Court considers 'school land' issues
by PHILLIP WILLIAMS
Nov 21, 2013 | 1341 views | 0 0 comments | 34 34 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Courtesy Photo / USDA<br>
A PHOTO of Throckmorton County.
Courtesy Photo / USDA
A PHOTO of Throckmorton County.
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Upshur County Commissioners Court on Friday approved a surface-use agreement involving its West Texas “school land,” but took no action on approving division orders on the property because of questions over how much of the mineral rights the county owns.

Certain revenue from the land in Baylor and Throckmorton Counties is annually distributed among the nine school districts lying partly or wholly in Upshur County, with each district’s share depending on its number of students residing in the county.

The court approved the surface use agreement with John M. Clark, which Pct. 4 Comm. Mike Spencer said would bring in between $50,000 and $80,000 when accepting the initial offer would have only netted $8,000. He said that for the information of the county’s school districts, “we’ve negotiated well.”

But a discussion with some citizens about the division orders—contracts with mineral interest owners which show what percentage they will receive—led County Judge Dean Fowler to assert that “misinformation” and “false allegations” were circulating among the public about that matter. He said citizens could come talk to him and commissioners about the issue.

The county’s schools are expected to hire a landman to determine the county’s portion of mineral interests on the West Texas land. Big Sandy ISD Supt. Scott Beene, one of five superintendents to attend Friday’s court meeting, told commissioners that two schools (New Diana and Ore City) had not yet acted, but he expected them to.

A citizen, John Melvin Dodd, led off Friday’s discussion of the division order by saying he understood the court received the order more than a year ago. He asked when it was first sent. Dodd also said he understood that more than 4,000 barrels had been sold from one well on the school land, and asked how many barrels in all had been sold.

He also inquired how many wells on the property were on line, and how much money was being held for Upshur County school districts.

Fowler replied he thought he had received the first order, dated February, at March’s end. He said he had wanted to see what the county owned in the area.

The judge said the county received more orders in September and October, but that school superintendents hired a landman to try to determine mineral ownership, which “will help us.” Fowler said he wanted to wait until the landman makes his finding to act on the orders.

The judge also said four wells are in production, and the county has received division orders for three. Some $179,078 is being held in escrow for the county’s Permanent School Fund, he added.

Pct. 3 Comm. Frank Berka said a division order had been sent in August, 2012, to the county Justice Center. He cited several production figures on three wells on the property before Pct. 2 Comm. Cole Hefner said surface damages could be as high as $80,000, which goes into the County Available School Fund that is distributed annually among the schools.

Berka said his concern was signing a division order when “I’m still not comfortable” about how many mineral rights the county owns. Added Fowler, “If we sign the division order as it is, and it’s wrong, then we’re stuck with the percentage. . . ”

But Upshur County Democratic Party Chairman Dan Miles Jr. complained to the all-Republican court that it had debated three years ago who owned how much of the mineral rights, and “This court has wasted so much money. . . The court needs to hire a professional.”

Replied Fowler, “We haven’t wasted any money on this.” He said the county hadn’t been willing to spend funds to clear up the issue because the county government receives no revenue from the property, but that schools have stepped up to resolve the matter.

Berka also denied the county had wasted funds, and that he favored “due diligence” by the schools.

Pct. 1 Comm. Paula Gentry agreed the county hadn’t wasted funds, and pointed out that while “a lot of the counties have sold their (school) land,” Upshur County continues attempting to help schools by retaining its West Texas property. County Treasurer Myra Harris said her office has been bombarded by offers to buy the land.

After Mrs. Gentry said she wanted to wait to see what rights the county has, and Spencer said it is “easier to do it right the first time,” the court tabled the issue without a formal vote.

On another matter, the court Friday approved paying $7,813.62 to the County Clerk Cash Bond Account to correct errors from prior years.

County Auditor Brandy Lee, who was County Clerk for about 2 1/2 years before resigning recently to become auditor, said defendants in criminal cases had been refunded their bail money from the account when funds weren’t put in there for it. The funding was instead deposited into another regular account, and the office forgot on several occasions to write a check to put in in the correct account, she said.

When that regular account was closed in 2009, the clerk’s office “gave y’all a little too much” to put into its general fund, she told the court. Mrs. Lee said she had been working on resolving the matter since becoming County Clerk in 2011, and that her successor, County Clerk Barbara Winchester, was in accord with her. (Mrs. Lee also told The Mirror on Monday the errors occurred from 2001-2010, but there was no misconduct involved.)

“We just need to replace it (the funds),” said Fowler. He said that if he had tried a defendant’s case in his County Court, that person was entitled to receiving his/her bond money back.

Concerning another issue, the court heard from several citizens before deciding to get further information prior to acting on restoring use of the fountain on the courthouse lawn’s north side.

The court had acted some time ago to make a planter of the fountain after its pump broke down, but Fowler said some citizens were willing to spend their money to restore its use as a fountain.

Randy Hill said the Barrett Foundation had pretty much paid for the fountain and that the foundation was unaware at first it had broken down. He said former Gilmerite Angie Clark Barrett had offered to provide funds to repair it, and to establish an account to maintain it.

He said spending $2,000-$2,500 to repair the fountain was no problem, and that the Gilmer Area Chamber of Commerce could handle the money and oversee maintenance of the fountain.

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Joan Small said the chamber would try to keep the fountain maintained.

Fowler pointed out, however, that when the largely state-financed historical renovation of the courthouse occurs, the county must get a waiver to keep the fountain on the lawn or move it across the street.

Gilmer City Mgr. Jeff Ellington said the fountain had been part of the city’s Main Street Program, but that Gilmer no longer participates in that. Fowler said the county owns the fountain.

Berka said he had no problem with hiring a pool company and referring it to the foundation, but Spencer implied he would like to leave the county government out of the matter and have the chamber handle it.

When Chuck Mears, the county’s building maintenance supervisor, asked what his role would be, Fowler said, “We’re not going to spend any money on it. You’ve not going to have to do anything.”

Fowler said he expected a contract with a pool company would be needed, and that it could be paid up front before the payer was reimbursed.

Treasurer Harris said monies for the fountain could be put on the county’s books as a donation.

After that, Hill said he would get “solid figures” on repairing the fountain as Mrs. Barrett is “really concerned” about its status. Fowler said the court would delay action until it learns the cost.

The court also Friday okayed a resolution approving the county’s membership in the Longview Metropolitan Planning Organization at no cost, and designating the County Judge as a voting member of the Organization’s Transportation Policy Board.

Fowler said the federal government had designated Gladewater (which is partly in Upshur County), East Mountain and Glenwood as part of the Longview Metropolitan Area, and that the planning organization has transportation funds. The mayor of Gladewater will also be a voting board member, he said.

Also Friday, the Commissioners Court:

• Approved for recording, among other documents, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards Compliance Certificate.

• Approved requesting Auditor Lee to conduct Fiscal Year 2013 audits required by the Code of Criminal Procedure on Asset Forfeiture Reports prepared by the District Attorney’s and Sheriff’s Offices.

• Canvassed returns from the Nov. 5 election on proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution.

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