Council pumps up police staffing

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By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM

In a move overturning the city administrator’s effort to reign in police spending, the Liberty Hill City Council voted Monday to add funding for two new patrol officers as well as a clerical position to the city’s proposed 2018 budget.

“This will put us in a much better position to meet the minimum staffing levels,” Police Chief Maverick Campbell told council members afterwards.

The change puts the police department budget at $1.03 million — a 40 percent increase over fiscal 2016, and a 116 percent increase over fiscal 2015 actual expenses.

During preliminary budget talks Campbell originally requested funding for four additional patrol positions and three new vehicles. After discussions with the Mayor and City Administrator, the request was reduced to one additional officer and one clerical position, and two new vehicles.

But during a council budget workshop August 21, Campbell said that although he agreed earlier that day to cut back on his request, it would take two new patrol positions to keep the city covered 24 hours a day with two officers on duty at night.

Monday, the Council voted unanimously to give the police department the two officers he requested, in addition to the clerical position.

Boatright remained largely silent for the discussion except to introduce the agenda item by saying that he “still recommended the budget that was discussed last week.”

Rundzieher asked Campbell if two new patrol officers would allow his department to fill out a 24-hour patrol even in weeks when staffing was temporarily reduced.

“There’s always that 5 percent chance,” Campbell said.

During night hours this summer, the department interrupted one active burglary.

Earlier this month, Boatright was vocal in challenging Campbell’s budget request, saying that last year the Council had been told that eight officers would be sufficient to fill out Campbell’s goal of a 24-hour patrol. The Council had been “generous” in both last year’s budget and with the one currently proposed, he said.

At that point the budget, adding one patrol officer and a clerical position, marked a 33 percent increase from the 2016-2017 budget bringing it to $977,630.

Council Member Jon Branigan suggested the department add an additional officer position to serve as a school resource officer, but his suggestion didn’t have full council support.

“We have great schools,” Branigan said, “but dig deeper and you’ll find we have a problem at the high school.” He added that the junior high and intermediate school also “have problems.”

As an example, he said he recently discovered that electronic cigarettes were being exchanged among students.

He suggested that a school resource officer, specially trained for adolescents, could help resolve any issues the high school might have with drug usage or other delinquency.

“Kids aren’t scared of teachers,” he said, adding that the officer should be “jovial” and friendly with the students.

Campbell responded positively to the idea. He said that the officer’s familiarity with the students would be useful during the summer months when school is out.

The position Branigan recommended would be stationed at Liberty Hill’s schools nine months out of the year, and in the city for the summer. Funding for the officer would be divided accordingly between the school district and the city.

The Mayor and other Council members questioned whether school district officials felt as strongly as Branigan suggested.

“It seems to me that if the school was that serious, they would have put it in their budget,” said Mayor Connie Fuller. “We don’t have any official indication that they want this.”

She said that to proceed, Branigan should produce a petition or a public action group.

Council Member Ron Rhea agreed.

“If this is really a big concern, why are they not here?” he said.

Branigan said that action from the Council could prompt the school to do the same.

“If we don’t put this in the budget now, it will get forgotten,” he said.

No action was taken on the school officer.

In August, LHISD Superintendent Rob Hart told The Independent that he didn’t believe it was time to introduce a school resource officer program.

“I won’t say it won’t happen sometime in the future, but we don’t have it planned for this year,” he said. “A lot of background work has to be done on a school resource officer program before it can happen.”

Final approval of the City’s 2017-2018 budget is slated for Sept. 18. The current fiscal year ends Sept. 31.

Tax Notes
In other budget matters Monday, the Council voted to forward $1.8 million in tax notes toward a prioritized list of ongoing and planned improvement projects.

The ordered list of priorities for the new fiscal year include: remodeling the police station, painting the water towers, renovations to the Fowler (also called Stubblefield) building, creating a swim center and trail system in City Park, adding amenities in Wetzel Park, improving the County Road 200 and Highway 29 intersection, drainage projects, the acquisition of a property adjacent to the Fowler building, creating a dog park, water line improvements for downtown, an acquisition of more property for the police station.

Tax anticipation notes are used to bridge funding gaps between fiscal years, and represent tax revenues before they are collected.

Council also voted to put an additional $1 million into the projects, also called the Capital Improvement Projects, out of the more than $4 million remaining from the present fiscal year’s cash ending balance.

Between these and other funding sources such as grants, Boatright says the city should be able to leverage $5-6 million in total funding for the projects.

Boatright said that in discussing the projects list with Mayor Fuller, he told her that this was the year the city “needed to put a large amount of money toward our capital projects list and try to accomplish— not all of them— but to make a good effort.”

“We’re in a good position financially to complete these projects that have been deferred for a long time,” he said.

For the last fiscal year, the City issued $1.1 million in tax notes and transferred $500,000 from its fund balance to budget a total of $1.6 million for the projects. Boatright said that the remainder of that would probably be used for renovations to Veterans Memorial Park and ongoing roadway improvements.

The projects list distributed to Council at the meeting also included a separate list of uncompleted projects from the current year, which will extend into fiscal 2017. There was some overlap with the 2017-2018 list.

Those projects include: exterior renovations on the Municipal Court building, a parking lot for the police station, repairs to downtown city properties, painting the water towers, installing turn lanes at the intersection of Ranch Road 1869 and Highway 29, renovations at Veterans Memorial Park, and the downtown sidewalks project.

First public hearing on UDC revisions sees no comments
A set of proposed revisions to the Unified Development Code, whose lingering presence has been a source of controversy since some changes were voted down in July 2016, had its first new public hearing Monday.

No comments were made.

The hearing will be left open until Sept. 25, when the Council will meet again, and likely vote on the document.

The UDC is a rulebook for developers in the city and its extraterritorial jurisdiction. It specifies construction standards, such as fire safety and the amount of impervious cover allowed, but it also covers zoning, permitting processes and more.

The UDC Committee’s recommendations were on the agenda for the Council on August 21, but a discussion with Branigan on each proposed change was delayed until this week so that members of the UDC Committee and Planning & Zoning Commission could also be present to participate.

Monday’s public hearing was posted as a joint meeting of the Council, the UDC Advisory Committee, and the Planning & Zoning Commission.

Some committee members were present for the public hearing Monday, but P&Z did not have a quorum of members present.

The Council offered no public description or discussion on the proposed changes, nor were there public comments.

The appointed committees left the Council meeting after no comments were received.

“Sorry,” Mayor Fuller said, referencing the lack of participation.

Last year, Council formed a UDC Advisory Committee from the entirety of the Planning & Zoning Commission and several Council appointees. The committee was tasked with combing through the UDC and coming up with a list of recommended changes.

Roughly two-thirds of their recommended changes were ultimately adopted by Council. The remaining third were largely those that loosened restrictions on developers.

One such recommendation was to create a separate government body in the city to handle appeals from developers who want exceptions from the UDC’s standards.

Another, whose fate was never resolved, concerned how the UDC should be applied in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, the area surrounding the city and significantly larger than it.

Controversy around the proposals erupted in an April 2017 meeting of the Council. Mayor Fuller said that it was “unfair” that the committee’s chair, developer Jon Branigan, had been tasked with defending the committee’s recommendations.

Branigan, now a Council member, made reconvening the committee a top priority. He hopes to gain council approval on the recommendations elected officials voted down last year.

The new committee voted unanimously in July to resubmit to Council everything they did last year.

City contracts with new code enforcement officer
Council approved a service agreement with Elias Carrasco to act as a code enforcement officer at the rate of $50 per hour.

Carrasco will write and issue notices for code violations found on residential and commercial properties in the city, such as derelict cars in a lawn or signs placed illegally in the right-of-way.

“We have members of the community interested in being very active about this,” Boatright said.

Carrasco has over 13 years of experience in the field, and currently works as a code enforcement officer in Hutto.

Liberty Hill’s last enforcement officer was hired in February 2016, but removed shortly after.

Downtown sidewalks to be completed
A task order was issued for surveying and engineering that would complete the city’s long-planned downtown sidewalks project.

Some 650 feet of sidewalks, ramps, curbs and gutters will be added along Loop 332 between Myrtle Lane and Munro Street.

Costs were set not to exceed $33,111.

The only vote in opposition came from Branigan.

“No offense,” he said to city engineer Perry Steger. “I just think it’s an expensive design.”

Earlier in the meeting during budget talks, Branigan had raised the point that he believed the city spent too much on engineering. As a solution he suggested that the city budget for a dedicated engineer position and rely less on contractors.

Boatright countered by saying that although the city is experiencing “the most stimulating economy yet,” much of the city’s income is still derived from permitting and other one-time fees.

Until the city gains a more stable footing with funding from the ad valorem tax, “we need outside contractors to fill the gap,” he said.

Council Member Troy Whitehead agreed, saying, “I trust [Boatright]’s advice because we’re here every other Monday, and he’s here every day.”

Rhea also took Boatright’s side, and said that engineering costs would largely stay the same even with a position.

“We probably could use an engineer,” said Member Wendell McLeod, “but then again we have too many people.”

In other business Monday:
* The Council heard presentations on the Parks Master Plan from the hired consulting group Halff & Associates, and on the Transportation Master Plan from CP&Y. Both plans lay out long-term visions for the city’s goals, and have been the subject of workshops and public committee meetings in recent months. The Council issued approval for both plans.
* All drilling on city property has been banned. Though a largely ceremonial measure for what has never been a problem, Boatright said it would be important for preparations later this year when the City plans to apply for grants from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.
* A conceptual plan of a parking lot for the police station, presented by Bowman Consulting, was approved. The lot will add seven spaces in addition to existing street parking. On Chief Campbell’s request, the design had been modified such that the parking spots slant toward an exit on Loop 332, “for rapid deployment.”
* Bowman Consulting also presented a conceptual plan for Wetzel Park. The two-phase plan would add benches and wi-fi during the first phase, and a splash pad in the second. It also accommodates a traffic circle described in CP&Y traffic plan at the intersection of Loop 332 and County Road 279.
* A bid tabulation for improvements to Veterans Memorial Park was approved at $243,544. Cude Engineering, Inc., formerly known as Lockwood Engineering, Inc. was contracted for renovations earlier this year.

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