REFUGIO – Refugio County is suing the Texas Association of Counties for $1 million for failing to properly handle its claim from losses caused by Hurricane Harvey.
After Harvey struck the region, Refugio County immediately contacted the Texas Association of Counties and filed a claim on its insurance policy, but, the lawsuit states, the association “improperly denied and/or underpaid Refugio County’s claim.”
The adjusters assigned to the claim, the lawsuit states, “conducted a substandard investigation and inspection of the properties, prepared reports that failed to include all of the damages that were observed during the inspections and undervalued the damages observed during the inspections.”
Refugio County, like Victoria County, hired the Virtus Group to do remediation and repairs at the recommendation of the Texas Association of Counties. The little-known Kansas-based company, now called Commercial Restoration Company, has become the center of a controversy about whether Victoria County spent Harvey recovery money in the taxpayers’ interests.
Refugio County paid $893,047.36 to the Virtus Group after, like Victoria County, bypassing bidding laws and entering into a contract with the Virtus Group that is almost identical to the contract Victoria signed.
Representatives from the Virtus Group did not return requests for comment Tuesday.
Cary Roberts, the Texas Association of Counties’ media relations officer, said Tuesday he was not familiar with the lawsuit, filed in Refugio District Court, and “generally cannot comment on pending litigation.”
The lawsuit claims the association “breached its contract” with Refugio County by “failing to pay for and by undervaluing otherwise covered damages.” Refugio County Judge Robert Blaschke could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Victoria County Commissioner Gary Burns on Tuesday expressed his concern about the lawsuit and questioned what it means for Victoria County. Burns has been the sole Victoria commissioner continuously raising concerns about how the county handled the Harvey recovery process, including recently saying the court should consider requesting a Texas Rangers investigation.
“What I want to know is, why are they (Refugio County) ahead of us with this?” he asked.
Burns reiterated his concerns about why Victoria County has yet to provide the public more frequent progress reports about its own review of the work. Commissioner Kevin Janak has been working with a small team to fact-check information and review work done on county buildings after the hurricane but has yet to publicly share any report and has given no timetable for when a report will be complete.
“I can’t understand why these studies haven’t been released and we aren’t moving forward while Refugio is,” Burns said. “We have a bigger situation than Refugio does, and we don’t want to be dragging our feet.”
Victoria County Judge Ben Zeller said in a written statement that he could only comment about Victoria County’s experience with the Texas Association of Counties. He said, “They were fair and responsive in paying for the damage to our many buildings and even gave us an extension to recoup some additional money. I wouldn’t want to go through another disaster like Hurricane Harvey without the Texas Association of Counties in our corner.”
Victoria Regional Airport Commission Chairman Trey Ruschhaupt has been among the airport commissioners questioning the county’s management of post-Harvey repairs. He said he couldn’t comment about the lawsuit because he still has “very little knowledge of what our situation even is.”
“Because we are still waiting for information, I’ll be really interested to see how their suit goes and how it compares to us, and I’m sure other people will be, too,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll have information soon.”
Airport Commissioner Dennis Patillo said he still has the same questions that he’s raised in the past “but now, maybe even more so” because of the lawsuit. He applauded Refugio County’s actions.
“I congratulate Refugio for taking this step if they feel they were mistreated,” he said. “It is the public’s money we are handling, and matters need to be taken seriously.”
Grandparents and parents held up cellphones in the Victoria Community Center on Tuesday evening and snapped photos of their children and grandchildren atop Asian elephants and ponies at the Al Amin Shrine Circus’ opening night.
April Cloud was among those grandparents. She watched her 14-year-old granddaughter, Creasi Gohlke, riding an elephant and documented the moment on her phone with a smile.
“We drove in from Seadrift for this,” Cloud said. “Just to get her out and see the animals that they have.”
The Shrine Circus, produced by Carden International Circus, is one of few left in the country that still trains and uses elephants in its touring, three-ring, two-hour show. Dozens of families waited in line Tuesday to ride the enormous creatures, which are between 48 and 53 years old. Tigers, dancers and acrobats are also part of the colorful gig that has benefited the Al Amin Shriner Temple in Corpus Christi for decades.
But not all are entertained.
Representatives from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent an email in July to Jesús Garza, Victoria’s city manager, asking the city to reconsider allowing the family- owned circus to bring wild animals to town.
Melanie Johnson, a PETA representative, cited Victoria City Code Sec. 4-5 in the email, which states “no person shall keep, raise, feed, or maintain any wild or vicious animal for purposes of display or exhibition, whether gratuitously or for a fee; provided, that this section shall not apply to zoological parks.”
Wild animals are defined in Sec. 4-1 of city code as “any animal normally found in the wild state and all reptiles (including snakes) that are poisonous or exceed eight feet in length.”
Because there is no exception in the code for circuses, PETA urged the city to “consider at least requiring that the scheduled performance of this cruel circus go forward without elephants, tigers or any other animals.”
The City Council briefly summarized an evaluation of the email and code at a regular meeting last week. Garza said the code lacks clarification and could be improved, but the circus would still be allowed to operate as it has for decades.
“In the lack of that clarification in the code, we’ve sort of had to makeshift the process, and so when the circus comes into town, a member from the health department will go out and inspect, for a lack of a better term, the conditions of the animals,” Garza said during the meeting. “And if any irregularities are found, we’ll shut them down.”
David Gonzales, the director of the Victoria County Public Health Department, said a department representative visited the circus early Tuesday. To his knowledge, this is the first year concerns about the welfare of the wild animals involved have been raised to the city, he said.
“We just want to make sure that the public is safe and also that the animals are safe, well kept and in good health,” he said. “All the documentations looked to be in place, and the animals appeared to be in good health and safely housed.”
If an animal needs medical attention, the department also has a veterinarian able to assist, he said.
The circus has a zero-tolerance policy for verbal or physical animal abuse and “strongly opposes any form of cruelty or mistreatment,” according to its website.
The circus also claims it continues to “meet or exceed” all federal standards under the Animal Welfare Act, though members of the Carden Family, which runs multiple circuses, have received citations on more than one occasion. The violations included failure to provide adequate veterinary care and failure to handle animals properly, according to records obtained by PETA from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Andrea Enax, a Victoria mom who took her husband and two children to the show, said she had reservations about her family’s first trip to the circus after she had already bought tickets.
“We wanted to let them see the elephants, hopefully ride them, and experience something different,” she said. “I’m hoping they are treated well. I didn’t see very many good reports online after I had bought the tickets, and I was like, ‘Oh no, I really hope not. I really hope that is not the case’ ... There is no way for me (as a consumer) to tell if they’re being mistreated, but it is also really hard to support if they are.”
Public demand for animal-free circuses has grown in recent years as more cities enact bans under the consensus that wild animals have no place in circuses, where they have been found to be confined and forced to undergo cruel training practices and may pose a danger to the public.
With the growth of those concerns, some major players in the industry that were once booming with business have taken their tents down indefinitely. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, for instance, went out of business in 2017 after 146 years.
Feld Entertainment, the circus’ parent company, announced in 2015 that elephant performances would be phased out by 2018. Kenneth Feld, the chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, said the shutter was the result of dwindling ticket sales and high operating costs coupled with the elimination of its iconic elephant acts.
The circus’ last show at Reliant Stadium in Houston is the only other circus Cloud has taken her granddaughter to.
“They didn’t have elephants at that show; they had lions and tigers, but no elephants,” she said.
“They had elephants; you just don’t remember,” her granddaughter said a few minutes before the lights dimmed in the arena and a full crowd cheered with excitement.
“I guess not,” Cloud replied with a lighthearted laugh. “Anyways, we’re just hoping tonight is a good show!”
St. Joseph High School, whose home field has been Patti Welder Stadium for about half a century, played its first home game in Bloomington last week and will play there again Friday when the Flyers face Industrial.
The decision to play its home games at a different location was made after the Victoria school district raised its stadium rental rate to $1,200.
St. Joseph was previously paying $300 a game to use the VISD-owned stadium, which holds 3,000 people.
Bloomington, which has a capacity of about 1,000, is charging St. Joseph $600 per game, according to Bloomington Superintendent Mark Anglin.
VISD Athletic Director Bobby Jack Wright explained the increase was because of the district’s expenses to operate the stadium.
“As far as I’m concerned, they can play at Patti Welder,” Wright said. “They’re more than welcome to play at Patti Welder, but everybody has to understand those rates are based on the expenses involved. We’re not trying to make any money off anybody. We’re just trying to be fiscally responsible to our workers and the school district.”
Wright said the stadium rental rate increase applies to all schools that want to use the stadium – not just St. Joseph.
The raise also includes Memorial Stadium, where the Flyers have played three games since the 2016 season.
Memorial Stadium, which didn’t host a playoff game last season, has a capacity of 9,500.
“You have staff that you have to pay and you have to pay to clean the stadium,” Wright said. “We’re trying to do a better job of being fiscally responsible to the district.”
St. Joseph president John Gilley declined to comment about the rental increase.
“St. Joseph’s official stance on this topic is no comment, but we do value any past, present and future relationship with VISD,” he said.
VISD also raised rental fees for other athletic venues, he said, after district officials reviewed the rates.
“It’s not just a stadium issue,” Wright said. “We’ve had to go up on our aquatics center rates and our gyms at East and West (high schools).”
He added, “It’s across the board when it comes to raising our rates up to par of the year 2020. The cost of living has gone up, and so has running our programs at VISD.”
The Flyers have four home games left against Industrial, Houston Second Baptist, Fort Bend Christian Academy and Houston Westbury Christian. St. Joseph has not yet announced where its final three home games will be played.