Council continues to avoid budget discussion

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Managing Editor
The financial reporting struggle between the City Council and new Mayor Liz Branigan was brought to the forefront once again when Branigan added it to Monday’s agenda. But as has become habit, the Council once again shot down any potential changes.

Branigan wanted to see a new financial report – detailing the monthly revenues and expenses of the City – as a regular monthly addition, in place of the current report that does not include any budget-related expense and revenue information.

“I requested a different format of the financial for you to vote on to see what you think of it,” Branigan said. “I was going to request Ms. (Becky) Wilkins to provide that in a monthly council packet. I have served three terms on the City Council and on every one of those councils the Council was meticulous with the budget and requested a monthly update. This is the same update which is easily generated with Encode. I think you should receive this report and study it.”

But the Council had no interest in including the report as part of the packet.

Council member Kathy Canady asked Wilkins and City Administrator Lacie Hale their opinion on the need for the report.

“If you want an expense and revenue report included in Becky’s financial report we just need that direction from Council,” Hale said. “Again, at the last Council meeting we decided to move forward with the Transparency Stars Program, so all of this information, which Becky and I are currently gathering, will be available on the website and you will always have access to it.”

Canady argued it wasn’t necessary for the Council to go through the report each month.

“I’m not trying to shirk my duties, but I count on the City Treasurer and the City Administrator that if on the off chance that (a city department) needs money that Becky’s going to tell me,” Canady said.

Branigan’s response focused on the Council’s oversight responsibility.

“The more eyes on the City’s finances, the better it will be,” Branigan said. “You go through it every month because you see yourself as a good steward of the City’s resources.”

In general, the Council felt like the information was available when needed.

“I think it’s accessible and it’s available, and the public can see it,” said Council member Steve McIntosh. “I think if we make plans to do that there’s no need to pound it out here.”

Canady also said that anyone could request the information through an open records request.

But until recently, the reports have not been made available even through public records requests, and repeated attempts by Branigan to discuss the current budget in a council meeting has met with resistance.

The Council chose to take no action on the issue Monday, which means no change in financial reporting at Council meetings will be made.

Exemptions increase
The City Council approved raising the Over 65 and Disabled Person homestead exemptions for local property taxes to $15,000, tripling the amount that is currently set at $5,000.

According to Wilkins, the two exemptions impact about 10 percent of homeowners within the city limits.

The Homestead exemption will remain $5,000.

The Council indicated an interest in exploring much higher exemptions in the future, especially for those over 65 or disabled individuals.

Sculpture Fest funding
The Council declined a request from the Liberty Hill Development Foundation Board to help fund and plan the 2021 Sculpture Festival, citing the amount of funds being requested and the extensive work that would be involved for city staff.

“We have been approached by the Board to engage in a cost-sharing agreement for the Sculpture Festival,” Hale said. “They are proposing $10,000 for their portion. The proposal they are asking for the City’s cost-sharing is $20,000, so it would be a total of $30,000.”

Council members questioned why the City would provide the majority of the funding for the event.

“Why are we coming up with the lion’s share for this festival?” Canady asked. “They want us to do all the work and pay double what they’re willing to put into it. They want money and for (Katie Amsler) to do all the work.”

McIntosh said he shared the same concerns, with further discussion questioning the amount of hours and staff investment from Amsler’s planning to the public works and police department involvement.

“I get that we get good will and I get that we’re doing a good event for the city, but they have to do something,” Canady said. “They should be paying us to use our (staff).”

The Council tabled the issue, requesting that Hale go back to the Foundation Board to negotiate other options.

Amsler told the Council that no money had been included in this year’s budget for the Sculpture Festival, but due to a scaled back Christmas Festival there is a budget surplus of about $20,000 for events.

Discussing incentives
The proposed incentive for the Heritage Ridge Development – located on property along eastbound SH 29 in front of Liberty Hill Junior High – passed on second reading, but the 3-1 vote included some vocal dissatisfaction with the $160,000 grant being funded by the Liberty Hill Economic Development Corp. (EDC).

Canady asked that the item be removed from the consent agenda for further discussion and a vote, indicating she still did not support the plan.

“Economic Development is going to give them $160,000 for some reason,” Canady said in discussion of the issue, spurring other questions on whether the funds would be recouped in some way. “No, we’re just giving it to them,” she responded.

All funds involved in the agreement are from the EDC budget, but does require Council approval.

“They’re asking for the blessing from the Council, which for me, I don’t bless it,” Canady said. “They’re going to get what they want, but I don’t bless it.”

Canady voted against the measure both times.

“I think we need to be careful about what we do, but we also need to be careful about the position we are in about bringing businesses here because right now we’re not growing in that aspect the way we should be,” McIntosh said. “Sometimes you have to give a little to get a little.”

Canady said her objection was giving the funds to the developer of the project, not particular businesses.

“Well, we’re giving $160,000,” Canady responded. “We should give $160,000 to everybody then. We’re giving them something they should have had in their plan when they made their development. Every developer should do their homework on what they need. We’re not getting anything back. That’s not the precedent I want to set.”

Developer Mike Beevers has been working with city staff on the site plan and with a number of needed infrastructure upgrades that will be funded by Heritage Ridge, they approached the City about a grant to offset some of the investment costs.

“They’re definitely going above and beyond, not only in terms of a lift station, but there is also a hike and bike trail they are putting in,” said EDC Executive Director Matt Powell in early January. “It’s going to be a nice-looking project.”

The grant comes with the requirement that the project be substantially completed in the next two years and a total of $1 million is invested in the project in that time.

Both Powell and Beevers pointed to this project as an effort to set a new precedent for development in Liberty Hill.

“The City of Liberty Hill has some unique challenges when it comes to development — that site in particular,” Beevers said. “The low-pressure sewer system that is predominant on SH 29 is a real buzzkill for national brands. We put in a gravity sanitary sewer collection and right now we are approved for a lift station that would collect it at an eight-lot level and that comes at a cost.”

The Council unanimously approved two 380 development agreements for Golf Cart King and Tex-Mix Concrete, which promised sales tax revenue sharing on taxes generated by those businesses over a 10-year period.

The Tex-Mix agreement stipulates the City will also share a portion of its one-cent in sales tax revenues. The first two years will be 80 percent, the next two 50 percent, the next two 40 percent and years seven and eight will be 20 percent. The estimated total in shared sales tax revenue from the City is $2.65 million, but if that amount is paid to Tex-Mix, the City will gain $15.25 million in new sales tax revenues as well.

The City will reimburse Golf Cart King 50 percent of its one-cent sales tax revenues generated by Golf Cart King for three years, then 33 percent for three years, and 25 percent in the final three years of the agreement.

The two companies also have sales tax sharing agreements with the EDC, as well as employment incentives.

A special honor
The City honored a longtime volunteer Monday when former Parks Board member Mike Wilson was recognized for his accomplishments across more than a decade on the board.

Mayor Liz Branigan called Wilson one of Liberty Hill’s most outstanding citizens ever.

“For years he directed and coached our youth football program which is now the envy of our neighbors,” Branigan said of Wilson. “Not only did he develop the program and coach it, but he built our beautiful stadium using his own resources and his own labor. He is an example of the kind of spirit that draws people to Liberty Hill.”

In addition to his tireless work with the youth football program, Wilson had his hands on many other park projects in Liberty Hill, choosing to remain on the board until the swim center plans were ironed out and he was sure the project would move forward.

“Everything we wanted to say would not fit on this plaque,” said Parks Board Chair Mary Lyn Jones. “Mike has been on the Parks Board for over 10 years. He was there when I got there and he has been a mentor for me. He not only developed the football field, but he was instrumental in getting grants so we could do the pavilion, the basketball court and the playscape. He was also instrumental in renovating Veterans Park and Wetzel Park.”

Youth soccer agreement
After months of back-and-forth negotiations, the City Council approved a final agreement with the Liberty Hill Youth Soccer Association (LHYSA) where the City will take over maintenance and upkeep of the fields at City Park and the league will pay a weekly fee for use.

According to LHYSA President Josh Jacoby, the agreement is a win for both parties.

“Today LHYSA operates solely on volunteer hours and those hours are overwhelmingly put into field maintenance,” Jacoby said. “By the City taking control of field maintenance, this contract allows LHYSA to focus volunteer hours on growth, proper coaching and mentoring for the youth of the community.”

Jacoby told The Independent the cost to the LHYSA was greatly reduced from the originally proposed amount and the organization was happy to see a third-party contracted for the field maintenance, which gave them more reassurance regarding the accountability for maintenance.

“All in all, we think this is a great arrangement and is indicative of a city administration dedicated to servicing the youth of the community,” Jacoby said.

The LHYSA will pay the City $350 per week for field use of up to 25 hours per week. In exchange, the City – through a contract with North By Northwest – will handle field watering and maintenance, paying for water usage and electricity.

The contract for maintenance includes all mowing and edging, fertilizing, inspection of the irrigation system, aeration and seeding the fields for a monthly fee of $2,452.84.

Council members Gram Lankford and Canady formed the subcommittee that negotiated the agreement with the league along with city staff members.

“I went into this with the expectation that it would be mutually beneficial for both the City and our youth league soccer program, and it says a lot to me that the president of that board came and spoke to us and said he is in complete agreement with this contract,” Lankford said. “We’ve been doing a lot of work with the president of that board and ultimately we came to a contract agreement that is exactly what we were looking for.”

The City also expects to iron out an agreement with the youth football organization as well, but have not yet settled on terms.

Communications manager
The Council voted unanimously after coming out of executive session to reclassify the events coordinator position created in late 2019 to the City’s communications manager. Katie Amsler, who has served as events coordinator will serve as communications manager, adding media and public relations duties to her event-planning responsibilities.

Mayor Branigan suggested the announcement during the meeting should include the new salary, but Canady objected, saying, “No, that’s not a part of it.”

When asked in follow up to the meeting, Hale said the annual salary was raised to $70,000 as part of the change.

Signature concerns?
In an odd move, amid the discussion of the final approval of the pair of 380 development agreements the Council approved Monday, Council members Canady and Liz Rundzieher were adamant that the signature block on the agreements be changed from Mayor Branigan to City Administrator Lacie Hale.

City Attorney Tad Cleaves indicated that anyone designated could be the signer of the agreement, but the pair insisted it be changed.

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