Council raises taxes by 20% in split vote

By SHELLY WILKISON

After weeks of frustration, confusion, hurt feelings and short tempers, the Liberty Hill City Council voted 3-2 Monday to increase the tax rate by 20 percent to fund a $1 million budget for fiscal 2012.

Mayor Jamie Williamson broke two tie votes to set the tax rate at $0.53 per $100 property value and adopt the budget. Council members Vicki Brewer and Byron Tippie voted yes on both issues and Council members Wendell McLeod and Sammy Pruett both cast no votes.

Mayor Pro Tem Mike Crane, who was not present for the meeting, but was in the parking lot when the meeting adjourned, did not vote on either the budget or tax rate.

Crane told The Independent that he had just arrived from Lockhart where he had been working that day. The Council’s special meeting, which was posted Friday but was arranged many weeks ago, lasted 25 minutes.

Crane told The Independent that prior to Monday’s meeting, he had not been in favor of raising the tax rate. However, he said he could not say how he would have voted if he had been present. He said his opinion might have been influenced by the discussion. He added that he had not seen the final version of the budget that was adopted Monday and did not know the final total of expenditures.

Within minutes of opening the special meeting, McLeod made a motion to decrease the proposed tax rate below $0.50. His motion was seconded by Pruett, but failed with Mayor Williamson breaking the tie and voting no with Tippie and Mrs. Brewer.

“If we take it (the tax rate) down under $0.50, how would we do that?” Tippie asked McLeod.

“I don’t know. Just do it. Reduce the budget,” McLeod responded.

Mrs. Williamson said a tax rate of $0.49 per $100 value would not pay for the proposed budget, along with a 2006 debt payment of over $500,000 for sewer construction.

“They (Williamson County) take the debt we report to them and they figure out our rates. This budget can’t be approved without this tax rate. It’s based on this tax rate,” Mrs. Williamson said.

McLeod proposed last week that the budget be cut by 8 percent across the board, “but instead of lowering it, it’s come up to $1,000,900.”

Tippie said he had questioned every line item looking for savings, but I didn’t find it.”

A $60,000 allocation to connect restrooms at City Park to the wastewater system was previously removed, but was replaced in the final budget after research by some officials showed a commercial septic would cost about the same and require space that was not available.

In a motion to adopt the budget offered by Tippie, the total amount was not included, and the document was not provided to The Independent by press time Wednesday.

In response to an open records request for the information, City Secretary Tammy Kirk said, “I have been told that the budget documents are being finalized and cannot be released until they are ready and stamped approved.”

When the Council’s last budget workshop ended after midnight Sept. 11, the Mayor’s original  spending plan had increased by more than $119,500 to $984,228. One week later, the bottom line jumped to $1,000,810, according to figures provided by Mrs. Kirk.

Council member Brewer urged her colleagues Monday to include $20,000 that was removed at the workshop the previous week. The expenditure in the Street Maintenance Fund had been labled “salaries” and it was unclear to some members how those funds would be spent.

This week, Mrs. Brewer said the funds needed to be included in the budget to pay for mowing around city buildings, City Park on CR 200 and Lions Foundation Park (not owned by the City), and along Loop 332, which is being transferred to the City by the state.

“We will have to hire someone to do it (the mowing) or purchase equipment to do it ourselves,” she said.

Councilman Wendell McLeod first made a motion to “not adopt the budget the way it is.” His motion failed for lack of a second.

He asked why revenues had increased from the first draft of the budget to the most recent version, which showed income at $1,009,975 — about $150,000 more that originally projected.

“There were some things when we first started working on the budget that was preliminary work done before we took office. We thought (using) the actual (numbers) was more reflective of what is coming in,” Mrs. Brewer said.

The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.