By SHELLY WILKISON
In an unusual move Monday, the Liberty Hill City Council voted 3-1 to reject a 5 percent tax increase that was to fund a proposed $1.1 million budget for fiscal 2013.
The tax rate of $0.563735 per $100 valuation, which was proposed by Mayor Jamie Williamson, would have meant an average increase of just over $30 to property owners within city boundaries.
In making the motion to reject the rate increase and keep the tax rate at its current level of $0.536426 per $100 value, Councilmember Wendell McLeod said the Council has not adopted a budget. In previous discussions on the issue, he suggested that the Mayor’s proposed budget, which was reviewed in one budget workshop, could be cut avoiding a tax increase.
Questions from some Council members regarding the condition of city financials prompted the engagement of a financial consultant this summer. Councilmembers Connie Fuller and McLeod recommended in previous meetings where the tax rate was discussed that the Council postpone a decision until the report by consultant David Kautz could be considered. The Mayor said tax notice publishing deadlines prohibited the Council from waiting for that review.
Kautz’ findings, which are included in a document dated August 20, is expected to be part of a discussion on a proposed budget during a workshop at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 12.
City Manager Greg Boatright has prepared a budget proposal as an alternative to the Mayor’s plan, which will be discussed publicly on Thursday.
Councilmember Elizabeth Branigan, who voted against the motion to reject the tax rate increase, said she had studied the Mayor’s budget and Boatright’s plan and both are similar. She said without raising taxes, the City is facing a shortfall.
Mayor Williamson, who did not advocate for or against the tax increase on Monday, said the Council can adopt a lower rate than what was proposed, but the portion of the tax rate aimed at generating revenue to reduce the city’s debt could not change.
“Maintenance and Operations is where the change would have to be made,” she said.
After the meeting, Boatright said his spending plan includes additional revenue projected as a result of possible agreements with area Municipal Utility Districts (MUDs) for the city to provide wastewater service. He said it is likely that the City will become a retailer for wastewater service. While that revenue may only be used for designated purposes, he said the city will explore all possibilities.
“We have to be careful about shorting the general fund budget because there really is no money to spare in that,” he said. “So, we will look at alternatives for funding.”
The Council authorized Attorney Art Rodriguez to redraft an ordinance establishing the tax rate in response to the Council’s decision Monday.
The rate rejected was the highest rate that could have been adopted before taxpayers could have begun rollback election proceedings.
Voting to reject the tax rate were McLeod and Councilmembers Connie Fuller and Liz Rundzieher. Councilmember Vicki Brewer, who in previous meetings supported the Mayor’s proposed tax increase, was not present Monday. Ms. Branigan was the lone no vote and the Mayor may not vote except to break a tie.
The city budget and tax rate must be adopted this month. The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
The months-long conflict on the City Council regarding the employment of the city manager, which escalated in recent weeks to draw the ire of local businesses and city voters, took another turn Monday as the Council voted to approve a one-year employment contract for Boatright.
With Mrs. Brewer absent, the Council voted 3-1 to approve an $80,000 contract for Boatright. Mayor Williamson, who along with Mrs. Brewer, has been openly opposed to Boatright’s employment since he was first hired in May, did not speak against the contract or Boatright in front of a packed Council Chamber on Monday.
Mrs. Fuller, Mrs. Rundzieher and Ms. Branigan voted yes on the contract after Mrs. Rundzieher amended it to require a performance review every three months. They agreed to create a list of goals that will reflect the goals set out in the City’s Comprehensive Plan. Every three months, the Council will evaluate Boatright’s performance based on his ability to move closer to achieving those goals for the City. Mrs. Rundzieher said she would not support the contract without that provision for evaluation.
Although he supported Boatright for the job, McLeod voted against the final contract because he disagreed with certain language, which is standard for most employment contracts, which he believed could hurt Boatright.
Boatright, a former Williamson County Commissioner, was hired as Liberty Hill’s interim city manager and director of the Economic Development Corp. in May and his contract was set to expire at the end of this month. Mayor Williamson and Mrs. Brewer, who ran the daily operations of city government and supervised staff since their election in May 2012, have been openly opposed to Boatright’s employment since he was first hired. They claimed he was not qualified for the job and believed more applicants should have been considered. In recent weeks, they attempted to persuade the Council to adopt a job desicription for the position that would have required a high-level water and wastewater operator’s license — a qualification that would have eliminated Boatright from consideration. In response, the business community and city residents signed a petition and posted yard signs in support of Boatright.
The Council rejected that job description on August 26 and agreed instead to a version that reflects his current shared responsibilities between city administration and economic development.
The contract adopted Monday includes an $80,000 salary, city benefits and a $350 per month vehicle allowance. Half of the salary will be paid by the City and half by the EDC. If he is teriminated during the contract year without cause, he is entitled to any unpaid salary remaining on the contract or at least six months of compensation. The contract expires Sept. 30, 2014.
Almost every seat in the Council Chamber was filled Monday — mostly by individuals who were present to support Boatright. During the public comments portion of the meeting, Gary Spivey and Jon Branigan urged the Council to keep him as manager.
“Seldom do I come to city council meetings, but I felt it was time for a history lesson,” said Spivey, who was a member of Liberty Hill’s first city council. He spoke of previous mayors and council members who were able to listen to all points of view and then bring all sides together to do the most good for the community.
“These were unique people who made Liberty Hill successful,” he said, adding that as a county commissioner, Boatright was part of that effort. “We can either move forward or start backtracking.”
Branigan, whose mother (Elizabeth Branigan) serves on the Council, organized the petition drive that collected more than 150 signatures from business owners and city voters.
“To ignore businesses is not in the best interest of Liberty Hill,” he said. “We put our lives on the line to open our doors, meet payroll and generate good growth for the city. If Greg Boatright is wrong for the job, you can not only point at him, but you can point at me, too, because I’ve been a strong factor in trying to get him hired.”
In other business Monday, the Council voted 3-1 to deny a request for de-annexation from a resident of the Riverbend Oaks subdivision off State Highway 29. The subdivision was de-annexed from the City six years ago, but five residences and part of a church property were left inside the city boundaries.
Linda Lattanzio told the Council that a previous council “created an illegal demarcation” and “chopped up” the subdivision in an effort to keep Mrs. Fuller’s residence inside the city limits. Mrs. Fuller was then Mayor of the City.
“To add insult to injury, the then-mayor moved out of our subdivision six months later,” Mrs. Lattanzio wrote in a letter to the Council.
Mrs. Lattanzio is an employee of The Leader newspaper, which is owned by current Mayor Williamson.
Mrs. Lattanzio wrote that “the de-annexation problem was underscored recently when the county came out to maintain the subdivision’s roads and repaving stopped abruptly at our property line.”
Mrs. Fuller disagreed with Mrs. Lattanzio’s claim that the subdivision had been divided illegally.
“It was done very legally,” Mrs. Fuller said. “You also said a judge said it was illegal. This is vague in how it is being presented. As a taxpayer, I’m not willing to let property go out of the city when it means others will have to pay more.”
Mrs. Branigan, who brought the matter to the council agenda, said permitting the properties to separate from the city was the right thing. She said the property owners are not receiving any city services and Williamson County does not provide some services because they are inside the city limits. Her motion to de-annex the property died for lack of a second.
Mrs. Fuller then made a motion to take no action on the request.
Also Monday, the Council approved several requests submitted by the Parks and Recreation Board for improvements at City Park on CR 200. Using available funding from a County grant, the Council authorized the city manager to obtain bids for construction of a concrete basektball court, a sand court, black chain link fencing around the playground area, and concrete aprons at the two entrances to the park.
The Council also approved a priority list for additional park improvements that was agreed to by the Parks Board. The list is necessary as the panel seeks additional grant funding.
The Council also accepted a petition for voluntary annexation of 20 acres along SH 29 as part of the Hwy 29 Ranch Subdivision. Boatright said the property is located across the highway from the city limit boundary near CR 266 and Liberty Hill Pediatric Dentistry. He said there are two 10-acre lots petitioning for annexation.
Consideration of another petition for voluntary annexation for Lot 3 Branigan subdivision was postponed because a deadline was missed. The Council agreed to allow for resumission without requiring the petitioner to pay additional fees. Because of a conflict of interest, Ms. Branigan abstained from voting.
Citing the urgency of obtaining water from the City of Leander, the Council voted 3-1 with Mrs. Rundzieher voting no to approve a task order and RFQ submitted by Steger Bizzell.
“This has already been held up three weeks,” said Mayor Williamson, referring to the Council’s previous decision to review various Requests for Qualifications (RFQ) submitted after the City advertised for them.
To engineer the Bagdad Road Water Transmission Main, the City will pay Steger Bizzell $215,000.
The Council also voted to accept the resignation of Municipal Court Administrator Lolly Chavera, but will not post the job vacancy until the staffing needs of the court can be assessed.
“One of the reasons why she (Mrs. Chavera) got in this was because she didn’t have enough to do,” said Mrs. Fuller, although she did not describe a problem with Mrs. Chavera. “The court is overstaffed, and we need to go with a clerk for a while. It’s (the court) not making any money, and this is a high-paying job. The Council needs time to discuss it.”
The clerk resigned in August.
Boatright told The Independent that City Secretary Tammy Kirk is working at the Municipal Court until additional staffing decisions can be made.