By SHELLY WILKISON
Only one person expressed opposition on Monday to a proposed 21 percent increase in the city property tax rate. The comments came during the first of two public hearings on the proposed tax increase.
“If we do not take positive steps soon, Liberty Hill will be in severe economic straits when the rest of Texas is prospering quite well even under heavy inflation,” said Frank Spinosa.
Mayor Jamie Williamson has proposed a $0.09 increase in the tax rate to $0.536 per $100 property value. For the past month, she has explained that the increase is needed to pay down 2006 sewer construction debt that she says was not repaid by previous councils at the appropriate levels and must now be covered.
The Mayor has also proposed an $864,635 budget for fiscal 2012, which begins Oct. 1.
Spinosa, who owns commercial property in the city limits of Liberty Hill, told the City Council that after reviewing city budget documents there appears to be “plenty of room to make cuts without raising taxes.”
Although the Council did not respond to his comments, Spinosa questioned the validity of numbers provided, adding that some “numbers make no sense.”
He said it was wrong to compare 2012 proposed expenditures with budgeted numbers from years ago. Instead, the city should be comparing proposed expenditures to actual expenses from the past. He said members of the community who deal with budgets on a daily basis would be happy to help with the city’s budgeting process.
President of the City’s Economic Development Corp. Board of Directors, Spinosa was critical of a plan to utilize EDC funds on expendtiures that he says will not attract new business to Liberty Hill.
“We desperately need to put together an aggressive program to develop the economy here and that takes adequate funding,” he said. “With proper utilization of the funds available, we could have in excess of $150,000 to hire a part-time EDC person and have additional funds to invest in attracting businesses to our city. However, at this point, it appears that EDC funds are being used as a slush fund to fund miscellaneous city projects.”
Because the Mayor has proposed a tax rate above $0.50 per $100 value, the Council is required by law to hold two public hearings on the rate increase. The second hearing is set for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 10 in the Council Chamber at the Municipal Court Building on Loop 332. The Council will meet Sept. 17 to adopt a budget and set the tax rate.
The Council approved an engagement letter Monday with CPA Donald Allman to conduct a financial audit for the current fiscal year. At a price not to exceed $12,000, the purpose of the audit will be to “prove the numbers in your budget,” Allman said, adding that a forensic audit would be required to determine fraud or misuse of funds.
In the past, some Council members have suggested that a forensic audit is needed, but the work has not been authorized by Council vote.
Following an hour-long executive session, the Council voted unanimously to approve an Interlocal Agreement with the Liberty Hill Independent School District to provide wastewater service to the new high school facility. There was no public discussion on the agreement and the terms were not explained in public at the time of the vote.
The agreement was requested from the City by The Independent under the Open Records Act, but was not provided by press time Wednesday.
LHISD Superintendent Rob Hart, who was present at the Council meeting, told The Independent after the vote that the district would pay $140,000 to connect to the city’s sewer system. Once connected, the district will pay commercial rates for usage.
Hart said the agreement calls for completion of the project by April 1, 2013. The school, which is located outside the city limits on State Highway 29, is scheduled to open to students next fall.
Monday’s vote ended months of discussion, disagreements and threats of legal action between the two entities.
Hart said the parties agreed on the terms of the project in April.
“It took this long to finally make it happen and credit goes to this new council and a new (city) attorney, who put this at the top of the list,” Hart said.
Also following closed session, the Council voted 3-2 to approve a contract with Pete McKinney. There was no discussion in public meeting nor did the motion identify the terms of the contract, the amount that would be paid or the services that would be performed.
Council members Mike Crane and Byron Tippie voted in favor of contract, while Councilmen Wendell McLeod and Sammy Pruett voted no. Mayor Williamson broke the tie by voting for the contract. Council member Vicki Brewer was not present Monday.
The Independent requested the approved contract through the Open Records Act, but it was not provided by press time Wednesday with the explanation that “it had not been signed.”
After further pressed to provide the basic terms of the agreement, City Secretary Tammy Kirk said that McKinney will be paid $50 per hour for “Building Inspector, Code Enforcer and Administrative Consultant.” She said the length of the contract is one year and can be terminated by either party with 30 days notice.
In July, the newspaper requested the proposed contract for services submitted to the City by McKinney, a former city employee. Mayor Williamson said the document was not public information because the Council had not acted on it.
In other business Monday, the Council approved a change order on the sewer construction project requested by engineering firm Steger Bizzell for $9,584.
Among the items submitted for additional payment was removal of a tree at RR 1869 and Snyder’s Trail in the amount of $3,400.
Jim Cummins of Steger Bizzell later told The Independent that the cost of tree removal is reflective of the amoung of work involved.
“This is a large tree and part of it is damaged. The cost for removal includes cutting it up and hauling it off. It is tricky and it is right at the corner,” Cummins said, adding that it will be cut flush to the ground.
The Council voted 3-1 to approve the change order with Pruett voting no.
The Council voted 3-1, with Pruett again casting the no vote, to approve repairs to water Well #2 up to $15,000.
Water Utility Operator Bryan Kirk said the well pump would not restart after recent repairs were made to a chlorinator.
The worst case scenario would require the replacement of a pump and motor as well as damaged column pipe and electrical cable, said engineer Perry Steger.
“Because this (well) was the biggest producer, the other wells are stressed and school starts tomorrow (Tuesday),” Kirk said, adding that crews were standing by to begin the work the following morning.
“Not to say that you don’t know what you’re doing, but has someone else confirmed this?” Pruett asked Kirk.
Kirk replied that Severn Trent was working on the problem. He added that the well is 40 years old.
Pruett wanted to know the amount of profit that Tom Arnold drilling would be earning on the purchase of the replacement pump and motor, and said he thought the bid should show that information.
Steger said the company had a good reputation and the prices quoted were fair.
After the repairs were authorized, Kirk told the Council that water levels have dropped three feet at each well in the past month. He reported that Well #3 has air in the line and Well #4 is “showing signs of recovery with 40 feet of water there now.”
The new wells that are being constructed with funds from a county grant will not be fully operational until mid-October. However, the City can operate them and monitory them manually by the end of September.
Also Monday, the Council voted to appoint Gary Spivey to chair a citizens committee to explore various funding options to construct sidewalks and curbs along downtown streets. Spivey was not present at the meeting.
The Council also approved spending up to $200 to replace a tin horn on Carl Shipp Drive.
The Council tabled consideration of a resolution requesting the state release Loop 332 to the City.
During the public comments portion of the meeting, Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman Clyde Davis asked the Council to approve his panel’s recent recommendation to suspend the City’s Unified Development Code of ordinances until the code can be rewritten.
“It (news of the recommendation) was on the front page of the paper (The Leader, owned by Mayor Williamson), but it wasn’t on the (Council meeting) agenda,” he said.