Council shuts down attempted budget review

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Managing Editor

In what appeared to be an effort to stifle the review and discussion of the current City budget promised by newly-elected Mayor Liz Branigan, the Council voted unanimously to block the review placed on the Monday meeting agenda by Branigan.

Branigan campaigned on the issue of reviewing the budget as well as City revenues and expenses and has said since her swearing-in last month that much of the information she has requested has been slow to come, though she said last week that was improving.

But Monday, Council member Kathy Canady immediately moved that the item be postponed until July, effectively avoiding the review until it was time to consider the next proposed budget next summer.

“I appreciate your interest in the budget, but due to the fact this year’s budget has been passed, the appropriate public hearings have been passed by a 5-0 vote, I’d like to postpone this to July,” Canady said. “That’s when we start on the next budget.”

The Council voted 5-0 to postpone the review and discussion, killing any opportunity Monday for review.

“This is a budget that has had the public hearings, a budget that had a 5-0 vote to accept and I appreciate that you want to look into it, but for us we’ve already done that,” she said.

What Canady’s objection didn’t take into account were questions about how the budget funds were being spent in spite of the budget as approved.

In response to questions from The Independent, Canady accused the newspaper of not taking an interest in the budget process at budget time.

“The paper seemed to have no interest in the process at the time and it was passed by unanimous vote of the council,” Canady wrote in her response. “The mayor as a private citizen could have been a part of the process at the public hearings, if she has any questions our finance director can go through the budget with her on her time not during a council meeting as we have already participated in the process. Apparently, the council as a whole agreed with my motion as I got the second and a unanimous vote on my motion.”

But contrary to Canady’s claim, The Independent wrote extensively about the current budget, focusing not only on the 33 percent increase in planned expenditures, but on the lack of access to information and comments from then-Mayor Rick Hall on the budget.

Public discussion among Council members or City staff members related to the last two approved budgets have been minimal, and the City has refused until the last two weeks this month to make monthly revenue and expense reports for the City over the last two years available to the public through open records requests. These reports would verify whether the City is adhering to the budget as planned, and whether revenues were in line with projections.

The unanimous decision to not allow the review Monday was one more effort to prevent that information from being discussed publicly.

At least two people – former Council member Ron Rhea, and former City Planner Sally McFeron representing the Better Together Project have asked that the City have a forensic audit done, but there has been no discussion of authorizing one.

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, a forensic audit is “the process of reviewing a person’s or company’s financial statements to determine if they are accurate and lawful. Forensic accounting is most commonly associated with the IRS and tax audits, but it may also be commissioned by private companies to establish a complete view of a single entity’s finances.”

Public Works changes
Two weeks after the Council chose to hire an outside consultant – AJ Olson – to come in and evaluate the operations of the City’s wastewater treatment plant, it voted to reorganize the Public Works Department.

“I would like to make a motion to authorize our City Administrator Lacie Hale to prepare plans for reorganization of the Public works Department,” Canady said.

The Council approved the motion unanimously.

In response to questions Tuesday related to the planned reorganization, Hale said it is all focused on making sure the plant is operating as it is intended.

“The main reason for the reorganization idea is to make sure that the wastewater treatment plant has an operational staffing program that will ensure they stay well within their permit limits,” she said. “The consultant, A.J. Olson, along with the City Engineer are giving expert guidance on this process.”

No more details were shared about the pending reorganization, but a special meeting of the Council has been called for Dec. 22 to consider the issue further.

The plant, and the City’s operation of it, have been the center of contention in recent years with downstream residents claiming the plant’s effluent is damaging the South San Gabriel River, claiming it is the cause of heavy algae blooms congesting the low-flow river.

The plant is also the subject of a threatened lawsuit by downstream residents. If filed, the suit would be brought in federal court by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), representing resident Stephanie Morris who owns property along the South San Gabriel River.

The Council first discussed the potential suit at its Sept. 14 meeting during closed session. The 60-day notice is a requirement when filing a Clean Water Act lawsuit. The 60 days have passed, and attorney Amy Johnson said recently that discussions are ongoing with the City, though neither side could elaborate at that time.

Liberty Hill is nearing the end of the second expansion at the plant since 2018. The original plant is a sequential batch reactor (SBR), which is much older wastewater technology. The expansion that was brought online in early 2018 is Microdyn technology, which uses a biological treatment process, using the same bacteria found in the human digestive system. The Microdyn plant can process 800,000 gallons per day, compared to the SBR plant’s 400,000 gallon capacity.

Once the Microdyn plant was brought online the City had hoped to shudder the SBR plant, but wastewater demands forced the City to bring it back online. The newest expansion, from Suez, a company using similar technology to Microdyn, is expected to come online later next Spring, and is expected to once again allow the City to close down the SBR plant.

Heated exchange
Local developer and former Planning and Zoning Commission member Chris Pezold submitted public comments to be read at Monday’s meeting, taking to task Council member, and current Planning and Zoning Commission member Steve McIntosh over a vote on an item brought forward by Pezold at a recent P&Z meeting.

At issue is a planned multi-family project on property owned by Pezold south of downtown off RM 1869.

After Pezold’s comments were read, McIntosh – speaking on his own behalf in public comments as well – addressed what Pezold said in his own prepared response, indicating he had access to Pezold’s comments prior to them being read publicly. Pezold said he had not provided a copy of the comments to McIntosh directly.

While not addressed in City Ordinance governing meeting administration and public comments it has been the tradition that Council members do not respond to public comments. Former Mayor Rick Hall routinely informed individuals addressing the Council that Council members could not respond to comments or questions during public comments.

Council pay
The question was raised Monday whether Council members Canady and Tony DeYoung should receive back pay to May 2020 – an amount totaling $6,000 to be paid to each.

The Council first approved salaries in the 2019 budget planning cycle at $12,000 per Council member and $40,000 for the Mayor.

But when the election for May 2020 was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Canady and DeYoung, who were going to be unopposed on the ballot, could not officially draw those salaries until after the election which was held in November.

“This item (on the agenda) is based on the fact that we had COVID and the election was delayed,” said Finance Director Becky Wilkins. “Council had passed a resolution to pay a stipend to the Council members and to the Mayor and it would be effective the next election. That election would have been in May, but then it happened in November. I guess in all the excitement in doing the budget we didn’t discuss what would happen in November.”

With the funds that would have been paid during that span being a part of the prior-year budget, any plan to provide pay now for that time period would have to be Council approved.

“(City Attorney) Tad (Cleaves) and I have had conversations because Kathy (Canady) and Tony (DeYoung) were unopposed if we have an obligation to pay them back to May. I don’t have funds to pay them from May to Sept. 30 because that was prior budget,” Wilkins said. “The money that is allocated, the $12,000 for each Council member, is allocated from (Oct. 1) through (Sept. 30). It’s a total of $6,000 for each Council member.”

The $12,000 in funds being paid to Canady and DeYoung aside from the current-year’s allocation will come from the City’s reserve funds.

The Council voted 3-0 in favor of the back pay, on a motion by Council member Liz Rundzieher, with Canady and DeYoung abstaining. There was no discussion by any Council member on the matter.

Branigan reiterated she does not plan to draw the Mayor’s salary of $40,000. She had planned to have the City donate the funds to charity, but that may not be possible, so the disposition of those funds remains undecided.

Tax notes
The Council unanimously approved the sale of $2.56 million in bonds to cover the cost of construction for the new Community Center – awarded for construction in October – the planned swim center and renovations at City Hall. The bond is a seven-year note.

The bonds became necessary when the City determined there were no funds available for the swim center project and funds anticipated for the community center were no longer available due to cost overruns on other projects.

A bid was awarded to Jimmy Jacobs Construction in October for the renovation of the former County barn near the intersection of RM 1869 and Loop 332, to create the community center.

The Council heard estimates for the project ranging from $500,000 with potential grant funds to help cover costs back in January, then a higher projection in July of $750,000 with no grant possibilities, the approved bid Tuesday was considerably higher at $858,643.

The swim center project budget was set this fall at $1.8 million, with $1.3 from the bond funds and $500,000 from the Texas Parks & Wildlife grant.

Swim Center
With a budget set and bond sale approved, all that’s left before the swim center construction can begin is the redesign.

The City has been through a number of designs for the project over the last three years, but after a number of workshops and budget discussions surrounding the project, a redesign is necessary to ensure it fits within the new budget.

That redesign will be in the hands of the original designers from Halff Associates and will cost the City $76,308.

Casey Cobb question
Emergency Management Planner Casey Cobb took to the podium under the public comments portion of the meeting in what turned into a call to be heard regarding his future with the City.

His position was listed as an item for discussion under executive session under the standard heading that read: “Deliberate the appointment, employment, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline, or dismissal of the Emergency Management Planner,” prompting him to address the Council.

“It has been brought to my attention that there are a lot of terms in that agenda item, but it’s hard not to focus on that one (termination) when there have been so many terminations before me,” Cobb said. “I’ve chosen this platform to address the false allegations made against me because I’m not sure I will be given any other opportunity to address the leaders that decide my fate and the fate of my family.”

Without elaborating on any allegations made against him, Cobb said he was willing to provide proof they were not true.

“The bottom line is these accusations are false and can be proven with a simple review of the City’s security system,” he said. “I encourage you to invite me back to executive session this evening to hear my version of how these allegations played out and ask any questions that may clarify any gap in the information.”

The issue was not discussed in open session and no action was taken on the item Monday. Hale said the City had no comment on the matter, and Branigan said the City was “hoping to resolve the issue soon.”

Cobb could not be reached for further comment.

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