Fuller, Hall spar over growth at forum

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

Incumbent Mayor Connie Fuller and challenger Rick Hall used their time at Tuesday’s forum to make the case for their candidacy, both working to define the role of the mayor, the needs of the community, which version of change was best for the city, and exactly what change meant for Liberty Hill.

Q: How do you see the mayor’s role in managing and facilitating growth and development in Liberty Hill?

Fuller: My role is that I oversee. The mayor does not get to make decisions. This is a Type A General Law City, and the council is the governing body. So what I do is gather information about different projects and things, research them, go to meetings, and then I can come forward with a recommendation to the council on what I think is good, or (City Administrator) Greg (Boatright) will come up with one then the council will decide. Nobody can just come in and say I’m going to make sure that we don’t raise taxes. I may have that desire, but I don’t have that ability. I understand my role and I appreciate the fact that we have a council that is forward-thinking, is positive and they do get things done.
Hall: I think the mayor’s key role in the city is to make sure it serves the people. In order to facilitate the growth the council does make the final decisions, but it is also understanding what the people need and that’s why the mayor needs to get out, hold town hall meetings and listen to the people and understand what they’re looking for and then help direct, and help guide and help manage the process. In order for us to be a strong city, we all have to come together, whether it is the city council, the school board, the EDC, whoever, we all need to pull together. I think the mayor’s job is like the figurehead of the city that helps build those relations and help make sure that everything is being done right for the city. I think part of it is also managing funds correctly, by making sure that the city council is educated in the amount of money they are spending and make opportunities for them to understand there is potential growth coming in and they are spending money for different improvement projects that might not be needed right now, like a swimming pool or something like that, and investing that money in new businesses, have businesses help come and stimulate the economy.

Q: While the surrounding area is growing rapidly in population, the city limits is restricted in its growth and population. Our police department’s budget has doubled in the past two years to over $1 million annually, adding positions and moving to a 24-hour operation, but its jurisdiction has not expanded. Is this growth justified and what future growth, if any, do you see for the department?

Hall: I really feel like anytime there are businesses wanting to come in to town, the first thing they will ask is how is your infrastructure and how is your public safety. Public safety includes your fire department and includes your police department and we need to always be one step ahead. As you said, the budget for the police department has doubled, I think that’s still not where we need to be. We might have a very small city limits, but we have 30,000-plus cars that travel through our city on a given day and I think making sure the police department is out there ensuring public safety and ensuring we are always doing what’s right for the city is what we need to do. We need to be sure the police department is always ahead of where the growth of the city is at.
Fuller: I was in favor of expanding our police department because we had a lot of people who were concerned about public safety and particularly at night when we just had one patrolman on duty. The council felt we were responsible for that person and we wanted them to be safe, but I do not believe we need to expand the police department any further. There are areas in our ETJ that we are contracting with for police coverage and some of our officers can go out and help in those areas, but I’m not in favor of doubling the budget again. I feel we have an adequate police department and I’m proud of it.
Hall: We have communities very close to our city limits, like behind Sonic with Stonewall, and that’s probably the biggest majority of our population. We need to make sure that even though it is not within our city limits, I’d rather feel safe that someone from our police department is going over to handle an issue rather than waiting 15 minutes for Williamson County.
Fuller: Our police department does (respond). Whenever a call comes in they will respond to an accident even though it is not within the city limits and will wait until Williamson County gets there. It is being covered.

Q: When talking about economic development, should Liberty Hill put more of a premium on tax generation or job creation? Specifically what types of businesses do you want to see here?

Fuller: I’d like to see a lot of different types of businesses here, but we’re limited by two things. We’re limited by infrastructure for them as well as affordable housing for workers. If you go to any restaurant in town, they will tell you they cannot get enough workers. We’ve tried to expand the type of projects we can have as far as housing. We need more housing. If you’re making just $10 or $12 per hour you can’t live in a $1,200 a month apartment. There is more to it than just the kind of business you want. Yes, we would love to have a big employer, but who is going to work there and where are they going to live when they do? It’s a little bit more complicated.
Hall: I think the first thing is we have to put an emphasis on job creation because with job creation the tax is going to fall right behind it. In order for us to have a better stimulated economy here, if we create jobs who live in our community and the surrounding community, you don’t have to drive to Austin to find a job to support their family, then there will be housing here in Liberty Hill that will be affordable for those folks. I’ve been here for seven years, and I know seven miles isn’t too far down the road, but I think we need a place to go to the grocery store here.
Fuller: (A grocery store) is an option we have been trying to get. I know our EDC has been working on trying to get a grocery store and has not been successful with that. The job creation is great, I like that idea, but you still have to have wages enough to be able to afford to live here. Right now there’s just not that many places.
Hall: The biggest piece of that is making sure we have the right infrastructure, but we also need to have opportunities for us to incentivize businesses and different industries to come in to Liberty Hill that have the higher-paying jobs to support our economy and support our folks that live in Liberty Hill.

Q: The Unified Development Code discussion has been tabled since February, following disagreements on how to handle parkland dedication guidelines and questions on whether the city needs a board of adjustments. If elected, do you plan to bring the issue up again for council consideration and do you support the proposed changes on these issues?

Hall: I have read part of the UDC, I have not read all of it. I think there are things in the UDC right now that have benefitted Liberty Hill. We’ve seen some stimulated growth in Liberty Hill because of the changes made to the UDC. I don’t think that anything we’ve set forth, whether it is from the City Council, the Mayor or EDC, is something that will always be standardized. We should always be looking because as the city grows the UDC will have to change. I think that’s something we need to review on an ongoing basis to ensure we are doing what’s right for our citizens and our city to make sure as growth happens we make sure the regulations are there to help support the city and population here.
Fuller: That is something we have been working on for a long time. We are interested in bringing in businesses and being business friendly. The committee worked on that UDC for two years. They brought back recommendations, and the council passed a portion of them. It has never been completed, we’re coming back to address it in sections. I am in favor of some of it and some of it I’m not. I do believe that we need requirements for buildings. I believe the UDC is important and we need to make sure that we’re smart about what we do. We need to add something to it, but yes, it will be brought back.
Hall: I think we’ve got a lot of developers and a lot of folks here in the city that we should reach out to and ask questions. We should also get with our neighbor cities, too, and understand how they went through this growth. We need to build relationships with our surrounding cities and understand how they have dealt with the growth. The growth is coming here we can’t stop it, so we need to understand what we need to do.
Fuller: Developers come to us and they are interested in building here because our restrictions are not as difficult to deal with as most of our neighbors and we’ve heard it over and over again. Last year, we had 14 new businesses come into Liberty Hill and already this year we’ve had four. It’s not like our growth is stymied and its not like we don’t have any ability.

Question for Mayor Fuller: You have been a part of many changes in the city in recent years, and some taxpayers are concerned about rising expenditures. Explain why you believe increased expenditures on personnel and building projects are justified.

Fuller: For one thing, three years ago, we decreased the tax rate in this city. It went from 53 cents per $100 valuation to 50 cents. So if you live in the city and your taxes went up, it is because your property has increased in value, not because the city has raised your taxes. The other thing is the city is required to provide services, and everything we do has a way of being repaid and so it’s not like we step out and are spending money like it is for nothing. We have goals, we have vision for the city and we’re accomplishing that. Just look at our new Veterans Park downtown, that’s part of it.
Hall: As the city grows, change has to happen all the time and you need to make sure we’re always one step ahead of all the changes in order to facilitate the right growth coming in. As far as taxes go, the easiest way to relieve taxes for the homeowner is to stimulate the economy by bringing more businesses in, to create the taxes that offset the budget needed to run the city.

Fuller: When we bought our wastewater treatment plant, that actually brings in 47 percent of our income for the city. That is like a gold mine for us. It’s just so wonderful to be able to work on the streets and to provide services we have never been able to do before.

Question for Hall: You have campaigned on a message of change. What specific changes do you have in mind going forward, and what would you have done differently the last two years?

Hall: I think just the word ‘change’ is something that scares everybody, but change is just something different. With growth you have to change in order for it to happen. I think part of the change that I would be trying to help facilitate would be the tax relief for our homeowners. I want to hold town hall meetings, because again, the city staff and the mayor, they work for the people. I want to safeguard the money of the citizens in the city to ensure that what we’re spending the money on is what helps the city grow and is not for different individuals or folks here in the city.
Fuller: If you’ve lived in this city very long, more than five years, you know all that’s happened is ‘change’. We are working continually to improve the city. We are working to do planning for the city so in the future councils will be able to look at the work that’s been done and plan subdivisions with roads already set aside or with drainage plans already set aside. That’s part of planning for smart growth.
Hall: There has been a lot of change and a lot of the change we see happening in the city is residential change and I think that’s what keeps the amount of taxes what it is for the homeowner. There’s not a lot of business change, even though there have been 14 businesses last year and four this year, but the majority of those businesses are not sustaining a substantial about of revenue and income for the folks that work here.

Closing comments

Fuller: I’m very proud of the job that this council is doing. I’m very proud of the peace and the prosperity in this city. I have worked hard and this is the first election where I have ever been criticized that I might not be totally honest. That’s very sad for me. I love this city and I have served it diligently for years and I want to continue the work that I have started. I have a good working relationship with the council and one of the reasons why you don’t want a big change to come along is that when people want to work with the city, they want a council that has worked together. They don’t want somebody that comes in and they’re constantly changing and constantly questioning things.
Hall: I’ve been here for seven years and I’ve seen an exorbitant amount of growth. With my time with the chamber and on the EDC board I see that growth and with all the changes coming about, I think we need a strong person who can help guide that growth and I think we need to be reminded that no matter who wins this year, in two years the race is going to come up again and the growth is always going to be changing forever and ever.

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