City Council ends planning session with eyes on budget

By SHELLY WILKISON

What was promoted as a workshop to plan a direction for the City of Liberty Hill ended after one hour Tuesday with the realization that planning is good, but everything costs money.

Chris Holtkamp, a senior planner with the Lower Colorado River Authority, told four members of the City Council during the planning workshop that the City had developed plenty of plans over the years.

“The question is why haven’t they been implemented,” he said. “What will be important is to find out why all the plans are sitting on a shelf and things haven’t been done. What are the barriers to doing what has been planned already?”

After reviewing goals that had been set by previous councils — some as recent as 2009 — it became clear that the City is not in a financial position to implement many of the good ideas of the past or present.

Rather than develop an entirely new plan this week, Holtkamp reviewed goals that had been set by the City as recent as 2009. He facilitated the development of that plan as well as a master plan for Downtown Liberty Hill that was never implemented.

Present Council members blamed any inaction on those who served before them, but also saw that some of the goals had been implemented to varying degrees.

In 2009, the Council’s top priority appeared to be the creation of a utility department that would oversee both water and wastewater systems. That became a reality last year, although Mayor Pro Tem Mike Crane suggested that the Council “needs to look deeper than what we have” to determine the most cost effective way to manage the department.

Another past goal was to develop a plan for facilities to house city staff. Council members agreed that this had been accomplished.

But when it came time to discuss unmet goals such as updating city ordinances, an annexation plan and economic development, business owners in attendance repeated ongoing complaints that the City is not doing enough to attract new business and expand its tax base.

Frank Spinosa, president of the City’s Economic Development Corp. Board of Directors, said the current City Council has cut the economic development budget to the point that the panel has little to work with. He said someone who specializes in economic development should be hired to get things moving for the city. Instead, the Council is considering a budget that takes funds from EDC for projects that he does not believe will attract business.

Holtkamp said bringing in new business and expanding the commercial base was the key to increasing revenue for city government. He agreed with Spinosa that in order to do that, the process for business creation should be simplified and added that to the list of goals.

When asked to identify priorities for the City, Mayor Jamie Williamson responded that upgrading the water system to add capacity and improve infrastructure is at the top of her list.

She said number two was road maintenance.

“But you (the City) don’t have the money. How are you going to pay for stuff,” Holtkamp asked.

Councilman Wendell McLeod, whose idea was to schedule Tuesday’s planning workship, said “we’re all scratching our heads. We don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Despite the promises made on the campaign trail, elected officials are facing the possibility that a tax increase will be needed to make ends meet in fiscal 2012. Mayor Jamie Williamson told the Council last week that previous councils failed to do diligence to pay down the city’s debt on sewer construction, and as a result, this Council could be forced to consider a $0.09 increase in the property tax rate. A second budget workshop is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, August 23.

“What we’re having to do is catch up from previous councils,” said Mayor Williamson.

“We need an action plan that grows revenues for the budget we develop,” Spinosa said.

“We need to be smart and get water and sewer on the ground first,” Mayor Williamson responded.

“We’re all just stymied,” said McLeod. “I guess we need to get through this budget first and then come back to this (planning).”

Council members Vicki Brewer and Byron Tippie were not present Tuesday.