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The American Rescue Plan will send $32 million to Victoria
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A total of $16 million came to the city and county of Victoria during the month of May.

The funds were the first installment of the American Rescue Plan stimulus funding for local governments. The second half of the funds will be paid to the city and county next year. Officials then have until the end of 2024 to use all of the funds.

“I know there’s a high interest from a lot of players wanting to know how we’re going to spend (the money),” said city manager Jesús Garza.

Both Jeff Bauknight, the mayor of Victoria, and Ben Zeller, Victoria County judge, have emphasized their desire to spend the money wisely not quickly. However, the city has moved more quickly to identify areas where they’d like to allocate money, while the county has refrained from discussing any plans for the money.

What is the American Rescue Plan?

The American Rescue Plan is a $1.9 trillion stimulus package that was signed into law by President Joe Biden in March. The package included nearly $350 billion in emergency funding for eligible states, cities and counties. Victoria County is set to receive $17.9 million through the plan, while the city will get $14.5 million.

In May the U.S. Department of the Treasury released interim guidance on how the money could be spent by local entities. The guidance allows for the money to spent to support public health expenditures, address negative economic impacts caused by the pandemic, replace lost public sector revenue, provide premium pay for essential workers and invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

Within those categories, however, recipients have the flexibility to “decide how best to use this funding to meet the needs of their communities.”

Local governments were able to submit comments on the guidance until mid-July, and final guidance is expected in the next month or two.

Victoria County’s priorities

The county has refrained from moving forward with any plans outlining how they will spend the money.

Zeller said they are waiting for the final guidance from the Treasury to be released and to hire a grants administrator to help with the process of allocating the money before they make any decisions. Zeller expects they will have that position filled within a couple months.

“We are very cautious with the budget and are being cautious with this,” said Zeller. “We’re eager to get the money, eager to get the guidance. We’re not in a hurry to spend the money.”

While nothing has been formally voted on by Commissioners Court, Zeller said he expects the court to use about $1.5 million to make up for lost revenue during 2020.

Other needs have been identified in the Sheriff’s Office, at Citizens Medical Center, internally, and from nonprofits in the community that the money could be spent on, he said.

“But until it’s in front of the court to deliberate on, I don’t want to speculate too much about what the court will want to prioritize,” he said. “We think the approach we’re taking is the most prudent route to go.”

City of Victoria’s priorities

The city’s staff, however, has identified nearly $5.3 million worth of needs the money could be used to address, which the City Council informally approved of during its July 20 meeting. Roughly $3 million of that the city expects to use to make up for loss of revenue in 2020.

The city then identified six other areas where they want to prioritize spending the stimulus money: broadband, utility infrastructure, organizational needs, the tourism and travel industry, economic development and community grants.

“Part of the challenge is there’s just so many different things that you can use the money for,” Garza said. “While $14.5 million sounds like a lot, because it is, it goes quick.”

Staff has suggested spending the remaining $2.3 million on funding current broadband initiatives, contributing to the Innovative Collective, a study focused on the city’s inflow and infiltration system, and a preliminary engineering assessment of the city’s Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition system, among other things.

Bauknight and other members of City Council have emphasized that they want this money to be spent on “transformational” projects.

“We’re looking to maximized the dollars,” said Bauknight. “We want something that’s going to have a multiplier effect, where it actually expands upon and maybe provides new services to the community.”

Community feedback

The city of Victoria has an online survey that residents can use to share how they’d like to see the money spent. Of the more than 60 responses the city has received thus far, the largest proportion of proposals fit within the category of community grants.

“I think that tells us there is a need/desire from the community, or expectation from the community, that we do establish a community grant program with these funds,” said Garza.

While the city has received a number of community grant proposals from organizations and individuals, Garza said they are still in the process of reviewing and vetting those proposals to determine what kinds of projects should qualify for community grants.

The county does not have any place that residents can submit their proposals for how the money can be spent, however, they will always welcome resident feedback, said Zeller.

“We’ll take feedback. We always get feedback. But I don’t see us prioritizing projects based on a resident survey. It’s going to be prioritized within the framework of our county priorities, county responsibilities,” said Zeller.

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Federal red snapper season for recreational anglers closes Thursday
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The recreational season for one of the Gulf’s most valuable and most regulated fish is coming to a close in federal waters off the Texas coast.

The final day of the red snapper season for federal waters will close one minute after midnight on Thursday — 65 days after the season opened, according to a news release from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The federal season for charters will end on Tuesday.

“For the fourth year in a row, Texas anglers were able to enjoy more than two months of red snapper fishing in federal waters,” Robin Riechers, director of TPWD’s Coastal Fisheries Division said in a news release. “This demonstrates the ability of TPWD to effectively manage the red snapper fishery by establishing federal season lengths and most importantly being able to keep state waters open year-round.”

State waters will remain open with a four-fish daily bag limit and 15-inch minimum.

Under an agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Services, Texas Parks and Wildlife establishes opening and closing of the red snapper fishery in federal waters that start 9 nautical miles from the shoreline.

The state annually uses data from creel surveys, historical landings and the iSnapper mobile application to calculate the state’s red snapper landings to monitor harvests. In agreement with NOAA Fisheries, the state must close the fishery when its allotted poundage of red snapper is reached for the year.

Management of the red snapper fishery has long been a topic met with bitterness and frustration by recreational anglers.

Starting in 1988, federal estimates showed that the fishery had been overfished since the 1960s. A rebuilding plan for the depleted stock was implemented and has led to some recovery, but the spawning potential of the population is still below the rebuilding target.

In the last two decades, a cycle of shorter federal seasons and greater uncertainty in recreational landing estimates during an era of increasing spawning stock biomass led to increasing distrust in assessment and management of the fishery, according to a study that Congress funded as part of legislation passed in 2017.

The legislation funneled about $10 million into that study, known as The Great Red Snapper Count. It also changed state-water fishery boundary for all states to 9 nautical miles from their coastlines and established an exempted fishing permit program that allowed states limited management of recreational snapper.

Published by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies in March, the massive study found that federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico are home to an estimated 110 million red snapper — more than three times previous federal estimates of about 36 million.

That figure includes 23 million along the coast of Texas. The majority of the newly detected fish were not in areas where snapper anglers fish, such as pipelines, natural reefs, oil rigs and artificial reefs but instead in bay bottom habitat that were previously unaccounted for.

The findings received a warm welcome from many recreational anglers and advocacy groups, such as the Coastal Conservation Association, which said the findings “mean that the foundation of everything NOAA thought it knew about red snapper is fundamentally cracked.”

“That is hugely reassuring for anglers who have suspected all along that something wasn’t adding up. The danger now is that NOAA will find a way to take the new fish “discovered” by the GRSC and somehow use them to patch up its broken management system,” the association said in a statement. “For all the disdain heaped upon the recreational angling sector by NOAA for the past 15 years, that would be an unacceptable outcome.”

Results were analyzed and only partially incorporated by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council’s scientific and statistical committee ahead of the 2021 season, which had little affect on the recommended annual catch. Exactly how the study will be incorporated into future assessment and management of the fishery remains to be seen.

“For the first time, now, we have something new and amazing and that is the absolute estimate. That estimate in itself doesn’t tell us how to manage the fishery … we have to basically combine that information with other information, particularly in order to actually get management advice,” Kai Lorenzen, of the council’s scientific and statistical committee, said during an April council meeting. “In a sense, the big question is not how many fish there are but how many fish you can sustainably take.”

“It is important to recognize there are broader options to making changes that will emerge from this information and we don’t yet know what those are.”

In a news release, Texas Parks and Wildlife said it plans to work with the National Marine Fisheries Service and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council to use the Great Red Snapper Count to better manage and sustain red snapper populations in Texas.

The council will continue ongoing discussions on assessment and management of the fishery at its next meeting at the end of August.

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VISD approved teacher pay raises
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Victoria school district teachers will see pay raises this school year, but maintaining them relies on a voter approved tax rate election.

The Victoria school board approved a $2,100 increase to all teachers during a special called meeting on Tuesday.

The pay increase is a 4% increase from the midpoint of district pay. This means teachers who are paid below the midpoint will see a more than 4% increase of their current salary while teachers who make more than the midpoint will see less than a 4% increase of their current salary, said Randy Meyer, the district’s chief financial officer.

The raises account for about $4 million, Meyer said.

“We want to recognize, that as an administration, that the 4% is a very aggressive amount to try to start catching up with the market but to us it’s not enough,” he said. “We want to continue to look for opportunity to pay our teachers more.”

The pay increase impacts all teachers except those who are new to the profession and new to the district, Meyer said. The district offers a competitive salary for first time teachers regionally, according to a study done by the Texas Associations of School Boards.

The TASB study showed that the Victoria school district is competitive in pay for the first five years of a teacher’s career, but salaries taper. It reported that Victoria’s average salary is $49,710 and the market average is $53,422.

Salaries and payroll make up about 85% of the district’s budget.

The pay raises come from available money out of the budget, but they can’t be sustained without a voter approved tax rate election, or VATRE, Superintendent Quintin Shepherd said.

“We’re kind of counting on passing a VATRE, which would come in this year, and that would then offset the salary increase,” Shepherd said during Tuesday’s meeting.

A bond planning task force proposed a 3-cent VATRE to the board during Tuesday’s meeting. The VATRE, if approved by the board, will be placed on the Nov. 2 ballot. It would go to teacher and staff pay raises.

If the community does not approve the VATRE, the district will use federal funds to backfill the salary increase, but that can only last for about two years, Shepherd said. After that, cuts will need to be made.

“We will be cutting programs and staff because we’ll have to make up a $4-5 million difference in our budget, and we have two years to do it,” Shepherd said. “If the VATRE does not pass, we immediately work on massive budget reductions.”

Board members were excited to see teacher pay raises in the 2021-22 compensation plan.

Board member Bret Baldwin said this last year has been extraordinary with COVID-19, and the teachers have gone well beyond the call of duty.

“I have to tell you I’m very pleased with what I see,” he said. “I think it’s well deserved.”

Baldwin encouraged the administration to continue looking for creative ways to compensate and show appreciation for the district’s employees.

Cynthia Wade, a fourth grade teacher at Crain Elementary School, said most teachers put in more hours than any of their contracts require, and they put a lot of heart into their work.

“Teachers work hard,” she said about the pay increase. “We’re in it more for the outcome than we are the income.”

Wade, an English teacher, said she received pay stipends a couple years ago, but a pay increase is guaranteed and creates a stable income. She also thinks it will help retain teachers.

In recent years, she has heard other teachers mention leaving because of the pay, she said.

Wade hopes community members show their support for teachers and students by approving a VATRE. She said the district needs both quality teachers and high quality programs.

She appreciates all the community support she already receives, Wade said.

“We love our kids. We love their kids,” she said. “We would do anything for them. We hope they can see our heart in that.”