Tempers flare as Council questions Mayor about proposed budget and need for tax increase

By SHELLY WILKISON

City Councilman Byron Tippie walked out of a budget workshop last week after the Mayor threatened to leave because Tippie and other Council members were asking questions about proposed expenditures in her 2012 spending plan.

“You are violating policy here,” Mayor Jamie Williamson told Tippie.

“Why are we here if we can’t ask questions,” he responded. “It just seems like we don’t know where all this (budgeted expenses) are coming from.”

Frustration levels remain high among Council members who were elected last spring after criticizing incumbents for tax rate increases. In recent weeks, Mayor Williamson and Council member Vicki Brewer blamed previous elected officials for not doing enough to pay down the city’s debt, which they say will take a $0.09 rate increase now to meet that obligation and pay for a proposed $864,635 spending plan.

During a budget workshop August 23, Tippie and other Council members questioned the Mayor about a number of line items in her budget proposal trying to find any savings in order to avoid a tax increase. Mrs. Williamson, who has repeatedly stated that she has spent an enormous amount of time preparing the budget, was not able to answer some questions about it, especially in the area of  water and wastewater utilities — areas she said were part of a 20-year spending plan created by  engineering company Steger Bizzell of Georgetown.

When asked to explain the salary of a water utility employee as compared to the city’s contract with Severn Trent, a company retained to manage the water and wastewater utilities, Mrs. Williamson said the Council was prohibited by law from discussing an employee in open meeting. However, the questions asked did not identify the employee by name, nor did they address performance issues. When Tippie asked why elected officials were not allowed to ask questions about the position, the Mayor  stood, collected her materials and started toward the door. Clearly angered by the Mayor’s behavior, Tippie gathered his belongings and left the building. Mrs. Williamson, who had not yet left the room, returned to the dais at which time Mayor Pro Tem Mike Crane made a motion to adjourn.

Mrs. Williamson, who arrived for the workshop 10 minutes after it was scheduled to begin, appeared to be frustrated at the line of questioning almost at the outset. As the hour-long meeting wore on,  she fielded questions from Tippie and others who asked her to explain various expenditures. It was the second of two budget workshops, with an early one cancelled for lack of a quorum — Tippie, Crane and Councilman Sammy Pruett were not present. After the Council’s budget workshop  July 31, Mrs. Williamson collected all of the budget documents from elected officials upon adjournment and would not provide the information to The Independent claiming the numbers would change. Revised and updated documents were provided to the Council in their agenda packets two weeks later prior to the August 13 regular meeting.

“We’re not raising taxes,” said Councilman Sammy Pruett, after he shared ideas for increasing revenue from other sources.

“We’re not?” responded Mayor Williamson, sarcastically. “What are you going to run your city on? We can do what they (previous councils) did and hope the sales tax comes in. I’m not willing to go there.  Would you like us to default on the loan?”

Referring to personnel expenses for the water utility operator, Pruett asked whether the city could save money by hiring someone who had the licensing to do the job as opposed to contracting with Severn Trent to oversee the utility work done by the current city employee.

“I can’t build a budget on maybe there’s a person out there (better qualified for the job),” Mayor Williamson said. “You’re trying to cut costs in this budget on a maybe person.”

Pruett also suggested that city residents who have yet to connect to the wastewater system be required to do so, or at least pay a monthly fee for “holding their place.” He said just as water customers pay a minimal monthly fee to have access to the water, even though no one is living on the premise, those who have grinder pumps installed but are not connected to the service, should still be required to pay a fee.

“The previous council chose not to do that after they committed us to $8 million,” the Mayor said.

McLeod admitted that he was one of the people who has equipment installed on his property, but has never utilized the service.

Mrs. Williamson responded that such a move would require adoption of a city ordinance and suggested Pruett contact the City Attorney “and ask him about that ordinance.”

Pruett also suggested cutting $60,000 that is allocated to connect a restroom facility at City Park on CR 200 to the wastewater system. The expenditure is supposed to be made from the budget of the City’s Economic Development Corp. — an idea that has been criticized by EDC President Frank Spinosa. The restroom itself will be built with funds from a Williamson County grant.

“You want to make them (customers) hook up (to the sewer) in town, but you don’t want to provide (sewer service) to the park?” Mrs. Williamson asked Pruett.

“The park should be the first place we cut,” Pruett said. “We can worry about entertainment later.”

After some discussion, but  no clear understanding from anyone as to why the restroom needed to be connected to sewer — whether it was a requirement of the grant, or whether the expenditure would be reimbursed with funds from wastewater bonds — Mayor Williamson agreed to remove it from her proposed budget. Despite all of the subsequent recommendations and questions from the Council, Mrs. Williamson told The Independent after the meeting that it would be the only item she would change in her budget proposal prior to Sept. 17 — the date it is scheduled to be considered for adoption.

“Is there anything you feel like in the budget that can be cut?” Pruett asked Mayor Williamson.

“If I thought there was, I would have cut and changed it,” she answered, adding that if he wanted something changed, he could send her “the numbers to plug in.”

Tippie asked the Mayor if any of the numbers in her budget were “padded” and proceeded to go through line items in certain departments asking why some amounts were proposed. “These are just fragments, but if we work through them, we can see some savings,” he said.

There was a brief discussion on a $20,000 line item for salaries in the budget of the Street Maintenance Fund. There is no city employee assigned to the job of maintaining streets, but Mrs. Williamson explained that she thought the monies were spent on “outside services” performed by non-employees such as mowing, window cleaning and office cleaning. Some suggested the city could save money by using volunteers for those tasks, or possibly probationers assigned to perform community service.

Although Tippie left the meeting before he got to the police department budget, Chief Randy Williams offered that “on mine they added outside services and I don’t know what that is.”

As in the case of the outside services, there were other questions asked that the Mayor could not address. She said Council member Brewer, who was not present Thursday, has access to all of the financial records and could answer the questions the following day. The Mayor said the bookkeeper contracted by the City “is only cutting checks.”

The City is required by law to have two public hearings on the proposed tax rate increase. The first was held August 27 (see related story) and the second hearing is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 10. The budget and tax rate must be adopted by Sept. 17.