By SHELLY WILKISON
The Liberty Hill Police Department will add another patrol officer to its ranks as a result of council action Monday.
The current budget included funding for an additional position at mid-year subject to council approval. Councilmember Elizabeth Branigan requested the position be filled quickly in light of increased violence nationwide toward law enforcement officers.
In fact, Branigan suggested the city hire enough officers as soon as possible so that two officers are on patrol on every shift, especially after dark.
Police Chief Maverick Campbell, who was hired earlier this summer, told the Council that Liberty Hill police officers are off duty after 10 p.m. Emergency calls are left to Williamson County Sheriff’s deputies during the overnight hours.
“I believe we do a disservice to the community by having gaps in coverage,” Campbell said. “It’s no secret that the gaps are there. The criminal element also knows.”
He said his primary goal as Liberty Hill’s police chief after listening to the concerns of citizens is to increase police coverage to 24 hours. To accomplish that, it will take eight officers, including himself.
LHPD vacancies have been posted on a website for some time, and Campbell said he now has a few qualified applicants. He asked that the Council consider authorizing now one additional officer position that he planned on requesting in the new budget year, which begins Oct. 1. Then, he wants to create an additional position in October.
Campbell hired an officer this week to replace Cpl. James Savage who resigned in May. That brings the current number of patrol officers to five counting Chief Campbell, whose duties are primarily administrative in nature.
“Having two officers on duty at a time is what we need,” he said.
“I don’t want people to think that we’re hiring another officer, so we will have nighttime coverage,” said Councilmember Liz Rundzieher.
Campbell confirmed that adding night shifts would require more than six officers.
“The minimum staffing for a 24-hour department is seven officers and a chief. That wold allow for two on each night shift,” he said.
While most council members seemed to agree with the concept of two officers on patrol on each shift, and appeared to support the idea of a 24-hour department, city administrators advised waiting until budget talks begin next month to consider additional options.
Lewis said the police department accounts for 75 percent of all revenue generated from the sales tax and property tax, with the remaining 25 percent available to other city departments.
She said since Campbell joined the department, funds have been added to the budget to allow officers to work an additional four hours per pay period (up to 84), in addition to funding for overtime.
“I think the community will feel a difference in presence of law enforcement by doing that alone,” she said.
Additionally, the department’s four reserve officers will now be required to work two 12-hour shifts per month.
“In the last two weeks, that’s increased visibility,” Lewis said.
Over the concerns expressed by city staff in the past week, the Council and its Economic Development Corp. voted to issue a $9,000 refund to a downtown business owner for LUEs purchased before a policy was adopted capping the number required at four.
The protocol, which was adopted earlier this summer, was intended to reduce the sewer connection costs for a business seeking to locate in the downtown area. The EDC and the City each created a pool of LUEs (Living Unit Equivalent) that property owners could access after making an initial purchase of two LUEs. The cost to connect a business to sewer is $4,500 per LUE.
The policy capped businesses in the downtown area at four LUEs, including restaurants. Prior to its adoption, restaurants paid more than other types of businesses to connect because of the heavy demand on the wastewater system.
Eric Van Natter, a member of the EDC Board of Directors, said his business, MRVNEVN Investments LLC, wrote a check for two LUEs 10 days prior to the Council adopting the policy. His company owns property downtown at 1004 Loop 332, which Van Natter had leased out for restaurant use.
Although the policy does not include language making it retroactive to businesses that already purchased LUEs, Van Natter requested to be reimbursed $9,000.
Boatright first brought the matter to the EDC Board last Thursday, which voted unanimously to issue the refund. Van Natter engaged in the discussion, but abstained from the vote claiming a conflict of interest.
“What wasn’t addressed (in the policy) was the aspect of LUEs that had been paid prior to the adoption of the LUE pool,” Boatright explained. “Nothing is addressed in it about refunds, only LUEs going forward. That’s the reason it is on your agenda.”
Van Natter told his fellow EDC Board members that he had considered stopping payment on the check. Instead, a memo was sent to the EDC Board and City Council dated June 23 requesting reimbursement. At that time, he wrote that the building had not yet been connected to the sewer system, but service has since been connected on July 23, he told the Council Monday.
Council members implemented the change and created the pool of LUEs after some business owners, including Van Natter, complained that the system at that time was cost prohibitive to new business.
The Council and the EDC Board saw it as a way to incentivize businesses looking to open downtown.
During the discussion prior to the EDC Board vote last Thursday, director Bill Chapman asked staff whether a refund to Van Natter might spur other businesses to seek similar refunds.
Tractor Supply, which is the most recent business to open in the designated area, was named as one that could attempt to seek a refund.
“If we do this, aren’t we opening Pandora’s Box where we have to do this for others?” Councilmember Ron Rhea asked when the matter came to Council on Monday.
“There are others,” Boatright said, mentioning Tractor Supply again.
Senior Planner Sally McFeron added that the company could attempt to take back four LUEs.
“A year ago is different than 10 days,” said Mayor Connie Fuller.
However, in the absence of language addressing refunds, the date of an initial payment may not matter creating the possibility that others could follow suit.
After some discussion, Boatright said he had just realized that Van Natter was only out of pocket for three LUEs as opposed to four as he had suggested in the memo.
Boatright said the policy states the property owner is responsible for the purchase of two LUEs before the city and EDC contribute the other two. He said he believed Van Natter had only purchased one.
Van Natter, who was also present at the council meeting, argued that when he purchased the property, the price of one LUE was rolled into the property purchase.
“There was one existing (LUE) paid, so he paid for three, and he’s responsible for two,” Boatright said. “One went with the property.”
“I’m out of pocket for four,” Van Natter said. “One was paid to the previous owner.”
“But that had nothing to do with us,” Boatright countered.
“You were already paid for that. The sale of the property was increased because of the infrastructure there,” Van Natter said.
Lewis added that there would be “a lot of credits in our downtown district” if transfers are included.
“This will open Pandora’s Box if it’s opened up to all those previously transferred in the downtown district,” she said. “That would be a lot larger than the 10 LUEs there (in the city pool).”
“I don’t know that this is ethical,” said Councilmember Rhea.
With all Council members present Monday, Wendell McLeod made the motion to reimburse Van Natter for one LUE, with a second by Rundzieher. The vote was 4-1 with Rhea casting the only dissenting vote.
In other business Monday, the Council unanimously approved a recommendation from the EDC Board to award a Facade & Sign Matching Grant to G & L Cercone LLC for property at 100 East Myrtle.
The building is located next to the new city administration building currently under construction.
The $5,500 grant will help pay for masonry on the side of the building that faces Loop 332, as well as a monument sign for the building. The rock will be similar to that used on the new city building.
Following a 50-minute executive session, no action was taken on a closed session discussion regarding the employment of a Downtown Development Coordinator and EDC Executive Director. One candidate for the position was in attendance at Monday’s meeting.