Tensions high among City Council members

By SHELLY WILKISON

As frustrations continue to mount among City Council members on budget and tax issues, other items on Monday’s agenda were also a source of disagreement.

A representative of the Texas Department of Transportation told city officials Monday that the state will continue the repair work started last year on Loop 332. It was news that some elected officials have been waiting to hear for some time.

For more than a year and two city councils, officials have discussed the pros and cons of acquiring Loop 332 from TxDOT. Proponents have claimed that under city control, sidewalks and other improvements can be made through downtown and the city will have flexibility when it comes to closing the street for special events.

Opponents claim the City can’t afford the upkeep on the road, including the costs of repaving it 10 or more years from now.

Howard Lyons, district representative for TxDOT stationed in Burnet, said bridges on Loop 332 were redone in summer 2011, and crews will begin working on culverts near the railroad tracks and overlay this fall.

On Monday, the Council voted 3-2 to approve a resolution that ratified a vote from July 23 to move ahead with the transfer. The resolution  has appeared on several meeting agendas since that time, but no action was taken as some questioned what TxDOT was willing to do to bring the road to good condition before transferring it to the City.

“TxDOT didn’t propose it (the transfer). This was something the (previous) council talked about,” said Lyons, adding that some wanted improvements to parking and sidewalks.

“TxDOT has no resources for that (parking, sidewalks),” he said. “This is a low volume, local road. Some business owners wanted to close the road (for special events), but the state has the liability and can’t do that. That’s what started all of this (discussion on the transfer).”

“We don’t have any money,” said Councilman Wendell McLeod. “I don’t know how we’re going to pay our bills.”

“I’ve tried to think about what would want,” added Councilman Sammy Pruett. “If we have to raise taxes now (to fund the new budget), we would have to raise taxes every year to afford to take it over. Parker’s (Corner Market) is the only

place to go (downtown) and I don’t see a big deal getting in and out of there.”

Lyons said if the City did not take over the road, TxDOT would not sue the city and would continue with its plans to make improvements this fall.

“But it would be good to know what the City’s position is,” he said.

On July 9, McLeod, Pruett and Council members Vicki Brewer and Mike Crane voted to overturn a previous council’s decision to acquire the Loop. Two weeks later, another vote was taken that undid the July 9 decision, but McLeod and Pruett again voted no.

Although the July 23 change of position was not explained in public meeting, engineer Perry Steger reminded the Council that his firm had already been authorized to do surveys in preparation for the transfer and $10,000 had been allocated for the work that had been completed.

The acquisition of Loop 332 was an issue in the campaign for city council seats last spring as challengers on a “pro-business slate” were criticial of incumbents for supporting the transfer.

Those candidates who were elected on that platform were McLeod, Pruett, Mrs. Brewer and Mayor Jamie Williamson.

After receiving advice from the City’s attorney, the Council tabled a recommendation from the Planning & Zoning Commission to suspend for six months the City’s Comprehensive Plan and Unified Development Code of ordinances.

“This is not a business-friendly area,” said P & Z Commissioner Wes Griffin. “We believe the city would do great to back off some of these requirements.”

The Commission is seeking to revise and rewrite the UDC to make it more “business friendly” and suitable for Liberty Hill as much of it was borrowed from other communities.

Attorney Alan J. Bojorquez said if the city were to suspend the ordinances, county regulations would apply. Because Williamson County has no zoning, the City would give up its ability to zone commercial development. If a business were to open during that time it would be grandfathered and protected from future regulations that might be implemented by the city once a new code of ordinances was adopted.

Bojorquez suggested the City make changes to the code as it deems necessary or do a moratorium on enforcement of some requirements until changes are adopted.

He said the city should keep its comprehensive plan current and ammend it every two to five years.

“Strict regulations lead to better projects. It doesn’t shut down growth,” Bojorquez said. “The most dynamic piece of real estate is where we are now.”

McLeod made the motion to suspend the UDC and Comprehensive Plan for six months and it died for lack of a second.

The Council tabled action on a proposal to raise and digitize a billboard at Seward Junction that currently advertises the Williamson County Cowboy Church. A representative of sign owner Media Choice described the digital changes to the billboard, and said the sign would be compliant with TxDOT regulations. He said the City would have the opportunity to advertise on the sign without charge when space is available.

The sign will have space for up to eight messages that will rotate every eight seconds. He said the sign would illuminate less light than normal lighted billboards.

Bojorquez said because current ordinance prohibits such a sign, a variance would be required.

The previous city council rejected the idea citing concerns about driver safety and sign blight.

Also Monday, the Council voted 4-1 with McLeod voting no to adopt an ordinance that protects past, present and future water wells by requiring a 150-foot easement around each well.

While exisiting wells have the easement in place as transferred to the City by the Liberty Hill Water Supply Corp., two new wells set to come online later this fall, do not. The sanitary easement is required by state law.

Pruett  said he was concerned that the easement might impact property owners who were there before the City constructed a well.

“That is hard for me to swallow,” he said, although he voted for the ordinance.

“We have to be able to protect public drinking water,” said Mrs. Willliamson.

McLeod said the Mayor’s home and property owned by Elroy Foust would be impacted by the required easement.

“You have to have this to operate a public water supply system,” the attorney said.

After some discussion about the security of city bank accounts and protected information on certain banking transactions, the Council voted 3-2 to reject a resolution proposed by McLeod to allow council members access to all city bank accounts for the purpose of viewing transactions online and at the bank. McLeod and Pruett voted no on the motion offered by Mrs. Brewer.

“We can’t find out anything here at City Hall,” McLeod said. “How can I work on the budget if I don’t know what we have?”

The Mayor responded that McLeod had been to City Hall on numerous occasions and information he requested had been printed for him.

The attorney said McLeod’s idea posed risks for identity theft, but McLeod said he didn’t want online access to accounts. He said he wanted to be able to go to the bank to view the records or view them at City Hall. He said the bank had helped prepare the suggested language for the resolution.

The Council voted to table consideration of a budget proposal submitted by Economic Development Corp. President Frank Spinosa after learning that the EDC Board of Directors had not adopted the plan.

Spinosa said he received a phone call from Mayor Williamson at 8:09 a.m. Friday, Sept. 7, asking for his committee’s budget for fiscal 2012.

He said he prepared the document and delivered it by 9 a.m. the same day.

Spinosa has openly criticized the Mayor’s budget in recent weeks claiming it guts the EDC leaving few resources that could be used to promote business growth in the city. He said he was never asked to prepare a budget or provide input on the Mayor’s proposal until Friday.

Spinosa suggested the EDC spend money to hire an employee to work on economic development and create materials to promote Liberty Hill to businesses looking to locate in the area.

Mayor Williamson questioned Spinosa’s projected revenues and asked whether his proposal had been approved by the EDC Board.

“You asked me for it Friday morning. You know it hasn’t been (approved by the Board),” he said.

McLeod asked the Mayor why she waited so late in the budget process to ask Spinosa for the EDC budget.

“I asked if he had a budget. He (Spinosa) said no, but he had the numbers,” she said. “It has to be approved by his Board.”

The Council is scheduled to meet Monday to adopt the budget and set the tax rate.

“In other words, we have no chance to change it (the EDC budget proposed in the Mayor’s total budget),” McLeod said.

Crane suggested that the EDC Board set a meeting to approve a budget and its recommendation could be considered later by the Council and the city’s budget could be amended to reflect any changes.

“It appears this was set up for distruction from the start,” said Tippie, referring to how the EDC budget request was handled by the Mayor. “It looks like he has the numbers and did the research.”

On the executive session agenda, the Council was scheduled to deliberate “the appointment, evaluation, reassignment, dutiees, discipline or dismissal of a public officer” — specifically Spinosa and P&Z Chairman Clyde Davis.

Following a one hour and 40-minute executive session Monday, the Council voted unanimously to hold a workshop with the Planning & Zoning Commission at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, to discuss the Council’s expectations and goals for the committee. A similar workshop was set for 6 p.m. Sept. 27 for the Council to meet with the EDC.

An issue that was requested for discussion in closed session by Pruett regarding the qualifications and salary of water utility operator Brian Kirk was brought into public discussion at Kirk’s request.

Pruett said he had requested the Council discuss the matter in relation to the City’s ongoing relationship with Severn Trent, a company that manages the water and wastewater systems.

“This is nothing personal,” he told Kirk, who was seated in the audience with his wife, former Councilmember Lisa Kirk, friends from Fellowship Baptist Church and members of the church youth group he leads.

“We have a responsibility to the citizens that we will save them as much money as possible,” Pruett said, adding that Kirk does not currently hold the appropriate licensing and certifications for the job. The City is having to pay Severn Trent because it is a licensed operator.

McLeod said the City had paid the company about $177,000 over the course of several months in addition to the salary paid to Kirk.

When Pruett attempted to discuss the costs of paying Severn Trent for work that could be done cheaper by an appropriately licenced city employee, Mayor Williamson interrupted saying that was not the item being discussed.

“They go hand in hand so I don’t know how else to explain it,” he said.

Mayor Williamson asked Pruett to speak to the issues listed on the agenda item — “the appointment, employment, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline or dismissal of a public officer or employee.”

“You just set this up, didn’t you?” he replied. “Why was it changed from what I requested? I didn’t intend to remove him and I’m not prepared to discuss his job title or salary.”

Mrs. Williamson responded that the item description on the agenda was reworded because his intention regarding performance review wasn’t clear.

Kirk is scheduled to attend training next week for a basic water license and in December he will attend training for wastewater licensing. The City will pay for the training.

Mrs. Brewer said she believed the wages paid to Kirk are too high for his qualifications. She added there is no job description for the position.

Following the closed session where the Council was scheduled to discuss hiring a licensed water and wastewater operator, the panel returned to create a committee explore those options.

Another committee was created to work with Kirk on developing a job description. But first, Pruett stood and apologized to Kirk for the stress he may have suffered as a result of how the topic was presented on the agenda, adding that he had “no personal vendetta” and no mission to end Kirk’s employment.

Kirk verbally accepted the apology.

In other business, the Council:

* Voted 4-1 with McLeod voting no to authorize a 50 percent draw ($42,000) to Northshore for construction of the City Park restroom and pavilion facility. The project is being funded by a grant from Williamson County and the City will be reimbursed for the expenditures. The balance will be due upon completion of the project.

* Voted 3-2 with McLeod and Pruett voting no to approve a change order for $4,260 for wells 6 and 7 for installation of a gate and changes to fencing.

* Voted unanimously to reduce the number of positions on the Parks & Recreation Board and the Planning & Zoning Commission from seven to five. Mayor Williamson explained that some had resigned from those boards and despite the attempts to advertise the vacancies, there had been little interest. She said it was difficult to get a quorum of members with seven members.

* Voted to solicit bids from three building inspectors to conduct an inspection on the VFW Post building and have the attorney work on “tweaking” a proposal to go to the VFW committee. The item was not explained or discussed in public.