Late-night workshop ends with larger city budget

By SHELLY WILKISON

While an after-hours budget workshop Monday appeared to be a last attempt by elected officials to find areas to cut costs before they consider raising taxes on Sept. 17, they adjourned the workshop at 12:07 a.m. Tuesday with a higher bottom line.

It was the third budget workshop for the Liberty Hill City Council, which is scheduled to adopt its fiscal 2012 spending plan and a 20 percent tax increase on Sept. 17. While the last workshop August 27 ended abruptly in frustration and hurt feelings, Monday’s late-night session was almost a repeat as exhausted members attemped to ask questions about revised financial documents that some had not received until earlier that day. Council members Sammy Pruett and Wendell McLeod left their seats at 11:10 p.m. and 11:55 p.m., respectively.

After one hour and 40 minutes of discussion, with some attempting to shave dollars off various expenses, the Council ended the workshop with a proposed budget that was $119,593 higher than the one Mayor Jamie Williamson first presented.

The largest increase from the previous proposal was in the Liberty Hill Police Department where about $20,000 was added to turn one part-time patrol position into a full-time position along with benefits and additional uniform/body armor. The increase will also pay for added security for the department’s computer system.

When Chief Randy Williams explained why the funds were needed to secure the system, Council member Vicki Brewer asked if he would be willing to give up his scheduled pay raise.

Williams, who did not receive a pay increase in the current year, said he would bypass the raise if that would help the city pay the expense of the full-time officer and secure the computer system.

“We’re being missed on the street,” Williams said.

The department lost two officers to other agencies this year and now has three full-time employees, including Williams. With a starting pay of $29,400, he said it is difficult to attract applicants for patrol officer.

“Without officers there, we hear (from the public) that police officers are not doing their jobs,” said Mayor Williamson. “But it’s us not doing ours by not putting them out there.”

Williams was previously authorized by the Council to fill one of the open full-time positions although no one has been hired. He estimated that with two additional officers, which would bring the number to five full-time officers, the number of traffic citations could increase by 20 percent.

While it appeared both requests were granted, a previous request by Williams to add a $2,500 donation to Williamson County Children’s Advocacy Center — a non-profit that provides assistance to abused children — was not included.

“This is a serious matter,” Williams said. “The City has never paid this and this service changes kids’ lives forever.”

Although Mayor Williamson previously agreed to remove a $60,000 expenditure to connect a City Park restroom to the sewer system, further discussion Monday about the possible costs of installing a commercial septic system made the option appear  out of reach.

“There’s no room out there for the lateral lines,” Mrs. Williamson said.

Councilman Byron Tippie added that installing a commercial septic at the Cowboy Church required two acres and cost about $50,000.

Unofficial estimates previously discussed by Council members were in the $10,000 range, but it was not clear whether the price was for a residential or commercial septic system.

The proposed budget shows the wastewater expenditure coming from Economic Development Corp. funds — an idea that has drawn the criticism of EDC President Frank Spinosa and other business owners.

“Teams come in here from all over the state,” said Council member Mike Crane.

The restroom and pavilion will be constructed with funds from a Williamson County grant.

A $4,000 expenditure for mowing at Lions Foundation Park also remained in the budget. There has been some discussion about whether the expenditure is appropriate or even legal considering that the park is not owned by the City.

Mayor Williamson said she is trying to negotiate with the Foundation Park Board about the possibility of the City obtaining the park and wanted to leave the item in the budget.

Some budget documents for the General Operating Fund revised by the Council Monday were provided to The Independent Tuesday as part of an Open Records Request.

While the documents show the total proposed expenditures increased over the first budget proposal, the projected revenue also increased by $131,775. A comparison of both documents shows a $10,000 increase in the franchise fee for cable, a $50 donation, a drop in interest from $200 to $25 and a $122,000 change in how the park grant was originally reported.

Revenue generated by an expected $140,000 payment from the school district to connect to the wastewater system was not shown on the General Operating Fund budget provided.

While the Council discussed removing a $20,000 allocation for “Salaries” that was included in the first budget under the Road Maintenance Fund, that revised document was not provided to the newspaper.

Tippie suggested it be removed because it was not a salary for a city employee and it was undetermined how it would be spent.

Mrs. Brewer explained that it was for various services like mowing, office cleaning and maintenance.

After Councilman McLeod pointed out in the workshop that numbers  were inconsistent from one part of the budget to the next, Mrs. Brewer apologized for the mistake. She said she finshed preparing the budget documents at 1:30 a.m. Sunday for Monday’s workshop.

“It’s always good to have another set of eyes,” she said.

Before the budget workshop, the Council met four hours in a regular meeting, during which time it met in executive session for one hour and 40 minutes. (See related story on Page 1.) After taking some action on issues discussed in private, the budget workshop was convened at 10:32 p.m. after the audience had gone home.

When asked specifically why the workshop was scheduled at the end of the Council meeting, Mayor Williamson told The Independent in an email that “I believed all council members would be at a regular scheduled meeting.” When asked to further clarify why the item was at the end of the regular meeting as opposed to earlier when citizens were present, she did not respond.

As Pruett left the meeting, he said he had work early the next morning.

McLeod left about 50 minutes later after receiving a phone call from his wife.

At 6:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 17, the Council will meet to adopt a budget and set a tax rate that is currently proposed at $0.53 per $100 property value.

Mayor Williamson has stated repeatedly that the 20 percent tax hike is needed to pay down sewer construction debt from 2006 that was not paid at the appropriate levels by previous councils.