2021: A Year in Review, Part 1
By DAVID TUMA and LYNETTE SOWELL
With 2020 in the rearview mirror, Belton and Bell County entered 2021 with an air of expectation, even as the area was continuing to deal with navigating the new world of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects. What followed was January snow, a weeklong freeze in February, followed by the “reopening” of Texas and the return of many of the activities that 2020 did not hold for the local community.
Incumbents Dan Kirkley (MPT), John Holmes, Craig Pearson and David K. Leigh filed for Belton City Council. All ran unopposed and as a result the election was canceled.
The council also approved a contract with CSP Utilities for the Loop 121 utility relocation project, for $614,102.
On January 15, the COVID-19 vaccine makes it to Bell County and Mayor Wayne Carpenter joined other public officials from nearby entities in getting the shot. The county initially received 3,900 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, and Bell County was selected as one of 28 COVID-19 vaccination hubs in Texas. The Bell County Public Health District had a waitlist of 4,000 people already registered for the vaccine. Of those 4,000 individuals, only those who fit within the eligibility criteria for Phase 1A – front-line workers and long-term care facility residents – and Phase 1B – individuals who are 65 or over, as well as those age 16 and over with certain health conditions, qualified at that time.
In January, bars with a wine and beer retailer’s permit were still only allowed to be open for to-go service. Non-essential businesses, under Gov. Abbott’s mandate, were brought back to a 50% occupancy rate due to the local number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Trauma Service Area L, in which Bell County lies.
Belton ISD announced that it was forming a Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, composed of students from the district’s three high schools.
The BISD board of trustees appointed Erin Bass to fill the vacancy of BISD board Area 2.
Over at Morgan’s Point Resort, Dalton Rice was hired as its City Manager, with his duties to begin on Feb. 1.
Belton’s Clarice Wick turned 100 on Monday, Jan. 18 and celebrated among family and friends with a COVID-friendly, outdoor birthday party at Chisholm Trail Senior Village, where she resides. Although the original plan of hosting a large dinner for Wick was canceled due to COVID-19, her community came together to surprise her with a celebration to remember.
The Belton City council approved a proposed River Farm Municipal Utility District (MUD) for a potential 1,775 single family home subdivision. This is agreement is similar to what the Three Creeks subdivision was created upon. River Farm is located east of IH-35 between Shanklin and Elmer King Roads just east of Toll Bridge Road. The agreement between the council and developers created the River Farm Municipal Utility District. Once the obligations related to the development of the property is completed, the City of Belton may annex the development.
Phase 2 of Library improvements began in February, which included a mural, stonework, handrails, new door, and landscaping.
On Feb. 5, the Belton Senior Activity Center celebrated 45 years of serving the community. First established on Feb. 5, 1976, the center first met at the current American Legion Post 55 building, and the center raised funds and received a grant to where it was able to construct a building at its current site on Mitchell Street.
Bell County announced a partnership with the Hill Country Transit District to provide feeder routes to the county’s three COVID-19 vaccination centers, and the Belton Area Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with the Texas Division of Emergency Management, began to offer COVID testing supplies to local small businesses free of charge.
The week of February 12-18 was the “Texas Freeze” or dubbed “Snovid” by some locals. The days of subfreezing temperatures coupled with statewide power outages impacted trash pickup service and utility billing, roads were impassable in many instances, pipes around town burst. On Feb. 17, the city issued a precautionary boil notice in the area near 6th and I-35. On the 19th, Stage 2 drought conditions were initiated to save water, to reduce consumption by 10%, followed by Stage 5 Drought Conditions initiated on Feb. 20, the highest level of restriction.
“I am urging all Beltonians to work together to address our current water situation. The freezing weather and power outages have seriously depleted our ability to deliver water to our citizens,” Mayor Wayne Carpenter said. “We are entering a Stage 5 Emergency situation and water usage should be limited to essential needs.” He encouraged those experiencing leaks in their home or business to call 254-933-5823 immediately to report the problem. Another precautionary boil notice was issued for area south of I-14, Auction Barn and Old Golf Course Roads.
By the 22nd, it was discovered that water conservation efforts over the past 24 hours made a significant difference and water pressure is up throughout the City, and Drought Conditions was rescinded.
Belton ISD opened up warming stations at two of its campuses to help the community.
In the midst of it all, a Belton couple, Quin and Sabrina Lear, welcomed Rowan Cordero Lear into the world on Feb. 15, at 10:48 p.m., at home, where he was delivered in the couple’s bathroom.
Prior to the big freeze, members of the Belton Educational Enrichment Foundation made the rounds to four BISD campuses, distributing at total of $15,000 in teaching grants for projects, which added to the $41,000 the previous December. The district campuses were closed the week of the freeze so assessments could be made to the facilities.
Local organizations banded together to offer emergency food distribution, serving thousands of local families.
Bell County residents noticed a change in March when, on March 10, Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was lifting the statewide mask mandate. The executive order also allowed businesses to open back up to 100 percent. Gov. Abbott cited vaccine availability along with treatments for COVID-19 as the reasoning behind the announcement.
On March 7, prior to Abbott’s announcement, a group of local parents held an “Unmask Our Children, Parental Choice” Rally at the Bell County Courthouse, to protest the continued practice of wearing face coverings in Belton schools.
In March, former Mayor Marion Grayson received the Beltonian Award. This award is given in recognition of longtime achievement in volunteer service to the Belton community. That service could be for service in education, church, a service organization, youth programs, or any area that improves the quality of life in Belton. It’s a legacy award. Marion served on the Belton City Council from 2004-2014, then as Mayor 2014-2020; with her final term being extended until November by the pandemic
The United States Army Corps of Engineers closed Belton Lake temporarily, due to three dogs and one puppy dying after getting into and ingesting some of the lake water. It was determined at that time that blue-green algae was present in the water.
An additional suspect was arrested in connection with an August 2020 shooting that killed 16-year-old male. Robert Garnett, 17, of Belton, was arrested by the Belton Police Department on a warrant related to the incident. Garnett is charged with murder and is being held at the Bell County Jail.
Yettie Polk Park received the designation as a Lone Star Legacy Park, by the Texas Recreation and Parks Society (TRAPS). In 2021, only seven other parks in Texas received this honor. A Lone Star Legacy Park is a park that holds special prominence in a local community and the state of Texas. To be considered for this designation, a park must endure the test of time and become iconic to those who have visited, played and rested on its grounds.
Two Belton High School students, Mitchell Boner and Benjamin Broom, were among 15,000 students nationwide to be selected as 2021 National Merit Scholar finalists.
In March, the Belton City Council recognized Bell General Contractors and TTG Utilities for their help during Winter Storm Uri.
With Belton and the rest of Texas “opening up,” Belton welcomed Market Days back to downtown in March.
On April 9, TxDOT began conducting a feasibility study on FM 2271.
Then on April 12, two men were arrested on multiple charges. Joey Perez, 36, was arrested on a retaliation charge related to a threat he made to shoot police officers. Perez made the threat on Friday, April 9, as he was being transported to Bell County Jail on a separate misdemeanor charge of Interference with Public Duties related to an April 7 incident where Perez and another man, 34-year-old Paul Estrada IV, of Temple, video recorded themselves interfering with a traffic stop. Estrada is also charged with Interference with Public Duties.
Perez and Estrada also face a third charge, misdemeanor Harassment, related to an April 9 incident at the U.S. Post Office in Belton where the men live-streamed an online video in which they harassed multiple patrons at the post office. When the patrons left the post office and went to the Belton Police Department to issue complaints about the activity, Perez and Estrada followed them there and continued the harassment and intimidation.
Perez and Estrada refer to themselves as First Amendment auditors. Both were active for several weeks recording and commentating on area police activity and posting it online.
Judge Gordon G. Adams of Salado, announced that after 21 years, he would be retiring from the 169th District Court. His term was to end on Dec. 31, 2021.
Also in April, the Belton City Council authorized a $5.2 million project to expand sewer southward, to the Lampasas River area and build a regional lift station there. The infrastructure will serve the planned River Farms development in the area.
Council also authorized spending $118,900 to design a 12-inch waterline to replace a faulty 8-inch line under E. 6th Avenue (Comay Street to Waco Road), and awarded a $586,230 bid to Texas Materials Group to resurface up to 39 streets in Belton.
The Belton Senior Center received an additional grant of $25,000 from the City of Belton to help with grocery distribution for seniors in the community. The check was presented by Mayor Wayne Carpenter to Judy Owens, the Activities Director for the center. The distribution of the grocery bags continued every Friday, with up to 60 bags available containing items such as bread, milk, toilet paper, eggs, paper goods, fruits and vegetables, meats, and potatoes or pasta.
The Bell County Museum received the Mitchell A Wilder Award for Excellence in publication and media design at the Texas Association of Museums’ Annual Conference. The award is named after Mitchell A. Wilder, who founded the highly respected Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. He built a sizable collection of paintings, particularly American artists, established active museum publications, and established one of the country’s largest photography collections. The example he set regarding excellence in museum exhibitions inspired the award to be named in his honor.
Belton Independent School District held their trustee elections on Saturday, May 1, 2021. Chris Flor was voted into office, beating Brent Coats by 15 votes. Erin Bass, who was appointed to a vacancy earlier in the year, ran unopposed on the May ballot.
City councilmen John Holmes, Dan Kirkley, Craig Pearson, and David K. Leigh were sworn in after the recent city elections. Leigh was voted as Mayor Pro Tem.
Meanwhile, Dennis Green was sworn in as mayor of Morgan’s Point Resort, replacing former mayor Dwayne Gossett.
Belton High School’s orchestra director, John Fairlie, retired after nine years with BISD and was celebrated for his contributions to education.
The 2021 Johnny Boren Memorial Bull Riding event was held May 8th at Bad Dog Rodeo Arena at 5204 Elm Grove Road in Belton. Live entertainment was provided. featuring Kyle and Beau Heitmiller with a live auction starting at 2 p.m. The event benefitted the Cowboy and Cowgirl scholarship fund.
The Rotary Club of Belton celebrated 100 years in the community on May 11.
The Belton ISD Board of Trustees approved the hiring of Kimberly Winters as the next principal at Belton New Tech High School @ Waskow. Winters was the principal of Pearson Ranch Middle School, a science, technology, engineering, art and math-focused campus in Round Rock ISD she helped open in 2016. Her 20 years of education experience also includes leading Noel Grisham Middle School in RRISD, a campus with an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program.
Bell County Commissioners approved a resolution to designate State Highway Loop 121 between I-35 and I-14 as Sheriff John Rhoden Memorial Highway, which comes from approval of the resolution HB532.
This decision was also approved by the Belton City council.
The council also endowed three scholarships to the three graduating seniors from Belton High School through Waste Management Services: Audrey Hafner, Kade Elkins, and Reuben Jimenez.. Hafner received a $2,000 scholarship for academic excellence and volunteer services. Mr. Elkins and Mr. Jimenez each received a $1,000 scholarship as well.
In addition to honoring BHS students, the council also honored three volunteers from the Belton Fire Corps for their hours dedicated to emergency services, which include one volunteer who had accumulated over 4,000 hours of service and had a plaque signed by both former President Trump and President Biden.
Belton High School’s top graduating seniors were recognized, Valedictorian Gautam Ghamande andsalutatorian Mitchell Bonner. The two had the top spots in a class of over 700 students.
Belton New Tech High School likewise spotlighted its top two, Valedictorian Kylan Menapace and Salutatorian Nick Garcia.
The Belton Fire Department held a dedication of its renovated fire station building on Penelope Street.
The Belton City Council approved a façade grant in the amount of $20,000 for a business at 110 N. Main Street. The property is part of a commercial block constructed in the 1870’s and was destroyed by fire and replaced by the current commercial block built in the 1940’s. The property was recently purchased by the owners of Woodhouse Day Spa. The owners relocated their growing business, and the total cost of the construction for the front and rear of the building is $40,000. One of the unique features of the project is a new mural at the back of the building to be painted by the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Art Department. The grant application was approved by the Historical Preservation Commission prior to council approval.
Also, the Belton city council looked ahead, spending an afternoon in dialogue with senior city staff about the direction of Belton over the next five years. Strategic Planning has been a hallmark in Belton municipal government for two decades, and dialogue between council members and senior staff helps flesh out the details that are necessary to plan effectively. The city is expected to grow by 7,000 over the next several years.
A conglomerate of churches from all over Bell County came together for the first-ever community faith restoration event at Yettie Polk Park on Saturday, June 12.
The Belton Area Chamber of Commerce began accepting applications for the 4th of July Parade. The annual had changed to a virtual event last year, but returned this year to its prior format of many decades past. The city as well began preparation for its annual July festivities, with the chamber also kicking off festivities with a downtown street party on June 26.
The Belton ISD Board of Trustees approved the hiring of Christy Chandler as the next principal at Lakewood Elementary. Chandler has served as a campus principal for 10 years, most recently at Deering Elementary School in Pflugerville ISD. Her 20 years of education experience also includes time as a classroom teacher, instructional coach and assistant principal at the elementary level.