City may soon prohibit use of hand-held devices while driving

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By SHELLY WILKISON

Liberty Hill elected officials agreed Monday to have the City’s attorney draft an ordinance that would prohibit the use of hand-held electronic devices while driving in the city limits.

“The dangers of texting while driving are at the forefront now, and this is a public safety issue,” said City Manager Greg Boatright. “We have a high number of vehicles going through our city, and we are trying to protect our citizens.”

The City of Austin adopted an ordinance that became effective in January designating the city as a hands-free city, imposing fines for drivers who text or otherwise use cell phones or hand-held electronic devices. The offense, which is a Class C misdemeanor, carries a fine up to $500. In the first week of enforcement, Austin police reported issuing 38 citations for violations. Austin adopted a ban on texting while driving in 2009.

“Whatever we do, we have to make it where it’s enforceable and not something with a lot of loopholes,” Boatright said.

“This would add to our quality of life here,” said Councilmember Elizabeth Branigan. “We’re trying to promote a city friendly to pedestrians, and this is something we should do.”

The Liberty Hill City Council adopted an ordinance several years ago prohibiting cell phone use in school zones during drop-off and pick-up times. The ordinance only applies to campuses within the city limits, which now excludes Liberty Hill High School as well as Bill Burden Elementary School.

In the years that ordinance has been in place, Police Chief Randy Williams said Liberty Hill officers have never written a citation for a violation.

“I’ll be interested to see how it is written, but if it saves even one life, it’s worth it,” said Williams of the proposed hands-free designation.

He said if adopted, officers would issue citations upon observation of a driver looking at a hand-held electronic device.

In previous years, state lawmakers passed a law making “distracted driving” an offense. However, Williams said the offense is linked to a vehicle crash. If it is determined that a crash was caused as a result of a distracted driver, the fault is with that driver.

He said most collisions in Liberty Hill are rear-end crashes — a common collision for those texting or distracted while driving. He added that distracted drivers frequently veer off the road and then over-correct causing crashes that are oftentimes deadly.

“I’m guilty of it (texting while driving) myself,” Boatright said. “It is a very dangerous thing to do.”

Boatright said he wanted to gauge the views of council members on the issue Monday before bringing an ordinance for their consideration. The Council voted unanimously to authorize the attorney to draft an ordinance, which Boatright said will be brought to council in two weeks.

In other business this week, the Council adopted a resolution allowing the City’s General Fund to be reimbursed for expenditures relating to the City’s wastewater treatment facility that may occur when the City purchases property located at 926 Loop 332.

Boatright explained that the practice of reimbursing the General Fund for expenditures associated with utility funds is not uncommon among municipalities. He said the City will use the General Fund to purchase property on Loop 332 that will house city administrative offices. With 75 percent of staff time being spent on wastewater related issues, he said it is appropriate for the wastewater fund to reimburse for some of the costs for the building purchase and remodel.

Chief Financial Officer Amber Lewis reported to Council that health insurance costs are increasing as a result of a 21 percent increase in rates through Texas Municipal League. After exploring various options to reduce costs, City employees opted to keep a $200 deductible and eliminate a co-pay, which they deemed was not a real benefit. By eliminating the co-pay, the increase for the City is 16 percent, which will be reflected in the budget for the next fiscal year. The City will spend $57,000 on employe health insurance this year.

Boatright said the City may look at raising the deductible for employees in the next budget year.

“It isn’t uncommon for individuals to have a $5,000 deductible,” he said. “$200 is very low. If the increase gets too high, it may be that want to look at that.”

During his report to Council, Boatright said the City is talking with the City of Leander about developing a wholesale water agreement similar to that developed between Liberty Hill and Georgetown in 2014.

He said such an agreement would allow Liberty Hill to provide water to the subdivisions of Summerlyn, Stonewall, Highland Meadows and the Caughfield tract.

“This would triple our customer base on water,” he said.

“One thing hinders us with developers,” Boatright added. “We’re coming to the table with watewater (service). If we come with water, we’re in a much stronger position to negotiate from.

“Part of growing up is to be able to control our destiny, so in five to 10 years (we know) what our city will look like,” he said.

During the public comments portion of the meeting, real estate developer Jon Branigan urged the Council to follow the will of the Economic Development Corp. Board of Directors and hire a new EDC Executive Director.

In January, the consensus of the EDC Board was to recommend the City hire a replacement for Boatright as executive director because Boatright no longer has the time to devote to the position.

“I don’t know what the holdup is,” Branigan said. “I don’t know why you (the Council) are not moving forward on this.”

EDC members supported Kirk Clennan for the position.

Clennan, who now works in the private sector, has years of economic development experience for various cities and counties, including the City of Leander.

Most of the Liberty Hill EDC Board members have already spoken with Clennan about the job. EDC Board member John Johnston asked the Council in January to consider Clennan for the post.

“Whether it’s Kirk or anyone, it’s important to hire someone for the future growth of the city,” Branigan said.

In what appeared to be more of a housekeeping measure, the Council voted to approve a resolution that will allow a developer to separate the consent agreement from the development agreement, in order to facilitate the creation of two municipal utility districts (MUDs).

The Council also heard a report from Lewis regarding first quarter investments for fiscal 2014. The report, which provides elected officials with a snapshot of all city accounts, is required by state law.

Also Monday, the Council approved an ordinance calling the May 9 city council election, as well as a contract with the County to provide election services. On the May 9 city ballot are three council positions — Places 1, 3 and 5, held by Troy Whitehead, Branigan and Liz Rundzieher, respectively.

Councilmember Whitehead was not present Monday.

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