By SHELLY WILKISON
Unhappy with the Economic Development Board’s decision regarding sponsorship for two upcoming events, the Liberty Hill City Council voted Monday to supercede it and then placed a council member on the EDC Board as an ex officio member.
The Council voted to allocate $6,100 for the Liberty Hill Christmas Festival and $5,000 for the Sculpture Garden Celebration using funds from the sales tax-funded Economic Development Corp.
The EDC Board of Directors voted just four days earlier to apply the requests for sponsorships toward repairing the electrical system at Lions Foundation Park, a privately owned park where both events are scheduled to take place this fall. The EDC Board’s vote to set aside $11,100 toward electrical work was in lieu of a cash contribution or reimbursement for event expenses.
Rick Hall, a member of the EDC Board who also serves as President of the Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce, explained that he had communicated with organizers of both events regarding the need for outdoor electrical improvements along the walking trail at the park and all were in agreement with the idea to direct EDC sponsorship funds toward the repairs.
The walking trail at Lions Foundation Park is the site of the Christmas Festival’s Trail of Lights. The lighted trail, which is sponsored by the Chamber this year, needs dependable electrical service in order to support the number and type of displays planned.
The first unofficial estimate Hall received for the work was about $15,000, and he said park owners — the Liberty Hill Development Foundation — had agreed to share one-third of the expenses with the EDC paying for two-thirds of the total in lieu of a cash sponsorship of the events.
“Why don’t we just sponsor the electrical work, and not worry about sponsoring the events?” asked Board member John Johnston. “I’d rather it be clear cut.”
Board member Eric Van Natter agreed.
“Why is there a particular issue with sponsorship on these events when the Board has spent about $28,000 thus far on sponsorships?” City Administrator Greg Boatright asked the Board.
“I don’t understand. I get the cooperation (with the Development Foundation) and the need for electrical. But there’s a $40,000 line item in the EDC budget and we’ve spent a little over $28,000 so far on sponsorships. So is there an issue with any of these that are causing problems for the Board?
“The City has underwritten the sculpture and Christmas events, and I’m wondering even though there is not sufficient money left in your budget for the requests bring made here tonight, is there a reason?,” he continued.
“At the walk through at the park, all the parties were there, and they said a good use of the money would be to channel it toward electrical work in conjunction with the Chamber,” EDC President Bill Chapman responded.
“From the City in particular, we see these events, just like the art fest, in bringing something real important to the community,” Boatright said. “Showing people what Liberty Hill has to offer. Because of all the volunteers working together to pull events off…if it was up to us (City staff), we’d have to hire people, we couldn’t do it. I’m an advocate for all events. I’m disappointed when we have volunteers come before us and we can’t find a way to help.”
Boatright stressed that while electrical improvements are needed at the park, the real benefactor of the EDC’s allocation would be the Development Foundation, which owns the park.
“I don’t have a problem with that, but I guess my question is it seems like this Board has been willing to sponsor other events. Three community events are here asking for money with specific goals, and the EDC has always been amenable to sponsoring,” Boatright added.
Also in attendance last Thursday were Mayor Connie Fuller and Council Member Liz Rundzieher.
The EDC Board heard from Mary Lyn Jones, an organizer of the Sculpture Garden Celebration, and Pastor Michael Wright representing the Christmas Festival. Both explained their requests and presented event budgets.
When asked directly whether the negotiated deal was agreeable with them, Wright said yes, but Jones said, “we want the same amount we requested last year.”
When another Sculpture Garden Celebration organizer made the original request for funds to the EDC on July 20, Board members questioned the need for public funds because the event proposal showed $9,000 in revenue generated in 2016. When Intermediate School art teacher Susan Barnes could not speak to the event’s finances, the Board delayed action on the request until Jones could meet with them to offer further explanation.
“We had a surplus after the (art) auction,” Jones told the Board Thursday. “The purpose (of the funds raised by the event) is to take care of the sculptures and preserve them. We had a professional assessment done and identified what needs to be done, and helped us set a direction of priorities.”
Johnston said the sculpture event’s $9,000 balance to the good indicated that EDC funds weren’t needed to host the event.
“Honestly, the sculpture fest didn’t need our money last time because it made $9,000 profit. And the (Lions Club) Rip Roarin’ Ride…looks like they’re making money and don’t need our money either. So, if that money is for electrical work, let’s do that and not worry about sponsorships,” Johnston said.
Board member Eric Van Natter agreed with Johnston. In the end, both voted to award sponsorships in the form of electrical improvements.
The Board took separate action to approve a request by the Liberty Hill Lions Club, for $2,500 to put on the Rip Roarin’ Ride — an annual bicycle ride that raises money for Lions Club charities including college scholarships for local high school students. The Lions Club stated that EDC funds would be used to hold the event with any proceeds directed to their charities. The ride will be held on Oct. 7 — the same day as the Sculpture Garden Celebration.
When the City Council met in a special meeting Monday, it voted unanimously to grant the requests made by the events and took the funds from the EDC as opposed to the General Fund to pay for it.
“We were confused,” Chapman explained to the Council Monday about the EDC Board’s actions the week before. “My understanding was these groups walked the park” and agreed to the plan. Then, it seemed “the budgets of everyone were left in the lurch. I encourage you to pass these two grants and we can deal with the electrical later.
“We worried about it all weekend,” Chapman added. “Rick Hall even called the Chamber together (Friday) and got another $2,500 together for it (Sculpture Garden Celebration).”
“The projects needed to be funded and that was the overall goal,” Fuller said.
Between last Thursday and Monday, a more thorough estimation of the costs for electrical work had been received and the price was $87,000. On Monday’s Council agenda, the EDC was to recommend approval of the electrical expense, but the Council voted to take no action on that request until all of the bids were received.
The Independent learned that a second bid was received on Tuesday that placed the costs within the original $15,000 range originally suggested by Hall.
After the Council approved the EDC-funded grants to the two events, it approved the appointment of Rundzieher as an ex officio non-voting member of the EDC Board.
Fuller said the EDC Bylaws allow for the appointment of a council member to the Board. And a new state law allows for up to four council members to serve.
“In the interest of the community, we don’t want what happened the other night to happen again,” Fuller said, referencing the EDC Board’s decision to fund electrical improvement in lieu of providing funds to the events. “We will send a representative (from the Council) to the meetings to report back to us. It’s not to keep watch on you. That’s not the idea. But we recognize that when boards and the Council don’t line up, it creates problems. We’re the ones accountable to the taxpayers.”
“I welcome it,” said Chapman, adding that the move would give the Council more insight into what the EDC Board is about. “We adopted a Code of Ethics a month ago and read it into the record.”
Years ago, council members served on the EDC Board. Rundzieher was among those.
Fuller said the addition of a council member as a non-voting member on the EDC Board has been the subject of discussion for some time.
“But this happened, and that’s the reason for it now,” she said. “It’s very important to me that we’re accountable.”