Hostilities escalate as Mayor argues no money for manager

By SHELLY WILKISON

Although the Mayor claimed it was nothing personal, the Liberty Hill City Council did not appear convinced Monday as it rejected her last-minute attempt to cut the City Manager out of the budget.

Suggesting the money was not there to pay City Manager Greg Boatright the City’s half of an $80,000 salary, Mayor Jamie Williamson presented a budget proposal to council members minutes before they were expected to adopt a spending plan for the new fiscal year, which began Tuesday. The announcement set the stage for a heated discussion that erupted into a shouting match, which at one point prompted a tearful Vicki Brewer to leave the Council Chamber.

Two weeks ago, Mayor Williamson left a special called meeting just as the Council was set to discuss the budget. She claimed she had not “planned” for the discussion, although it was posted three days prior. In her absence, Mrs. Brewer walked the Council through the Mayor’s budget proposal and compared it to a plan by Boatright. The Council, which had already voted not to raise the tax rate, spent several hours working through  details and although no vote was taken, agreed to various ideas. On Sept. 22, the Mayor was critical of the work that had been done in her absence the week before, but the Council directed Mrs. Brewer and Boatright to implement changes that would have brought the City closer to a balanced  budget.

With all Council members present Monday,  Mayor Williamson arrived five minutes late for the meeting and distributed a revised version of a budget that she first introduced to officials in July.

“I’m not going to sit here and play games,” the Mayor said. “My recommendation is that we eliminate the positon of city administrator immediately. I’m required (by law) to recommend any measures to improve city finances and the money is not here (to pay the salary).”

On Sept. 9, the Council approved an employment contract with Boatright. The remaining portion of Boatright’s contract is to be paid by the Economic Development Corp. where he serves as director. The Mayor has been publicly opposed to his employment since the Council voted to name him interim manager in May and removed some of the Mayor’s power. Previous attempts to block his employment stirred the ire of business owners and city voters, who signed petitions, posted yard signs and attended council meetings to support Boatright.

“We have already voted on a contract (with Boatright),” said Mayor Pro Tem Connie Fuller. “This is all a ploy to get rid of Greg.”

“This is not personal,” the Mayor defended, adding that she had also eliminated from her budget “pest control, cleaning services, window washing and any kind of repair or maintenance on city buildings.”

When criticized by Ms. Fuller for failing to work with Boatright on a budget or any other city issue, the Mayor said, “Maybe Mr. Boatright needs to work with me. I don’t hang out at City Hall. I haven’t received an email from him since Aug. 30.”

Boatright’s contract was to take effect Oct. 1. But the Mayor revealed Monday that she had not signed it, nor was the document present at the council meeting. She reminded the Council that her position had not changed since she presented her first budget draft in July. At that time she said funds were not available to pay a city manager and the first draft did not include a salary.

When Boatright asked to respond, the Mayor said, “I’m going to ask you to please try to hold your tongue.” To which he responded, “you talk down to me all the time from up here on this dais.”

Ms. Fuller criticized the Mayor for coming up with a budget at the last minute that did not take into account the will of the Council as expressed in previous meetings.

“We had a balanced budget when you (the Mayor) walked out and left (Sept. 16). You weren’t here. You chose to leave,” said Ms. Fuller. “Why did you ignore something that the Council had worked on? You didn’t even look at what we did.”

“I was up until 1 a.m. (Monday) and got up at 6,” Mrs. Williamson said. “I didn’t have to (look at the budget discussed by the Council) because it wasn’t balanced.”

Mrs. Brewer, who ultimately voted against the plan Monday because she could not be certain about the numbers, said that she was advised by a paralegal (who she did not name) that she could only change the proposed budget as instructed by council vote Sept. 23. At that time, the panel agreed to transfer funds from the utility accounts, delay implementation of a 3 percent cost of living raise until January 2014, and raise the projected income from the sales tax.

“You’re telling me that we’re disqualifying what the city council worked on based on advice from a paralegal?” asked Boatright.

Mrs. Brewer then stated that she could have made the changes the Council had previously suggested if she had had access to the city files over the past weekend. She said she is no longer able to access the city computers from a remote personal computer as has been the case in the past. The Mayor was also prohibited from accessing data from a remote computer, so she said she recreated the budget over the weekend.

Boatright told The Independent that the City put up a “sonic wall” to protect city records. Only three people have access to the server from a remote location, including City Secretary Tammy Kirk. Upon a motion by Councilmember Liz Rundzieher, the Council took a 15-minute break so that Mrs. Kirk could remote into the computer allowing Mrs. Brewer to make updates to the Council draft and print copies for members.

During the break, Boatright told The Independent that the firewall was implemented for security purposes. He said he didn’t forsee a problem with the budget because he believed the Council had previously agreed to the concepts.

Mayor Williamson said the budget draft considered by the Council last week was not balanced and the City is prohibited by law from adopting a deficit budget. She read from an email written to her by City Attorney Art Rodriguez that the Council could not adopt a deficit budget.

“Today is the last day (to adopt a budget) and we still have to have a public hearing to ratify it,” the Mayor said.

Boatright said the spending plan revised by Mrs. Brewer and himself at the direction of the Council was only $96 short. However, the Mayor said her numbers showed their version was $80,000 short.

After the break, the Council noted that the Mayor’s latest version of her budget did not include the previously agreed-to fund transfers.

Boatright reminded the Mayor that it was approved practice to transfer funds from the city sewer and wastewater accounts to the general operating fund if those monies are not committed to debt service.

“That’s what the Council decided last week, but you just ignored it,” he said.

The Mayor said her numbers from the city sewer and wastewater accounts did not show sufficient uncommitted funds. “Your numbers are wrong,” she said to Boatright.

“Yours is the budget that showed up here tonight unannounced,” he responded.

As a solution to balance the budget previously considered by the Council, Boatright suggested taking $75,000 from the utility funds and removing $25,000 that was included in the parks budget but not yet received from developers. He said the budget would then show $1.140 million in income and $1.137 in expenditures.

“You can adopt a budget with a suplus on the general operating side and you don’t have to cut any service. If I didn’t feel like this budget would work, I wouldn’t recommend it,” he said.

“This budget includes all that (services the Mayor had cut from her version),” Boatright said. “It’s unfair to all emplyees to not have a clean place to work. We are on solid footing on the numbers. You (Mayor Williamson) can shoot holes into everything we say, but these numbers are correct. There is nothing wrong with this budget.”

Throughout the evening, council members fumbled through three or four versions of budget documents, appearing confused and frequently requested clarification regarding the correct document being referenced during the heated discussion.

As council members questioned the validity of each version’s numbers, Ms. Fuller introduced the findings of a financial consultant hired by the Council in August to assess the City’s financial condition.

David Kautz reported in a nine-page document that the 2013 budget documents he examined contained “figures do not add up. Line items appear to be missing or the totals are in error.”

“He said the figures don’t add up and you’re telling us all your (the Mayor’s) figures are correct here?” Ms. Fuller said to the Mayor.

“The problem is I want a red convertible and I can’t afford one,” said Mrs. Brewer, raising her voice.

Mrs. Brewer noted that Kautz, who made a brief presentation to the Council Sept. 16 (after the Mayor left the meeting), did not express those concerns in public. Ms. Fuller said she thought he limited his remarks trying to avoid bringing embarassment on the council.

The report, which was provided to The Independent, shows a number of concerns that pointed to the need for stronger financial oversight.

Kautz said there should be proper division between the rolls of the council and city administration. He said the city manager should be preparing the budget. However,  the City of Liberty Hill does not have a city manager form of government, which means the Mayor is the chief budget officer.

Boatright, a former county commissioner and a business owner, added that in his 20 years of experience in public service, he had been involved in the development and approval of more than 50 annual budgets and he had never had an experience like this one.

“We need to step up and become a professional city,” he said.

In a surprising move Monday, the Council approved a job description for a Municipal Court Administrator and then re-hired Lolly Chavera to fill the position she resigned from three weeks ago.

Ms. Fuller said that court revenues are down, as well as activity. She suggested the court operate with one clerk for a while to determine if an administrator is needed.

Mrs. Kirk has been working in the court performing clerical duties since Mrs. Chavera submitted her resignation. In previous meetings, Boatright said he would like to see Mrs. Kirk assigned to the court and post a vacancy for the City Secretary’s position.The Mayor was opposed to the change.

Following a 45-minute executive session, Councilmember Elizabeth Branigan made a motion to hire Mrs. Chavera for the position. The motion passed 3-2 with Ms. Fuller and Councilmember Wendell McLeod voting no. Mrs. Chavera was not present.

The Council then voted 4-1 to approve a job description for a City Secretary, but agreed not to post the position. Mrs. Kirk will stay in the position.

In other business, the Council tabled a proposal to turn a soccer field at City Park into additional parking along with a volleyball court and basketball court. Ms. Branigan, who also serves on the Parks and Recreation Board, said the Liberty Hill Youth Soccer Association approved of the change, but Ms. Fuller suggested the City receive the Association’s approval in writing before the Council approved a change to the master park plan.