The City Council strategized Tuesday on how to maintain control and decorum during an upcoming Town Hall Meeting as some officials expect business owners and residents to turn out in mass to complain.
“Here is what this is not going to be — a gripe session to beat up on us,” said Liberty Hill Mayor Michele “Mike” Murphy.
Mayor Murphy will serve as moderator for the public meeting, which is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Nov. 7 in the Liberty Hill High School cafeteria.
The Council voted unanimously last month to host a town hall meeting to educate the community on three issues — reasons for a recent property tax increase, water and wastewater utilities, and the City’s sign ordinance. Officials say they are fielding many questions on those topics, primarily from business owners who live outside the city limits, but also from some city residents.
“This needs to be structured so that it isn’t a free for all,” the Mayor said. “We will have order at this meeting. Too little structure means chaos. If we aren’t careful, we will end up with four or five people monopolizing the room.”
Although the Council was meeting in a workshop Tuesday and could not vote on any matter, it appeared to be the consensus among those present that questions from the audience would be submitted in writing before the presentations begin.
The three Council members present Tuesday will be discussion leaders, presenting current information and background. Jack Harkrider will be the first to address the community and will discuss the reasons behind a property tax increase this fall. Mike Crane will lead the discussion on water and wastewater utlities, and Byron Tippie will lead the presentation on the City’s sign ordinance.
Council members Charles Canady and Lisa Kirk were not present Tuesday.
The Council will allow up to one hour on each topic during the three-hour town hall meeting. At the conclusion, members of the audience may step forward and make a one-minute comment on one of the designated topics. Council members agreed this should not be a time for more questions and if someone posed a question, it would likely not be answered at that time.
“Hopefully, we will hear ideas that will be considered in the future,” the Mayor said. “It does matter to us what they say.
“I think we will get good input if we structure it this way. There will be some venting because people want to have their say,” she said.
“With the amount of calls I get, my biggest concern is that we have lots of concerns out there,” said Crane. “I think there are a lot more (concerns) than you think. No one knows what’s going on.”
Council members agreed that there has been a great deal of confusion among business owners and residents in the past. Specifically in the areas of wastewater service and grinder pump installation.
“People don’t know that grinder pumps belong to them,” said Crane. “These are the kind of things people are concerned about. They own the grinder pumps and the City shouldn’t be replacing them. We need to be upfront and open about these things.”
“We can’t be responsible for what’s happened in the past,” added Mayor Murphy. “We have to be prepared with better business practices going forward.”
City Manager Manuel De La Rosa said the City “made mistakes in the past. They violated their own ordinances, but now that we know better, we can’t continue. It was inexperience more than ignorance.”
“People may have forgotten when the sewer was first proposed and how long it takes to get it,” said Harkrider. “There are a lot of things we need to do and will take time to get it done.”
De La Rosa said the forum will be a good opportunity for the City to gather input on policy matters that may need to be addressed.
In the meantime, City staff has been doing research to compare sign ordinances and various fees charged by other cities. Specifically, he said staff has looked at requirements in Bertram, Hutto and Burnet.
“I always said that if we weren’t in the ballpark (on permitting fees), I would bring that information to Council,” he said. “We are in the ballpark. Our fees are not driving people away, they are just bringing in a different kind of people.”
De La Rosa said staff will provide background information to Council members prior to the town hall meeting.
“I think if we can avoid Manny (De La Rosa) saying anything (during the meeting) we should do that,” said Harkrider. “They (the community) want to hear from us (Council members).”
When it comes to higher taxes, Harkrider said there is still confusion.
“They’re looking at percentages, which is a totally different way of looking at it, and what it’s going for,” he said. “They don’t know what the rates are and don’t know the comparison to cities in this area and Williamson County.”
“There will be people coming here because of what Liberty Hill is turning into and people will leave because it’s not been what it’s always been,” said Mayor Murphy. “We have to provide it (services) at a reasonable cost and hope people can get it together to pay for it.”