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Trial scheduled to decide fate of Needville water tower

January 11, 2019

A Fort Bend County judge recently blocked demolition of a World War II-era water tower in Needville in connection with a civil suit filed against the city. A trial has been scheduled on Oct. 15 to decide the fate of what many residents argue is an important part of the city’s history.

Preservation efforts have been ongoing for roughly two years after city officials first proposed tearing down the water tower. Although saving the tower was one of Mayor Ernie Stuart’s promises during his 2017 election campaign, he now argues those who want to preserve the tower have had more than enough time to raise funds needed to restore the tower.

“It’s been over two years and they’ve done nothing. I can’t babysit these people,” Stuart said by phone. “People elected me to do what is right for the city and I don’t have time to worry about the water tower. I need to move on.” An image of the water tower was featured on Stuart’s election campaign page posted on Facebook at the time. The page has since been removed.

Leading efforts to save the water tower were members of the Needville Preservation Group, a non-profit formed by area residents who raised over $13,000 for the water tower. Lisa Thomas Morphis, who serves as director for the group, said she provided Mayor Stuart with a signed agreement from a restoration company totaling approximately $58,000. Using an additional $30,000 in funds allocated by the Needville Economic Development Corporation, Morphis and others argued preservation was possible without spending money from the city’s general fund.

Despite pleas from preservationists, Mayor Stuart and the city council approved a contract at the Nov. 17 for $45,000 with Rex Mechanical, a local air conditioning contractor, to demolish the tower.

However, demolition is now blocked due to a suit filed by former Needville City Councilmember Rick Sinclair and Korey Garza, who owns a business located next to the water tower. According to court records, test results from a state accredited testing laboratory showed that the tower was coated with lead-based paint. In the original petition, attorney Clifford Vacek argued the air and soil near the water tower would be exposed to environmental contamination if the water tower was torn down.

“The contractor hired by the city council is a nice guy, but I don’t believe he is licensed or accredited to handle this level of lead abatement,” Sinclair said.

“I also question if the contract was a single-source contract and if it was put out for bids,” Sinclair said. “When I was on the city council, we always bid out our contracts to make sure we got the best price and most qualified company to work for us.”

In a ruling issued by Judge Maggie Perez-Jaramillo of the Fort Bend County 400th Judicial District Court, evidence was presented at the Dec. 3 hearing that showed the water tower is coated with lead paint that would be “toxic if released into the air or soil” and the city’s contract with Rex Mechanical contained “no safeguards” in terms of protecting nearby residents and businesses from potential harm.

Mayor Stuart did not return calls seeking further comment.

A trial is scheduled Oct. 15 at the Fort Bend County Courthouse.

knix@hcnonline.com

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