Editor: Shannon Cottongame
November 25, 2022
Sidewalk ordinance discussed…
The Whitney City Council met in a regular session Thursday, November 17, to consider several agenda items, including an extension of an economic development agreement for the local urgent care facility and a proposal to regulate the display of merchandise on city sidewalks.
Ayushi Agarwala of HealthNow Urgent Care requested an extension of the agreement originally made in 2019 between the city and her company, AVSM Investments. The agreement outlines a five-year extension to the contract, which provides an annual rebate to the company on its city taxes in the form of a grant.
In return, the company must maintain at least 15 full-time employees and submit an annual report to the city for verification.
Agarwala told the council that the original agreement was contingent upon the company employing eight employees, but the facility has doubled that number and continues to grow. She added that the company continues to make significant investments in the property and the urgent care facility and serves as a critical cornerstone of the community by providing health care.
The council voted 3-1 to approve the economic development agreement with Council Member Martis Ward voting against the proposal.
Council members and citizens in attendance held extensive discussion regarding a proposed ordinance that would regulate outdoor displays of merchandise on downtown Whitney sidewalks. Mayor Jerry Barker said that he was bringing the proposed ordinance, which was drawn up by the city attorney, before the council because of the number of complaints that the city has received.
Mayor Barker said that his research had confirmed that all sidewalks in downtown Whitney belong to the city, and it is required by federal law that they be accessible to those who use wheelchairs and other mobility assistance devices.
The ordinance would require that business owners wanting to display merchandise receive a free permit from City Hall detailing what kind of items would be displayed. They would also have to bring their items indoors at night, leave ample passageways on the sidewalk, not use more than 50% of the width of their building for outdoor displays and store items on weather-resistant or metal shelving when practical.
While council members agreed that laws regarding accessibility must be adhered to, there were concerns among the council and a downtown business owner in attendance about how the ordinance was written.
Issues raised included fears that the ordinance would create a restrictive environment for businesses and concerns that all businesses would not treated equally under the ordinance based on the type of merchandise sold. On the other hand, a benefit of having a permitting process would be reduced liability to the city for any harm that occurs to someone on a cluttered sidewalk.
After discussion, the council opted to hold a workshop and rework the ordinance before sending it back to the attorney with the council’s recommendations. The vote was 3-1, with Ward voting against moving forward with the ordinance.
In the meantime, the city can enforce the federal requirement that 36 inches remain open to pedestrians. Interim Police Chief Hugh Corbin said that if a member of the public complains or if officers notice a violation of law, a business could receive a warning or citation under existing law.
In another agenda item, the council voted to delegate the authority to approve minor plats to the mayor. The decision was based on an ongoing issue that developers and citizens have had when attempting to have minor plats and replats approved in a timely manner. Mayor Jerry Barker said that large subdivision plats will still come before the City Council for approval. A minor plat involves only four or fewer lots. The mayor said that the change would be convenient for citizens and allow them to proceed without waiting to be placed on a council agenda. The motion passed 3-1, with Council Member Valery Peacock voting against the proposal.
Th council approved the transfer of funds from the Coronavirus State & Local Fiscal Recovery Fund to the city’s general fund and authorized expenditures. The $279,832.65 in federal funding will be allocated to several efforts, including the purchase of police vehicles, the expansion of the police department, public works infrastructure and information technology security upgrades.
In a related agenda item, Director of Information Technology Services Ben Keith made a presentation to the council on the importance of cybersecurity upgrades as cities are faced with an increasing number of ransomware attacks.
The attacks block access to a computer system until money is paid to the hackers, who are often located in other countries.
Keith said that operating on end-of-life software and hardware is the number one risk factor for cities. He noted that 22 Texas towns were hit with ransomware attacks in a 30-day period of 2019, and attacks have continued since that time.
He said that one city paid a $3 million ransom and was still unable to get their system up and running to conduct the city’s business for eight months.
Keith said that the federal funds allocated to the city provide an opportunity to minimize the risk with upgrades.
The council also approved a request from Steele Creek Acres Volunteer Fire Department to hold a benefit softball tournament at the city park Saturday, December 3, from 8 a.m. to midnight.
In departmental reports, Event Coordinator Pam Townley reported that the Halloween Trunk or Treat event went well and there has been good response to upcoming Christmas events, including parade entries and citizens interested in placing personalized ornaments on the downtown tree. Council members Ward and Jason Ince mentioned that multiple community members have requested that the city’s Halloween events be held on the actual date of Halloween in the future, and a decision was made to pursue this schedule in the coming years.
Library Director Denise Carter highlighted information that is available in the library’s newsletter at http://www.whitneylibrary.org, including the library’s 100 Books Before Kindergarten program and the new Money Monsters program, which teaches young people from three years of age through high school about finances.
Interim Chief Corbin reported that the police department stopped 176 vehicles in October and issued 72 citations. The police department continues to have openings and is making do with its available staff while attempting to hire new officers.
Interim Fire Chief Roy McCleary reported that the fire department responded to 66 calls in October, including 17 fires, 45 medical calls and four vehicle accidents.
EMS Supervisor John Martin reported that medical personnel had responded to 495 calls in 2022 and expect to have responded to around 600 by the end of the year. The average response time from 9-1-1 call to arrival on scene is five minutes and 10 seconds.
Public Works Director Billy Pribble said that Christmas lights would soon be going up and downtown sidewalk and park improvements are planned. The department has hired an individual with 16 years of experience working for the Garland Parks Department and other employees continue to expand their training to better serve citizens. The repair and replacement of fire hydrants was continuing, and he said that the water meter pilot program is going exceptionally well.
In open forum, the council heard from Glenn Koons, who owns downtown property on Railroad Avenue, about an issue he is having. He said that he frequently works with the city and organizations to allow his property to be used for downtown events as long as insurance requirements are met, but he is increasingly having a problem with unauthorized parking on his property on a regular basis. The vehicles often block access to his home, and signs and other barricades that he has put up have been stolen or vandalized. Koons said that he does have the legal authority to put up vehicle barriers, but he has been hesitant to do that because he is willing to make the property available for city events.
The council’s next regular meeting date is Thursday, December 15.