Council rejects Williamson’s petition for tax rollback
By SHELLY WILKISON
The Liberty Hill City Council rejected a petition Monday that would have forced a special election on a tax rollback.
The petition, which contained the signatures of 66 Liberty Hill voters — or 10 percent of the 647 registered voters — was submitted to City Hall on Dec. 19, 2014, by former mayor Jamie Williamson.
It called for an election to reduce the property tax rate from the current $0.53642 per $100 of taxable value to the rollback rate of $0.521147 — a change that if approved by voters would have meant a loss in revenue of $18,500 this year for the City of Liberty Hill and an average refund of $16.50 per residential property owner.
“There were signatures (on the petition) that our legal counsel felt were not valid,” City Manager Greg Boatright said after the meeting. “There were several of them. I don’t want to be specific about people, calling them out. They signed thinking they were doing something correctly.”
City Attorney Natasha Martin told The Independent that the responsibility lies with the petitioner to present a valid document and the City is not required to identify the errors.
“It’s their burden of proof, and we don’t have to give a reason (for invalidating it),” she said.
Because the Council voted unanimously to adopt a resolution declaring the petition invalid, Williamson’s next recourse is to take the issue to District Court in Williamson County.
Williamson was present for Monday’s special called meeting and recorded it on a video camera, but did not speak.
The Independent requested an interview with Williamson following the meeting. In response, she requested that questions be sent to her via email. Questions were sent Tuesday, but she did not respond and provided no explanation by press time Wednesday night.
“Once we make the determination, there is no provision in the law to allow her (Williamson) to collect more signatures or correct the current petition,” Boatright said, adding that Williamson submitted the petition on the 89th day after the tax rate was adopted in September — the law states that a petition for a rollback election must be filed within 90 days.
“So now that there has been an improvement in management, we’ve decreased our debt and improved our park — now all these things are considered a bad thing?” said Councilmember Elizabeth Branigan. “Prior to improving this management, there was discussion of cutting out the cleaning and having secretaries wash the windows.”
As mayor in 2012, Williamson proposed and broke a tie vote to increase the tax rate by 20 percent — an increase she said was needed primarily to pay down sewer debt. In 2013, she proposed another 5 percent tax rate increase, but the council voted no and kept the rate at 2012 levels. Williamson was defeated for a second term as mayor in May 2014 by Connie Fuller.
In September 2014, the current Council chose for the second straight year not to raise the tax rate.
On Tuesday, Mayor Fuller said city staff received a revised estimate after the meeting Monday for the costs of holding a tax rollback election. During the meeting she reported the cost would be about $10,000, but the printed estimate showed the costs at $20,587. That price, she said, did not include the additional attorneys fees or city staff time, nor the $1,500 fee that would be charged by the county Tax Collector’s Office to issue new tax bills and distribute refunds.
By law, the City would have had to hold the special election between February and April, said Chief Deputy Tax Assessor/Collector Larry Gaddes. He explained the process to council members Monday, including how Williamson County arrived at the rollback rate.
While the Council did not raise the tax rate in 2014, Gaddes said property owners might have seen a higher tax bill because property values increased throughout the county.
He said that if voters approved a tax rollback, the decrease in revenue would be applied to the City’s Maintenance & Operation (M&O), which supports the daily business of city government. The debt rate, which is $0.4307 of the current tax rate, could not be impacted by a drop in revenue. Of the $0.53642 tax rate, only $0.099 is applied to M&O.
Prior to the vote on the petition, Mayor Fuller read a letter addressed to “Neighbors, Friends and Fellow taxpayers” listing some achievements of the city staff and council in 2014. She was critical of “unfounded opposition and criticism” directed at the Council and referenced the rollback petition and another petition filed by Williamson in October 2014.
Williamson’s previous petition stopped the City from obtaining the lowest possible interest rate to finance construction of water lines needed along Bagdad Road to obtain water from the City of Leander. The petition, which contained some of the same signatures that appeared on the rollback petition, prohibited the City from using certificates of obligation at a 2.4 percent interest rate and forced the use of traditional financing on bonds that carried a higher interest rate (3.01 percent).
“This increase in the interest rate cost the taxpayers approximately $112,000,” Fuller said Monday. “To the individual taxpayer, the cost is $118.53.”
She estimated that the combined costs of both petitions to city taxpayers was more than $125,000.
“Despite these obstacles, the City Council and staff remain optimistic and we are all working diligently for the best interests of the community,” she continued. “We encourage you to call City Hall and ask questions before signing a petition which will cost your neighbors and friends more money.”
Chris Carlisle, a resident of Riverbend subdivision, signed both petitions. However, he said he wasn’t motivated by the hope of a lower tax rate or a $16.50 refund.
“I’m not an anti-tax person, and they (the City) could keep the $16.50 refund, but I would like to get something out of it (the taxes paid),” said Carlisle.
He said he and his wife signed the petitions at Williamson’s request because they are still bitter about being denied the ability to de-annex from the city limits.
He said his neighbor, Linda Lattanzio, presented a letter to the Council in September 2013 requesting the City release five properties in Riverbend that remain in the city following the de-annexation of the majority of homes six years prior. The Council denied the request of Lattanzio, who was then an employee of The Leader owned by then-Mayor Williamson. Lattanzio is now editor of The Liberty Hill Leader, a business that is operated out of her home in Riverbend.
Lattanzio also signed the rollback petition. She agreed to be interviewed for this story, then later deferred questions to her husband, who also signed the petition. Rick Lattanzio did not respond.
Carlisle said although a resident of the city, he realizes no benefits from the $1,100 he pays in city taxes. He said he “didn’t care about rolling back taxes, all I want is to be de-annexed from the city.”
Another resident, who signed the petition, told The Independent the issues were not explained clearly and expressed regret over signing them. The individual, who asked not to be identified because of possible retaliation, said it was unclear that the petitions could have the effect of costing taxpayers more money or disrupting city government.
Once filed, petitions are considered public documents.
Below is a list of the petitioners whose names and signatures appear on the document submitted Dec. 19, 2014. The names are reprinted in the order they appear and as they appear on the document.
Petitioners include Monroe Williamson, Rodney Ingram, Wendell Hays, Rick Lattanzio, Linda Lattanzio, Richard Dawson, Sloane Dawson, Mark Spinner, Christy Greene, Richard Tippie, Cathy Tippie, Barbara Townsend, Kellie Becker, Bonnie Wilie, Dennis Wilie, Chris Goodreau, Stacy Goodreau, Larry E. Allman, Matt Goodreau, Tammy J. Ballard, Carlos Hernandez, Lisa Kirk, Brian Kirk, Amy Carlisle, Chrsitopher Carlisle, Shayne Kilian, Jamie Williamson, Mary Melchor Smith, Judy Jacobs, Helen Angerstein, Nancy Burger, Debra Terry, Malcom Terry, Christy Martin, John Brewer, Melinda Braun, Victoria Brewer, Joseph S. Braun, Cheryl Keene, Maurice C. Cook, Jr., Ronald Dean Kemper, Susan Kemper, Cindy Van Meeteren, Stephen Meeteren, Edward J. Kandler, M. Travis Lackey, Tracy Wiggers, Tresa Hernandez, Jack Potter, Melissa Carr, Robert Jamerson, Shane McCown, Diana Barbee.
City officials say signers who feel like they were misinformed or misunderstood the petition may remove their names by contacting City Hall and submitting a simple statement or affidavit.
Fuller noted that the Council previously voted to freeze taxes for senior citizens and the disabled. Gaddes said those property owners would not have been impacted by either an increase in property values or the tax rate.
“Obviously they didn’t understand that signing (the petition) did not impact them. Why would you sign something that doesn’t make a difference to you?” Fuller said.
Prior to the discussion Monday, the Council heard from Eric Van Natter and Jon Branigan during the public comments portion of the meeting. Both expressed support for the Council.
Branigan, a real estate developer and son of Councilmember Branigan, said, “It doesn’t make sense for us to spend this kind of money for us to save $20 per household. If it’s possible to start a petition to repeal this petition, I would do it. If told all the facts, some (signers) would change their minds.”
Van Natter, owner of Star of Texas Realty Group and president of the Christian Business Leaders Association, thanked council members for their service. He noted improvements to City Park, the Christmas tree lighting event, a water agreement with Georgetown and downtown revitalization as some of the achievements in recent months.
“This council is moving forward in a positive direction, and for the first time I can say that I’m proud of our city council,” Van Natter said.
In other business Monday, the Council voted unanimously to post a job opening in the Municipal Court after the resignation of longtime city employee Tammy Kirk.
In the Police Department, the Council approved the employment of Jim Wofford as a full-time patrol officer. Wofford has been serving as an unpaid reserve officer and was moved to a paid position after a recent vacancy was created.