By SHELLY WILKISON
As the Liberty Hill City Council prepares to consider a 20 percent increase in the tax rate Monday, one business owner says he is disappointed in the Mayor and Council members that he and other local business owners helped put into office.
Randy O’Dell, broker/owner of Shin Oak Realty, shared his concerns with the Council during a public hearing Monday on the proposed tax increase. He discussed them in more detail with The Independent the following day.
“Two-thirds of that tax raise will be on businesses or business-like property,” O’Dell told the Council. Combined “with a school tax increase, we’re getting slammed and we elected this group to run on a pro-business platform.”
O’Dell told The Independent that he met last week with Council member Vicki Brewer at his office to review the budget proposal she prepared with Mayor Jamie Williamson. He said his intent was to offer ideas to help the Council avoid a 20 percent tax increase.
“I thought she was receptive,” he said of Mrs. Brewer.
But O’Dell sat patiently through a four-hour Council meeting Monday in order to hear the discussion during a budget workshop that did not begin until 10:32 p.m. While he said some of his suggestions were followed, within minutes, the group had agreed to add expenses to the budget rather than make cuts, and he left the meeting.
“That’s what they harped on and talked about during the campaign,” he said, referring to campaign messages against tax increases and increased spending.
“I feel some kind of responsibility for helping them get in, but it was a coordinated effort. We wanted a pro-business council. I’m disappointed in the group, but I still believe we are better off today than we were in April,” he said.
O’Dell said he reviewed budget documents provided to him by the City and learned that if the tax rate stayed at the current $0.44 per $100 value as opposed to the proposed $0.53, the City would need to increase income by $98,175. He said he thought it could be done.
He offered various suggestions that would either cut expenses from the proposed budget or raise revenue.
He suggested the City hire a licensed water and wastewater employee and contract repairs on the systems to local businesses. By doing that and eliminating the costly expenditures to Severn Trent, the company that currently manages the systems, the City could realize savings.
O’Dell said he thought the Council was trying to make some progress in that area as evidenced by discussions during Monday’s regular meeting.
He also suggested the City should go out for bids on engineering in an effort to reduce high professional fees. He also recommended a closer review of the Municipal Court and Police Department, although he did not offer specific suggestions in those budgets.
To increase income, he said the Council should set a flat monthly fee on all non-connected sewer taps. While all residential properties have equipment installed, not everyone chose to connect because for many it was cost-prohibitive.
He said he also suggested the City review and seek bids from banks for their checking accounts and savings certificates of deposit. He said it appeared the City was not earning as much interest on those accounts as they could be.
O’Dell said in the version of the budget documents provided to him, he could not see the income ($140,000) that will be generated by a recent agreement the City made with the school district to connect the new high school facility to the wastewater system.
O’Dell said he believes the city can set a course for growth by investing resources in economic development.
“We need some professional guidance in that area,” he said.
O’Dell was one of several business owners in Liberty Hill who contributed funds to candidates, sponsored a fundraiser, and helped pay for banners and postcards. But beyond the financial support, they spent numerous hours consulting with them.
Those promoted on the pro-business slate included Mrs. Brewer, Mayor Jamie Williamson, and Council members Wendell McLeod and Sammy Pruett.
“We met so many times with these people, and the Mayor just hung on Frank’s (Spinosa) every word,” O’Dell said. “I don’t know how to explain what she’s doing now.”
O’Dell, who owns several properties inside the city boundaries, said his city property taxes will increase about $325 if the Council approves the proposed tax increase. He didn’t include a tax increase already approved by the school district. However, he said his interest in helping the Council find ways to avoid a tax increase is not personal.
“I don’t know that I have an agenda. I helped them get in and would like to see them do the best job they can,” he said. “I still feel strongly about this group. I just thought we were more on the same page.”
He said it stands to reason that in a growth scenario, the real estate business would benefit as would other existing businesses.
O’Dell said he believes the Council is trying to work through a lot of inexperience when it comes to budgets and finance.
“They started the budget process too late and it’s just slamming them,” he said.
But despite the struggle to make ends meet, O’Dell said the city is still better off with this council and without the former city manager.
“Are they better than he was? Yes,” he said.
“We’ve got to find some common ground,” O’Dell said. “Generally, everyone is interested in Liberty Hill. I don’t know of anyone who is anti-growth. We (Liberty Hill) will win by default.
“Despite what a few people do, the city will do well. We are here at the right time and right place. We will do as our brothers down south of here have done,” he said. “With the population will come business.”
O’Dell said the urgency to be pro-business and pro-active is that “right now, we’re in a recession. The number of businesses lost this year needs to be counteracted. We don’t need a tax increase on top of that.”
During the public hearing Monday, Malcom Terry spoke in support of the Council’s actions thus far.
“I don’t like paying taxes any more than anyone else,” he said. “But, I’d rather see the Council pass a responsible budget and raise taxes than to have the questionable accounting practices we had in the past. I applaud you for working so hard.”