By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
With two members absent Monday, the City Council voted against a plan to design a walking trail at City Park.
The Council met their quorum with three members and the Mayor, who can only vote to break a tie. Members Liz Rundzieher and Ron Rhea were not present. Rhea has missed every meeting since January due to health issues. Members present were Jon Branigan, who took office in May, Wendell McLeod and Troy Whitehead.
A divided vote on this minimized Council delivered another blow to the last vestige of what was once an extensive trail plan to connect downtown to City Park.
Engineering and design for the trail inside of City Park, all that remains of the original plan, was denied. Branigan and McLeod said it was too expensive.
The original trail network was intended to be part of a Council-backed effort to make Liberty Hill more pedestrian friendly. However, the plan suffered its first blow earlier this year when the City’s application for a $250,000 grant from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department was denied.
By the June 13 Council meeting, the proposed trail had been reduced to a loop inside of the City Park on CR 200. At that time, Council voted to hire Halff & Associates to design a swim center for $154,000.
Halff was also authorized at that meeting to work in conjunction with the Council and the Parks & Recreation Board to update the City’s Master Parks Plan. The plan discussed then included the remaining portion of the trail.
Boatright said Monday that a problem arose when staff and consultants reviewed the swim center plan and realized that design for the park’s trail was not included.
Boatright explained that at the time they put the swim center proposal forward, the City’s grant application to Texas Parks & Wildlife was still in play.
His proposal Monday was for Council to approve an additional $16,000 for the pool center agreement with Halff to allow for the walking trail design.
The money would provide for the surveying, engineering, design and bidding services for the trail’s first phase, which is planned to be 8-10 feet wide and 3,200 feet long.
“I hate to be a stinker at the party but that’s a lot of money for designing a trail,” he said.
Boatright said he also agreed, “but building a trail is almost as expensive as constructing a road.” He said that the park’s slopes carry drainage issues that require careful planning.
City Planner Sally McFeron could be heard audibly agreeing from the audience.
Member Troy Whitehead motioned to approve the proposal saying that there are “too many risks” at play with the drainage.
“We can’t just mow the lawn,” he said.
Whitehead’s motion died for lack of a second.
“I just have heartburn spending $16,000 to include a trail into the design,” Branigan said.
Boatright said that the cost came out to $5 a foot, while the trail’s construction in the future would cost $35-45 a foot. He said paying 12 percent for engineering is the going rate for most projects.
“We don’t want it to be a maintenance nightmare,” Boatright said.
Mayor Connie Fuller said a similar proposal could be brought up in the future.
Search for Financial Officer continues
In what was called the City’s first “headhunting venture,” City Administrator Greg Boatright was authorized to negotiate and execute an agreement with the consulting firm Ray & Associates to help recruit a new finance officer for the city.
Branigan seconded a motion, originally put forward by Whitehead, with the amendment that Boatright seek to negotiate the cost down from $15,300.
The cost is what the firm had requested after Boatright was authorized in the last meeting to find an agreement with them.
The city has been operating without a Financial Officer since May, when former Finance Director Amber Lewis resigned to become the City Administrator for Rollingwood.
Boatright said that the position is especially crucial right now because of the ongoing budget season.
He said the budget process would be “painful” without a finance officer.
“I remember when I first got here, and I was the last man standing when it came to the budget besides the mayor, and we were in severe disagreement over the budget,” he said.
Reiterating what he had said at the last Council meeting, when he was originally approved to negotiate the agreement, Boatright said that Ray & Associates was a “natural fit because they’re already in our shop.”
Ray was hired earlier this year to help update the job descriptions and salaries of all positions on the City’s payroll. The results are expected to arrive in September.
Boatright said that current outreach from the City had not produced any qualified applicants.
“We’re out of the market, that’s what our problem is,” he said.
Branigan questioned the price tag associated with using Ray as a recruiter. He said he knew firms that would do the same for $12,000.
Boatright said he did not know how Ray came to their asking price, but said that there are a limited number of firms that would do this.
City Secretary Barbara Zwernemann added that among recruiters, Ray was one of few with a specific focus in municipal government.
Branigan said that while he agreed that there was an urgency to the matter, he still would like to see the price negotiated down.
McLeod said they should finish the salary review first before hiring a new finance officer, but Boatright said that would add months to the timeline.
The motion to authorize Boatright passed unanimously.
The finance officer position came up as a discussion earlier in the meeting during department head reports.
In giving the city administrator’s report, Boatright said that an interim financial director would hopefully begin on July 27.
In the last Council meeting, Boatright was authorized to recruit for the interim position that would be paid a compensation not to exceed the budgeted amount for the regular position. Boatright at that time had a particular accountant in mind, who had prior experience with the city. Negotiations are ongoing.
The Council met one hour in closed executive session with legal counsel, but no action was taken in public meeting. The closed session agenda included for possible discussion an update to Liberty Hill’s ongoing application for a water service rights transfer, continuing settlement negotiations in the 2015 lawsuit with the U.S. Water Services Corp., and “acquisition of real estate within the city of Liberty Hill concerning an ongoing search of available properties and real estate acquisitions.”
A discussion about the procedures related to the annexation of Stonewall Municipal Utility District, and the Public Improvement District the city seeks to create there, was postponed to the next meeting scheduled July 24.