City property owners could see tax hike

By SHELLY WILKISON

Blaming previous city councils for failing to do diligence to pay down the city’s debt on sewer construction, sitting Council members voted August 13 to hold public hearings to consider a $0.09 increase in property taxes.

While the proposed city budget and tax rate discussion appeared at the top of Monday’s regular meeting agenda, Mayor Jamie Williamson delayed the discussion until almost 10 p.m. While clearly the most important item on the agenda, the discussion on city finances took a back seat to a two-hour executive session that was held one hour after the meeting’s 6:30 p.m. start time. When the Council reconvenend in open meeting, only a few people remained in the audience.

Council member Vickie Brewer, who was not present during the first part of the meeting, arrived during the executive session and was present when the panel reconvened.

Mayor Williamson said that in 2011, “the City chose to only report to the County 73 percent of the debt,” which she said was supposed to have been paid at the rate of $500,000 every year for 20 years, but the amount paid was only $365,000.

“Vicki (Brewer) and I spent countless hours going through the budgets, the check registries, Truth in Taxation information to put the numbers together,” she said. “The numbers I gave the County were true, factual numbers and this (tax rate) is what they came up with.”

Mayor Williamson, who along with the other members of the Council complained during the campaign about tax increases imposed by previous city councils, said that in order to pay for proposed General Operating Fund expenditures of $864,635 and pay down the debt on 2006 sewer construction, it would take a tax rate increase from $0.446 per $100 property value to $0.536 per $100 value. She said property values are down inside the city boundaries, and the current tax rate will not bring in enough revenue to meet basic expenses while paying down the debt.

Data from Williamson County show the average value of a residence inside the city limits dropped from $105,796 last year to $101,790 this year.

If after two public hearings (August 27 and Sept. 10), the Council votes to adopt the higher tax rate of $0.53, property owners will pay on average almost $100 more in city taxes than they paid last year.

Mrs. Williamson explained that the Council in 2011 set a tax rate “and hoped” new revenues would come in. “I don’t like it any more than the rest of you do. It’s disturbing. It’s more than disturbing.”

She said the Council can raise the tax rate to $0.53 per $100 value without having to get voter approval — adding that $0.57 is the rollback rate.

While there was little discussion Monday about proposed operating expenses for 2012, Councilman Wendell McLeod noted that proposed payroll expenses are up.

“We’ve got to stop spending so much money,” he said.

The Council held one budget workshop July 31 and Councilman Sammy Pruett was not present. The first workshop was scheduled June 23, but could not be convened due to lack of a quorum — Council members Pruett, Mike Crane and Byron Tippie were absent.

When Crane suggested Monday that the Council hold another budget workshop, the Mayor became irritated.

“Where were you last Thursday from 9 to midnight when Vicki and I were working on the budget?” she asked.

Tippie responded that such a question was inappropriate and no one should have been working on the budget at those hours.

“I kind of need Council here for a budget workshop. If you want to do it, I really need all of you to be here,” Mrs. Williamson said.

The Council agreed to hold another budget workshop at 5:30 p.m. August 23.

Mrs. Williamson explained that two public hearings are required by law because the proposed tax rate will exceed $0.50 — the legal point at which Liberty Hill will no longer be considered a small city. Different rules for public notification and participation apply.

All Council members were present Monday and voted yes to set the public hearings on the proposed higher tax rate. Mayor Williamson, who has no vote except to break a tie, did not vote.

Prior to the discussion on the tax rate and budget, the Council heard from two local businessmen during the public comments portion of the meeting who were opposed to any type of tax increase.

Realtor Randy Odell reminded the Council that “it wasn’t too many months ago” that they were expressing their own opposition to raising taxes.

He said the area is still in a recession and elected officials should consider cutting expenses first. He noted fees paid to  engineers, and suggested the City might save on personnel expenses if improved technology is in place to monitor water supply. He also suggested the Council impose fees to connect customers to the sewer.

Frank Spinosa, chairman of the City’s Economic Development Corp. Board of Directors, complained that the proposed budget for EDC had been gutted.

“The idea of tax and spend doesn’t work,” he said.

“Liberty Hill is not going to grow just because of its location.”

Raising taxes sends prospective businesses elsewhere, he said.

In an unusual procedural move, Councilman McLeod left his position on the dais to address the Council from the speaker’s podium during public comments.  He said that employees had been hired for City Hall and the Municipal Court without having been finally approved by the Council. The employees were hired to fill vacancies in those departments and were interviewed and selected by a committee of two council members and the department head.

McLeod added that since the Council changed its position and voted last month in favor of taking over Loop 332 from the State, he has heard many negative comments from citizens still opposed to it.

In another vote, a proposed resolution regarding the transfer of the Loop was tabled after some Council members remain unclear as to what the Texas Department of Transportation intends to do to bring the road up to “new” condition before the transfer occurs.

Also, the Council voted unanimously to approve a bid from North Shore Homes to construct a restroom and pavilion at City Park on CR 200. Parks & Recreation Board Chairman Gregg Evans said the $85,000 bid was exactly the same as it was the first time the company submitted it and it was rejected by the Council. At that time, Pruett raised questions about the company’s profit margin on the job and asked the Council to put the project out for bids a second time in an attempt to get a local company to compete for the work.

No other company submitted a bid the second time it was posted.

“We have six months of volunteer hours on this project and the County is rubbing their chins (about reasons for the delay),” Evans said. “To be clear, this is not Liberty Hill money in any way. This is grant money (funded by Williamson County).”

In other business, the Council:

* Voted 3-1, with McLeod voting no, to award a bid of $80,620 to Control Panels USA, Inc. of Georgetown to install equipment at some city water wells  that will monitor water levels and protect pumps from running the wells dry should water levels drop. The project is paid for with revenue bonds.

* Rejected an ordinance proposed by the City’s engineer that would have affirmed compliance with a state law with regard to the types of activities that are prohibited in a designated radius near a public water supply source. Perry Steger said the proposed ordinance was about protecting the safety of the water supply. While the City is constructing two new water wells, the ordinance would not impact any existing residence. Crane made the motion to adopt the ordinance, but it failed for lack of a second.

* Approved a motion by McLeod to set a planning workshop at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, August 21. McLeod said the purpose of the workship is to “plan the future direction our city needs to take.”

When the Council reconvened from its two-hour closed meeting, Tippie made the motion to approve an agreement with the Brazos River Authority for maintenance and operations of the City’s wastewater treatment plant.

In the middle of his motion, however, he was interrupted by other Council members reminding him that the item was to be tabled.

Tippie apologized for the confusion and the item was tabled.

In other executive session matters:

* The Council also approved a negotiated settlement with McLeod for an age discrimination complaint that he filed against the City after his termination as water utility operator in December 2011. Under the terms of the settlement, McLeod will receive $25,000 — an amount covered by the City’s insurance with Texas Municipal League.

While the item appeared on the Council’s exeuctive session agenda, there was no discussion on the issue in public. McLeod abstained from the vote and did not go into closed session with the Council on that issue.

*  The Council took no action and had no public discussion on an Interlocal Ageement between the City and the school district regarding watewater service to the new high school facility.

*  Without public discussion, the panel approved an Interlocal Agreement with Santa Rita concerning sewer service.

*  The Council took no action on a proposal from VFW Post 8200 for property located at 102 W. Myrtle, and there was no public discussion.

*  A proposed agreement with Pete McKinney for contract services was tabled without discussion.