and, for the past 18 years, a trustee. Now, he is asking for voter support as he seeks another term on the board of trustees.
Cotten has served as a trustee since 1990 when the school district changed it board format from all at-large positions to single-member districts. Cotten represents Position 3 on the board, or the Greater Highlands area of the district.
Of all the board members who now serve, Cotten has served the longest. While a person can learn the job in a year, he said, if it helpful if a trustee knows the history of the district.
“If someone brings up an idea, I can tell them ‘been there, done that.’ And whether the idea worked or not,” he said.
The biggest issue facing the district, Cotten said, is discipline. Cotten said that a higher level of student discipline would be transferred to test scores. “If we can get a handle on that (discipline), you will see scores go up. Students are stressed out from the atmosphere at the schools. They feel threatened.” Cotten said that only when students feel safe could school become the learning environment it is supposed to be.

He got a first hand lesson in how students think when he served as a government, economics and sociology teacher at Lee High School in the late 1970s.
Cotten’s wife also served as a teacher at San Jacinto and Harlem Elementary Schools, and B.P. Hopper Primary.
Cotten has seen the district from the parent’s perspective with daughter Chrissa and sons Nathan and Chet graduating from Sterling. “I have a niece attending (Goose Creek schools) and a grandson coming soon,” Cotten said. “I want to do the best I can for them and for the district.”
Going along with discipline, Cotten said that Goose Creek must focus on getting a higher percentage of students to pass the TAKS. “We need to modify the curriculum and see what’s working and what’s not working.”
He noted that districts have a dilemma when it coming to standardized testing. “We’re teaching the information. But do we teach them the test or do we give them a well-rounded education and believe that the skills they have will naturally take them through the test.” Since the state only considers test scores, he said, districts often are forced to concentrate on the tests.
But education is more than taking tests, Cotten said.
“There are a lot of students who are not college material,” Cotten said. “Or they don’t want to go to college. They just want to graduate and get a job.” He said that the district needs to focus more energy on its vocational training programs. “We could work with Lee College to get them (the students) a certificate so they can get that job when they graduate. The jobs are there they just need someone to fill them”
“I’ve really enjoyed my time on the board,” he added, “and I think that I have a lot to offer with my varied background of occupation and education.”
Early voting begins on April 28 and goes through May 6. Early voting will take place at the Goose Creek CISD Administration Building on I-10, the Baytown City Hall on Market Street and the Cedar Bayou Community Building on Highway 146. Polls will be open April 28-May from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; May 3, 5-6 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and May 4 from 1 to 6 p.m. Election Day is May 10. The only polling location in Highlands will be on election day at the Highlands Elementary from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Garcia outlines road projects’ progress

By BOBBY HORN JR.
HIGHLANDS—Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, speaking to a packed house last week, said that road and bridge projects were one of the key priorities for East Harris County. Garcia spoke at a Town Hall Meeting held at the Highlands Community Center.
Other topics of discussion included illegal dumping and railroad “quiet zones.”
Several road and bridge projects are either in the works and will be in the near future. Garcia said that $667,000 has been budgeted for roads in Barrett Station. In Crosby, a $2 million drainage study is being conducted. T he county, she said, also has plans for work on the Burwell Road bridge, a road study for North Battlebell Road and $1 million was spent on construction on North Main and Wallisville Road.
One of the biggest projects happening in the precinct, she said, is a $8.8 million project for Thompson Road. Currently in the design phases, the county intends to improve the roadway between Ellis School Road and Spur 330 (Decker Drive).

She acknowledged that more road projects are needed, but that finances were tight. In the 2007 Bond Referendum voters allocated $39 million over five years for road and bridge projects. To put this in perspective, she said that is cost anywhere from $3 to 8 million per mile top build a road.
During the open discussion part of the meeting, the topic of traffic signals was brought up and a request for a four-way light at FM 2100 and East Canal was made. Garcia said that he would order a traffic study to see if it was warranted and if so would work with the TxDOT toward moving the project forward. “I am seriously looking at red light cameras in unincorporated areas of Harris County,” she added.
Quincey Allen, with TxDOT said that while many of the local road and bridge projects falls under state jurisdiction the department is unable to commit to any future projects.

Highlands Rotary recognized as 100% Paul Harris Club

HIGHLANDS ROTARY CLUB was recognized last week by the Houston District 5890 for another accomplishment. All members of the club are now Paul Harris Fellows, a distinction that has national and international meaning in the Rotary Organization. Paul Harris was an attorney that started Rotary in Chicago, over 100 years ago. He is honored by having this award named for him. Any Rotarian that donates $1000 to the Rotary Foundation receives the recognition that they carry with them for lifetime. Pictured above are the recent Fellows that brought the club to 100%. Left to Right, Charlie Ward, president, Robert Woodall, Lisa Vickers, Sam Al-Rasheed, Jeremy Rosenkranz, Denise Smith, Aaron Cole, Michelle Lomazoff, Mathew Forastiere, Teresa Griffith, Debbie Allen, Stefan Cochran, Amanda Anderson, and District 5890 Governor Jeff Tallas. Tallas made the award presentation on behalf of the 58 clubs that are in the District. Not pictured: Tom Hill, Betty Brewer. All other Highlands Rotarians are already Paul Harris Fellows.

San Jacinto Day Festival and Battle Reenactment set for Saturday

LYNCHBURG— The San Jacinto Day Festival and Battle Reenactment on Saturday, April 26 is a celebration of Texas’ independence that was won at the famous Battle of San Jacinto.
On April 21, 1836—in 18 short minutes—General Sam Houston led his Texian soldiers to victory over the Mexican Army, officially securing Texas’ independence from Mexico and eventually leading to the addition of one million square miles of territory to the United States.
The admission-free San Jacinto Day Festival takes place from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. on the 1,200-acre San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site at the San Jacinto Monument. There will be a full day of music, entertainment, food, games and fun set amidst living history.
The most popular event of the day is the battle reenactment, one of the largest in the state that reenacts one of the most important battles of American history. The battle begins at 3 p.m.—complete with cannons, muskets, horses, pyrotechnics and hundreds of reenactors. They replicate the Runaway Scrape (Texians gathering the few belongings they could to flee the advancing forces of Santa Anna), the march of the Texas army from Gonzales to San Jacinto, the cannon duel, and the final battle between the two forces. The reenactment ends with the surrender of Mexican Army General Santa Anna to Texian Army General Sam Houston, followed by the laying of wreaths to honor the sacrifices of both armies.

The festival celebrates this special day in Texas history with entertaining and educational activities:
Blacksmiths, basket weavers, weavers, spinners, quilters and other demonstrators will give visitors a full sense of how life was in the early 1800s. Sutlers (civilians who sold provisions to military posts) will be on hand to sell or show their wares.
At the Main Stage, popular local and regional entertainers will perform day.
Texas Parks & Wildlife Department interpreters will offer guided tours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. of the restored marshlands and answer questions about the wildlife inhabiting the park that includes otters, diamondback terrapins, peregrine falcons, wood ibises (storks), brown pelicans, reddish egrets, roseate spoonbills, great blue herons, osprey, mottled ducks and American avocets. Guests can now more easily see the marsh due to the ADA-accessible boardwalk expansion project funded in large part by Shell Oil. Shell also provides volunteers to work on the building of the boardwalk area. The marsh is historically important in that it barred the escape of many of General Santa Anna’s troops during the 1836 battle.
Other events include: Last Chance Forever: Birds of Prey demonstrates magnificent birds such as hawks, owls, eagles, falcons and vultures.
Members of the San Jacinto Descendants, Daughters of the Republic of Texas and the Sons of the Republic of Texas will be on hand to share their history. Texas Independence Square Dancers—square dancers from various groups throughout Texas—will demonstrate square dancing and give lessons.
Inside the lobby of the Monument an exhibit of recently restored artifacts will be on display. The exhibit includes historic artifacts that have recently been restored thanks in part to funding provided by the Summerlee Foundation, Mrs. William T. Kendall, Betty and Bill Conner and the San Jacinto Museum of History Association. The display is free to the public and includes military uniforms believed to have been worn at the Battle of San Jacinto, a 19th century rifle used by Jesse Walling who served under Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto, and Thomas Jefferson Chambers’ dress uniform. There will also be a display of several recently acquired printed items showing the Mexican point of view of the Texas Revolution.
The Children’s Area is sponsored by Rohm & Haas Texas Incorporated and Deer Park ISD. A stage with family entertainment sponsored by H-E-B Tournament of Champions will offer shows all day. Activities and shows in the Children’s Area include:
Phydeaux’s Flying Flea Circus, which is a “family-friendly, audience-interactive, historically accurate, educational street theatre” performed by the Flea Meister in period costume.
Make-and-take history activities and crafts for children will be available, created by Gifted/Talented specialists from Deer Park ISD. Volunteer teachers from DP ISD and students volunteers from San Jacinto College will assist in the craft area.
The Houston Zoomobile, Armand Bayou Nature Center and Bar Mollys Place will be on the grounds with native Texas animals, interesting demonstrations and nature games.
Children can hunt for artifacts at a dig site hosted by the Houston Archeological Society.
During the day visitors can wander freely among the Mexican and Texian camps to learn what the soldiers of that day were doing prior to the battle and to see how civilians lived in 1836. In the military camps, visitors will learn how to perform the close order drills of the day. A few lucky children will be chosen to stand with the cannon crew and pretend to load the cannons.

Put Your Tax Rebate to Work

You may not be familiar with its formal name – the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 – but you’re almost certainly aware of its key outcome: a tax rebate. Now comes the big question: What should you do with it?
If you spend it, you will do your part to help stimulate the economy. But by investing the rebate, you could help speed your progress toward your long-term financial goals, such as a comfortable retirement.
Before we look at investment possibilities, let’s quickly go over the “nuts and bolts” of the plan:
* How much? You can receive up to $600, if you’re filing as an individual, or $1,200, if you’re filing a joint return. Plus, you can get an additional $300 for each qualifying child. However, the size of your rebate will be reduced by $50 for every $1,000 you earn above adjusted gross income (AGI) limits ($75,000 for singles and $150,000 for married couples).

* When? The IRS will begin mailing Stimulus Act rebate checks in May. If you’ve selected the “direct deposit” option for receiving your 2007 income tax refund, your Stimulus Act rebate will be placed in the same account that you’ve chosen for your refund.
Investment Choices
Here are a few possibilities for investing your rebate:
* Traditional or Roth IRA – Suppose that you are a joint filer and did receive the full $1,200 rebate. If you put that $1,200 in an investment that earned a hypothetical 7 percent return, and that investment were placed in a traditional or Roth IRA, the money would grow to more than $9,000 in 30 years. (This figure does not include fees, commissions or expenses, all of which would reduce your investment returns.) Keep in mind that traditional IRA withdrawals are taxable, whereas a Roth IRA’s earnings have the potential to grow tax free, provided you don’t begin taking withdrawals until you’re at least 59-1/2 and you’ve had your account for at least five years.) All investments within these accounts do fluctuate in price, so it is possible to have more, less or the same amount when you sell your investments.
* Section 529 savings plan – In a Section 529 college savings plan, you put money in a specific mix of investments. Section 529 plans are tax deductible in some states for residents who participate in their own state’s plan. All withdrawals will be free from federal income taxes if the money is used for a qualified college or graduate school expense of your child or grandchild. (Withdrawals for other reasons may be subject to federal, state and penalty taxes. Also, Section 529 distributions will appear as income on the child’s tax return, which could affect financial aid calculations.)
* Emergency fund – It’s a good idea to put six to 12 months’ worth of living expenses in a liquid account for use as an “emergency fund.” Without such a fund, you might be forced to liquidate some of your long-term investments to pay for things such as a costly car repair or an unexpected medical bill.
A rebate like this one doesn’t come along every year – so put it to work for you. Someday, you may be glad you did.

Candidate forum to be April 24

MONT BELVIEU—On Thursday evening, April 24, the West Chambers County Chamber of Commerce will facilitate an opportunity for the voters of West Chambers County to hear the candidates running in the upcoming school board and municipal races.
The event will begin at 7 p.m. at Barbers Hill Middle School in the C. T. Joseph Conference Center. Featured races include two Barbers Hill School Board positions, the City of Mont Belvieu mayor and alderman races, and the contested City of Old River-Winfree councilman’s position.
“This is a friendly affair, intended to benefit the voters and every candidate,” said Melissa G. Malechek, president of the West Chambers County Chamber of Commerce.
The candidates have been encouraged to bring information about them for you to pick up. The audience will also have an opportunity to ask questions of the candidates during the forum.
Early voting will be held April 28 through May 6, with the elections on Saturday, May 10.
Malechek said that the West Chambers County Chamber of Commerce does not endorse any candidate or any political party, but rather feels that it is in the citizens’ best interest to attend the event so that they can learn about the candidates and their vision for West Chambers County.

Who’s looking out for individual investors?

If you’ve been investing for a while, you know that there are few guarantees in the investment world and that, in one way or another, you’re going to be taking some risks with your money. Still, you’d like to know that you’re participating in a system that is fair to everyone and that is governed by rules. So you may ask yourself: “Who’s looking out for me?
Fortunately, you’re not alone. In fact, a variety of government agencies and industry groups are working to protect you. Let’s take a quick look at some of them:
* SEC – The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was created in 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, to restore investor confidence in U.S. capital markets. The laws that created the SEC were designed to ensure that companies selling securities must tell the public the truth about their businesses, the securities they sell and the risks involved. The SEC may investigate a wide range of violations, including outright theft, price manipulation, insider trading and misrepresentation or omission of key information about securities, To get a more detailed understanding of what the SEC does, go to their web site at www.sec.gov.

* FINRA – The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) was created in July 2007 through the consolidation of the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) and the member regulation, enforcement and arbitration functions of the New York Stock Exchange. FINRA registers and educates financial services professionals, writes and enforces rules, enforces federal securities laws and educates individual investors. You can learn more about FINRA by visiting its web site at www.finra.org.
* NASAA – The North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) licenses brokerage firms and their agents, investigates violations of state laws, files enforcement actions and educates the public about investment fraud. To learn more, visit NASAA’s web site at www.nasaa.org.
These agencies, and others involved in the investment world, work hard to protect your interests – because the capital markets, as a whole, will always benefit when investors are confident that they are participating in an equitable system.
But despite the work of these agencies, you still need to take steps to defend yourself against “unpleasant surprises” down the road. Here are a few ideas to consider:
* Know your investments. Never invest in something that you don’t fully understand. Before you write a check, make sure you know exactly what goes into an investment, along with its potential benefits and risks.
* Know your risk tolerance. If you’re losing sleep over the fate of your investments, you may be taking on more risk than you should. On the other hand, however, you may sometimes need to move outside your “comfort zone” to achieve your financial objectives. If, for example, you invest too conservatively, your portfolio may not provide enough growth potential to keep up inflation, which, over time, can be a real threat to your financial security.
* Work with a financial advisor who knows your situation. An ethical, professional financial advisor – someone who knows your needs, goals and investment preferences – should only recommend investments that are appropriate for you.
Between your awareness of the various regulatory agencies and your own informed actions, you can feel confident about your ability to invest – and that’s a good feeling to have.