— Updated, Monday, March 30, 2020.
The Woodlands Township Board of Directors hosted the first “virtual” online meeting in township history Wednesday night with the seven directors using a video conferencing computer program called “Zoom” to conduct about a 90 minute meeting.
Aside from actions such as approving the cessation of all incorporation planning studies and extending the work-agreement with township President and General Manager Don Norrell, the board also took action on several other items.
Here is a quick look at some of the other agenda items discussed and acted upon Wednesday.
Board forms COVID-19 response team
Board Chairman Gordy Bunch recommended appointing several board members to special, newly created roles to cope with the COVID-19 novel coronovirus pandemic as well as making a new budget preparation task force to tackle economic issues stemming from the pandemic. The moves were approved unanimously by the board.
Director Ann Snyder, who has an extensive personal and professional background in charitable organizations, was tabbed as the board’s nonprofit liaison.
Director Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, who is a retired physician specializing in dermatology, was appointed to be the township’s liaison with various governmental public health entities.
A new budget planning task force was also created in an effort to begin the difficult work of sorting through the economic impacts of COVID-19 that have emerged from the closures of businesses across the township and loss of sales tax and hotel occupancy tax revenues. The township normally begins their budget planning in late July with several meetings before hosting an entire week of planning meetings in August to finalize the next year’s budget.
To get a head start on that process, Bunch appointed directors Bruce Rieser, John Anthony Brown and Bob Milner to the task force, which will begin work immediately to plan for contingencies as revenue from sales and HOT taxes drops. Rieser is also a member of the township’s long-standing Ad Hoc Economic Development Committee and has a lengthy career in the private sector dealing with economic issues in the airline industry. Milner is a professor of experiential business at San Houston State University and owns multiple successful car dealerships across Texas and in several other states.
Anadarko tax abatement canceled
The board voted 6-1, with Director Ann Snyder a vigorous ‘no,’ to cancel a 10-year tax abatement agreement with Anadarko three years earlier than planned. Anadarko, which was acquired by Occidental last year, had more than 4,300 employees working in two towers in The Woodlands, however after the merger, Occidental officials decided to not move their headquarters to the township and in turn, removed an estimated 2,800 staff from their facilities in The Woodlands.
Because the current 1,500 employees are less than the tax abatement agreement had originally mandated (2,000), the township worked with Occidental and Anadarko officials to come to a mutual, voluntary agreement to cancel the tax abatement. As part of the deal, Occidental and Anadarko will repay the township an estimated $2.2 million in back sales tax that has previously been waived.
Township board Chairman Gordy Bunch said the extra $2.2 million in revenue will be a big help to the township as budget planning to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic begins.
“Our community desperately needs these funds,” Bunch said of the back sales taxes the township will receive.
Snyder had argued unsuccessfully to have the item tabled or deferred to a future date, but she was over-ruled by other directors and township legal counsel Robin Cross, who explained the township does not operate under Roberts Rules of Order and he procedural move was not valid. Snyder said she did not understand why Occidental has decided against relocating their headquarters to the township, citing prior meetings where the company’s leaders had seemed to be leaning toward choosing the township.
Director Bruce Rieser said he hoped in a few years, Occidental may change its plans and move its headquarters to The Woodlands, but for now, ending the abatement was the proper thing to do.
“We do have a hole in the budget,” Rieser said, referring to COVID-19 economic calamity. “We had a contract with Anadarko that they did not fulfill.”
Board OKs contract for YMCA Dragon Boat races
The board did not act on a possible five-year contract renewal with the Ironman Triathlon, but they did vote to approve an agreement with the YMCA Greater Houston to allow the YMCA to use Lake Woodlands, where the wildly popular YMCA Dragon Boat Challenge races are hosted each year. The new deal, however, removed township funding of more than $4,000 a year that was part of a previous host-venue sponsorship agreement.
The YMCA will now have to foot the bill for the usage of NorthShore Park, where the races are hosted over a four-day period each fall.
Norrell has contracted extended
The board approved unanimously a two-month extension of the employment contract with township President and General Manager Don Norrell, who was originally slated to retire on April 30, but will now stay on the job until June 30. Norrell had been asked to remain on the job to help the township cope with the COVID-19 pandemic responses. He said after consultation with his wife and family, he would remain on the job to help the community he said he cherishes.
The process to find Norrell’s replacement is also in limbo due to the COVID-19 crisis, with plans to have interviews of potential candidates temporarily on hold. The township hired an executive search firm in late 2019 to manage the search for Norrell’s replacement, however the process has been secretive and no names of possible candidates have been released.