Liberty Hill capital improvement funds in short supply
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
The Liberty Hill City Council learned Monday that the availability of funds for completion of current – and consideration of future – capital improvement projects appears extremely limited, but there were plenty of explanations why.
The lack of available funds means until more bonds are sold there is no money for the planned swim center or any other potential projects currently being discussed.
Council member Tony DeYoung requested more information on the status of projects and available funds after questions were raised at the July 13 meeting. The last overview the Council received in public regarding capital improvement projects was in October 2019.
City Finance Director Becky Wilkins gave the update Monday on what has been expended on projects compared to the original budget, and told Council members the City has $710,319 available left to spend from the $3 million bond.
But only 20 minutes before Wilkins’ presentation the Council voted to move forward with plans to realign the intersection of Loop 332 and CR279 downtown with an estimated price tag of $840,254.
Then, less than 30 minutes after the presentation, the Council obligated another proposed $750,000 to build a community center on downtown property recently purchased from Williamson County. Neither of these projects were included in the accounting of expended and available capital improvement funds.
Council member Kathy Canady asked Wilkins what her preference or suggestion would be on how to handle the projects.
“We don’t have enough money to finish the projects we need to finish waiting on grants or waiting on this or that to fall into place,” Wilkins said. “It doesn’t mean they’re not going to happen, but with COVID everything is just running slow.”
The lack of funds was attributed to three things – unanticipated costs, cost overruns, and what a number of Council members characterized as a lack of planning by the past city administration.
Part of the blame for the funding crunch was placed on what was referred to as unplanned projects.
“A project that we didn’t anticipate and weren’t planning for, and hadn’t budgeted for was the TXDoT (Texas Department of Transportation) turn lane on 1869 at 29, so there was a $300,000 bill we didn’t really know about,” Wilkins said. “It wasn’t projected in the CIP that I had presented in the past.”
The City, though, had long-before agreed to the cost-sharing plan with TXDoT, and the Council voted in October 2019 to give final approval to the $300,000 contribution to the project when TXDoT announced its plans to begin work. Funding approval for the project was first taken up by the Council on Aug. 4, 2017.
Then there were the cost overruns, which totaled more than $370,000 across four projects including Wetzel Park, the Stubblefield/Fowler House, police parking lot and remodel of the municipal court building.
“Most of the construction projects were over what they were originally intended to be and those things happen,” Wilkins said.
The remodel of the municipal court building was bid at $171,714, but the final cost of the project came in at $303,066.
The bids for these projects were all approved in early 2019, but according to former City Administrator Greg Boatright, Hall stepped in and took complete control of the projects – the municipal court remodel in particular – and managed that on his own.
“The Mayor took everything over,” Boatright said. “He took over the splash pad, he took over the municipal court building and everybody else was kind of shut out of it. We would still have the meetings, but it didn’t matter what was said in the meetings. He would go back and change whatever he wanted to change.”
Another project that appeared to run over on cost was the downtown parking project, but the original $100,000 budgeted was only for the Van Alley parking lot and did not include the lot being constructed on the washateria property.
With that project included in the downtown parking line, the total cost rose to $779,078. The washateria property lot was originally budgeted as part of the roundabout project.
Roundabout versus realignment?
Soon after the May 2019 election, the new City Council voted to put the roundabout project that had already been bid for construction on the shelf.
The bid for that project was approved at $1.4 million, and included the road construction, the new parking lot on the washateria property and drainage improvements in the area.
Hall and the Council cited the high cost of the project and the need to shift priorities as the reason to abandon the project, but 14 months later the Council has given the go-ahead to a different plan for that intersection that doesn’t show any cost savings, and could potentially cost the City more than the abandoned project.
Hall contends it will save money, but the new intersection realignment is estimated at $840,254 without the parking lot or drainage improvements. The price tag the City gave the downtown parking projects, which now includes the washateria property lot, is $779,078. The total then for the two projects is anticipated at $1.62 million upon completion, while the previous projection – with the Van Alley project added in – would have been $1.5 million.
Hall said earlier this spring that the numbers are difficult to compare because the project specifically includes the parking lot, Van Alley parking, utilities for Barton, Aynsworth, a new water line going down CR 279, resurfacing of those roads, and completion of Munro. However, he did not provide a cost breakdown by project.
Hall told the Council Monday he hopes to go out for bid on the Loop 332 and CR 279 intersection realignment in September.
The plan will alter the Loop coming from the east toward CR 279 to create a T-intersection with a three-way stop. Traffic coming into downtown from CR 279 would be able to turn right onto the Loop or continue into downtown after a stop. Drivers entering downtown from the east on Loop 332 would be able to continue right on the Loop with a yield or turn left onto CR 279 after a stop. Traffic leaving downtown will be able to continue south on CR 279 or turn left and continue on the Loop following a stop.
To assist with traffic control at the intersection and designate the continued right into downtown from the Loop, a triangular median will be constructed at the intersection.
Planning for CIP?
Throughout the discussion Monday, Wilkins and Council members indicated that more specific planning and budgeting for capital improvement projects in the future would improve the situation.
“My recommendation would be going forward, if we’re going to do projects, that we bond each project and not one big bucket of money,” Wilkins said. “What happened was we would start a project, then start designing another project and then another project, then before you knew it you weren’t finishing anything.”
Hall reiterated the need to budget for projects.
“I think whether it is this project or any other project on the board, whether it’s the parks board that presents a project or it’s Wayne’s (Bonnet) group that presents, or the streets department or whoever it is, this Council, what they need to do is set a budget for the projects and that would eliminate 99 percent of the problems we have with this one,” Hall said.
But there has been no budget plan for the new downtown intersection project, community center, or negotiation to purchase Lions Foundation Park, all of which are moving forward.
According to Boatright, when the $3 million in bond funds were approved by the Council in early 2019, the funds were earmarked specifically to cover the cost of the Loop 332 and CR 279 intersection project, the swim center and Van Alley parking projects.
“We also had a million dollars out of our surplus that we identified that we were going to use to supplement the project list,” he said. “We’d done that before, taking a million out of cash ending to supplement projects.”
In her presentation, Wilkins reminded the Council there are a number of projects on the drawing board or in progress that do not have funding plans.
“We still have a pool project, trails project, the community center – which isn’t on (the presented list), so we have to assess how much money do we need to complete those projects, and which ones are we going to complete with this money and which ones are we going to do a separate bond for?”
Ditching old plans?
Plans previously in place to guide growth and infrastructure have also been funded and paid for, but appear to be marked for replacement with new plans that will cost additional funds.
The funds already spent on the City’s Drainage Master Plan was also included in the CIP list presented by Wilkins at a total spent of $22,471, but Hall is in the process of reworking the drainage plan due to the high cost of the drainage remedies suggested in the 72-page plan created and presented to the Council in 2018 by K. Friese and Associates.
Despite the lengthy discussions and money invested in the Council-approved drainage plan and the transportation plan – which Hall declared void in August 2019 – the City appears to be going in a different direction with both.
In a public meeting in August 2019 to address concerns over the City’s transportation plan, Hall said the plan as posted on the City’s website was essentially void, promising to have removed from the site.
“I want to apologize that I haven’t taken the initiative to remove that map from the website,” he said at that time. “I have taken the initiative to totally stop the transportation plan that we have in effect right now because we do have to go back to ground zero.”
But those involved in the previously-approved plans disagreed that the City needed to begin all over again in these areas.
“The prior Council made a commitment to address issues in the community that needed to be addressed, for example the drainage master plan,” said former Director of Planning Sally McFeron. “We also did a transportation plan. We also did a parks plan, a master trails plan, and all of those plans, as you move through them, have recommendations and they have various things to do. Council adopted each of those plans.”
None of these projects are the type to be done quickly or without public input, and take years to implement, she added.
“These plans take a long time to implement, so you can line up funding, and to just pull them or to change them without any real rational reason, accept that I don’t want it, or let’s destroy everything that the prior Council put into play, is not healthy for a City,” McFeron said. “You are in constant chaos. You never get anything accomplished and you can’t ever plan for anything with your funding. You don’t ditch the whole plan just because you don’t like it. You take the plan and you work through it so you can identify funding and projects. That drainage plan even had priorities listed with it.”