Council votes to lower sewer connection fees

The Liberty Hill City Council voted unanimously Monday to reduce wastewater connection fees by as much as $3,000 for both residential and commercial customers.

Currently, residential customers pay $6,000 to connect to city sewer while commercial customers pay $7,500. Those fees will drop to $3,500 and $4,500 respectively.

“In the past two to three years, you had only two to three people sign up for it (wastewater service),” said a representative of the engineering firm Steger Bizzell. “This (new price) is more in line with the market rate, and with what other cities are doing.

“There comes a point where people can’t pay that kind of cash,” he said, referencing the current connection fees.

Mayor Jamie Williamson said of the 650 LUE’s available on the sewer system, only 171 are hooked up now.

Also Monday, the Council voted to approve a petition for voluntary annexation of a 10.3-acre tract that could become the site of a 100-unit townhome apartment complex.

Monday’s vote was the second time in three months that the Council has considered the petition. In March, Council member Wendell McLeod and then-Councilman Sammy Pruett were opposed to the apartment complex and a motion to annex the property died for lack of a second.

With new faces on the Council this week and McLeod changing his vote to accept the petition, the City will begin the process of annexing the property located on the Northeast corner of RR 1869 and SH 29.

Liberty Trails Townhomes, a proposed rental community by Florida-based Picerne Development, has already received the support from the City of Liberty Hill in the form of two resolutions adopted earlier this year. Those resolutions were used as evidence of community support in the developer’s efforts to obtain federal housing tax credits from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

A property that qualifies for the credits uses them to raise capital from private investors, thereby reducing the developer’s debt. Because the debt is lower, the prperty can offer lower priced rents that are based on a range of resident income levels. A representative of the company spoke to the Council Monday about complex amenities and the range of rents that would be offered.

The development will have one to three-bedroom units plus garages, and rents will vary from $330 to $1,000. Some three-bedroom units will be available for lease at rates as low as $350, but Picerne Vice President for Development Jorge Aguirre said the complex is not federal Section 8 housing and rents are not subsidized. He said tenants must be employed and must pass strict background checks for credit and cirminal history.

“We are a for-profit business and we don’t have any desire to qualify for a non-profit exemption,” he said. “The City will get the full tax benefit of having this here, and we will be one of your biggest taxpayers.”

Developers will learn later this summer whether they qualify for the tax credits. Aguirre said previously that if the project is not chosen, it will not be built.

In March, McLeod said he opposed annexing the property because he thought it might hurt the chances of another apartment community that is also seeking tax credits. That complex, Liberty Manor, will serve low to moderate income residents age 55 and older.  While both developers are seeking tax credits, they are not competing with each other for those.

The Council voted 3-2 to reimburse local business owner Frank Spinosa $1,482.69 for fees he paid to the City that he said were wrongly assessed.

Spinosa, who also serves as president of the City’s Economic Development Corp. Board of Directors, told the Council that a city inspector “didn’t do his job” when he approved plumbing renovations to a restaurant in the Rio Gabriel Plaza in 2012. In recent months, it was found that grease had collected in a grinder pump because the grease trap had not been connected properly, yet had been approved for use by a city inspector.

“We relied entirely on the City’s inspection that said our system was installed properly,” said Spinosa. “Had the City Inspector done his job, the renovation would have been done properly and we would never have had a problem.”

The City charged Spinosa a $500 tampering fee after he called a company to inspect the problem and remove the grease from the grinder pump.

“When I arrived (at Rio Gabriel Plaza), Mr. Spinosa had a truck there sucking out the grinder pump without notifying the City,” said City Utility Superintendent Brian Kirk. “If anyone gets into our pump, it’s dangerous to our system.”

Mayor Williamson said the tampering charge had been in effect since 2006. She said the grease trap  is the customer’s responsibility and the City should not reimburse Spinosa for a problem he had caused.

“The ordinance is clear about what type of interference can have with water and wastewater (systems),” confirmed Attorney Cathy Riedel. “If you damage the pump, it is the responsibility of the property owner.”

Council members Vicki Brewer and Elizabeth Branigan voted no while members Liz Rundzieher, Connie Fuller and Wendell McLeod voted to reimburse Spinosa.

Also this week, the Council heard reports and updates from Kirk and City Manager Greg Boatright.

Kirk said water levels are up about one foot in city water wells. However, as temperatures increase, usage will increase and the City plans to strictly enforce restrictions on water usage this summer.

Boatright informed the Council about state legislation recently adopted providing for low interest loans for water system improvements. He said he would be looking into options that might be available to help Liberty Hill.

City water customers are beginning the third straight summer with restrictions on outdoor watering.

In other business, the Council voted unanimously to permit Fellowship Church to use an area in City Park for its Champ Camp this summer.

During the public comments portion of the meeting, the Council heard from Leander residents along the South San Gabriel River who complained about the quality of discharge being pumped by the City’s wastewater treatment plant into the river near their home.