Council takes first steps toward speed reduction on SH 29


i_cant_go_55-webBy WAYLON CUNNINGHAM

The long-requested speed limit reduction on the portion of State Highway 29 running through Liberty Hill may soon become a reality.

The Liberty Hill City Council approved a resolution on Monday requesting that the Austin District of the Texas Department of Transportation conduct studies on the highway associated with the establishment of speed zones.

The preamble of the resolution specifies that the city would like to see the speed limit of the highway within city limits be reduced to 45 miles per hour. The limit currently is 55 miles per hour.

Mayor Connie Fuller said pursuing a reduction was a matter of safety, and that it had wide support from both the public as well as the police department.

During his tenure, former Liberty Hill Police Chief Randy Williams made a number of requests to Council requesting action toward a reduction.

Fuller said she had called current Liberty Hill Police Chief Maverick Campbell about the matter, and that he was “very much in favor.”

“He said it’s too dangerous sometimes to catch speeders going the other direction on the highway,” she said.

She also said that Fred Hinze, co-owner of Major’s Burger Company, had recently complained about safety issues when pulling out of his restaurant, which is located on SH 29.

Chief Campbell told The Independent on Wednesday that Liberty Hill police officers had issued 98 speeding violations on SH 29 in the last 30 days. One of those violations resulted in a crash.

The popularity of the reduced speed was also demonstrated two weeks ago during a public forum about transportation hosted by Williamson County. Although the forum concerned a northern portion of US Highway 183, and speed reductions are a TxDOT matter, requests for improved safety on SH 29 were one of the most frequent comments given.

The vote on Council, however, was still divided.

With members Troy Whitehead and Ron Rhea absent, there were only three voting Council members present. Members Liz Rundzieher and Wendell McLeod approved the resolution. Member Jon Branigan voted against it. The Mayor may only vote to break a tie.

“I drive up that road 100 times every day,” Branigan said. “If people stopped doing this,” he said, making hand motions to mimic using a phone, “we could go 65 miles an hour.”

State law requires traffic and engineering studies before a city is allowed to reduce the speed limit on a state highway within its boundaries.

In addition to requesting those studies from the Austin District of TxDOT, the resolution asks the district to submit those studies upon completion to the Traffic Operations Division of TxDOT.

City Administrator Greg Boatright will deliver the request to TxDOT.

City to try for settlement in US Water case
A roughly two-year legal battle between the City and a former contractor may soon be coming to an end, after the Council voted Monday to authorize a settlement agreement.

An amount not to exceed $120,000 will be offered to US Water Utility Group, which previously managed the City’s wastewater treatment plant.

In September 2015, the corporation filed a lawsuit in Williamson County’s 26th District Court, alleging that the City failed to pay the business for services it was contracted for.

Earlier in June that year the Council voted unanimously to terminate the City’s contract with US Water Utility Group after the company had incurred cost overruns and failed to report them in accordance with the contract.

The costs, which had gone over budget by 48 percent, or roughly $150,000, had been reported months later. The delays gave the City little or no time to challenge what they saw as questionable expenditures.

The lawsuit demanded that the City pay $305,000 to finish out their contracted amount. During an early attempt at mediation, the City offered $205,000, but it was rejected.

The City is represented by Austin-based Attorney David Tuckfield of the AL Law Group.

No other details of the settlement offer or updates to the lawsuit were provided.

Branigan’s firm receives credit for 18 wastewater LUEs
In compensation for the unexpected excess of capacity created by the developer’s improvements to the City’s lift station, Branigan’s firm Copper Ridge Investments was awarded pre-paid wastewater connection fee credits.

The motion passed with Branigan, who is a sitting Council Member, abstaining.

Rundzieher and McLeod cast the two votes in support. Members Rhea and Whitehead were absent.

The Rosemont Development Agreement authorized in February had Copper Ridge Investments developing the subdivision and paying the upfront capital expenses associated with public improvements to the local wastewater lift station.

The improvements would expand capacity at the lift station enough to service the homes planned for Rosemont. As a result, the homes would not need to rely on individual grinder pumps to channel out wastewater.

The City has long been making moves to convert to an entirely gravity-based wastewater system.

Grinder pumps, which rely on older technology, also present a liability and increased maintenance costs for developers.

The original agreement called for an estimated $148,000 in improvements to the lift station at the San Gabriel Apartments. The ultimate bid for construction was $179,000.

Improvements ended up creating an unexpected surplus of capacity. The amended agreement now considers the actual construction bid costs and the surplus to credit Branigan with 18.11 pre-paid wastewater connection fee credits, also called Living Unit Equivalents (LUEs).

The rate was determined at $3,500 per LUE.

“This is a great deal for our city,” said Boatright. “Anytime we can, we try to avoid using grinder pumps.”

Also Monday, the Council approved a final plat for Rosemont with 55 lots.

Interim Finance Officer to arrive at City Hall
Boatright said that a newly contracted interim Finance Officer will arrive at City Hall this Thursday, though she has been working on the City’s finances since July 20.

Sandy Clarkson, an accountant from Portland with 15 years of experience, will help the city manage its accounting at a crucial time. The budget for 2017-2018 is set to be finalized in September.

“She’s gonna hit the ground running to play catch-up,” Boatright said.

This weekend Boatright will be meeting with Mayor Fuller, and Fuller with Chief Campbell, to hash out details of the departments’ budgets.

The City’s former finance officer, Amber Lewis, resigned in May to accept the position of City Administrator in Rollingwood, a suburb of Austin.

Thursday the Council also secured Ray & Associates to search for a new, full-time finance officer.

The firm, which is currently conducting a study of the City’s salaries, was brought up as a potential headhunter last month due to their experience with the municipal job market.

Boatright brought a proposed agreement from the firm to Council on July 10 for $15,300. On the objections of Branigan, however, the proposal was sent back for negotiation.

The agreement approved Monday was marked down to $14,800.

A personality portion of the job search was removed, and the firm will now absorb their own travel costs.

Also on July 10, McLeod had questioned whether the city should wait until the firm’s salary survey was complete before reaching out to find a new finance officer.

The salary offered for the position, according to Boatright, has precipitated the lack of qualified applicants.

The City will seek to have Ray expedite the search for a finance officer.

If this is not possible, Boatright said, the City would wait until the entire survey is complete before fielding candidates.

City Secretary Barbara Zwernemann, who has been in conversation with the firm, said in that event the expected time frame would be between September and October.

Boatright said that the City’s finances are currently looking “very good,” especially in revenue generated from building permits.

The 230 building permits this year to date, up from 53 last year, have generated a revenue that is 660 percent of the amount projected for the entire year.

The permits have brought in $330,051.38 so far.

Boatright said that while those prospects are very good, the City must look toward more sustainable bases of revenue if it seeks to be stable. Building permits are one-time, fees and may subside with broader economic downturns.

City moves to annex County Road 263
Council made moves toward annexing a narrow half-mile strip of County Road 263 located west of Highway 183 and south of Highway 29.

Annexing the roadway would give the city an adjacent property to begin annexation proceedings for the Abbot Tract, a 95-acre property located behind the Summerlyn subdivision on US Highway 183.

In June, Council voted to approve the annexation of the Abbot Tract and help its owner, 263 Trine Land, LLC, with a proposed development of a master planned community there.

Two motions were approved Monday. The first authorized a fact-finding mission for the annexation of the strip. The second authorized Boatright to obtain the metes and bounds of the road.

Boatright said that the portion of CR 263, unconnected to the stretch that exists north of US Hwy 183, would probably be removed at some point in the future. Access to the Abbot Tract comes through the Summerlyn subdivision.

Parks plans amended
The Council approved a revised cost for a Parks Improvement Plan in the amount of $155,610, which increased $1,700 from the initial amount of $153,910. The funds will be used by Halff Associates to survey additional land in City Park for the purpose of designing a walking trail in addition to their previously approved plan to improve the park with a swim center.

At the July 10 council meeting, Boatright requested $16,000 from the Council to fund the surveying, engineering, design and bidding services for the trail, which was not included in the original agreement for the design of the park. Branigan argued that the price was too high and raised the idea of renegotiating the cost.

“We’ll make it work,” said Half Associates representative Brian Binkowski at Monday’s meeting. “We want to do work for the City of Liberty Hill, and do a project that we’re proud of.”

The trail was originally planned to connect City Park on CR 200 to downtown in an attempt to make Liberty Hill more pedestrian-friendly, but that was set aside when the City was denied a $250,000 grant from Texas Parks & Wildlife.

After the grant was denied, the City’s plan for the trail was changed so that it was contained in City Park, but the Council’s agreement with Halff Associates to design improvements to the park was never updated to include work planning the trail.

On Monday, the Council also approved a resolution to adopt the implementation and prioritization of park element needs for the Master Park Plan. The priorities were compiled by Halff Associates in order to help the City earn grants from Texas Parks & Wildlife.

The Council also assigned a professional services agreement for the Veterans Memorial Park project with Lockwood Engineers, Inc. to Cude Engineers-Austin, LLC. Cude acquired LEI, but all of the current staff will be retained. The project includes the design and construction of a new park layout.

Architect selected for Stubblefield-Fowler remodel
The Council unanimously approved an agreement with architect Don Eckols for the renovation of the Stubblefield-Fowler building downtown.

The agreement pays Eckols $52,000 to assess the current state of the building and create plans to restore and improve it. Eckols designed the current city administration building.

“We want to design it for functionality with a reasonable cost associated with it,” said Boatright. “We don’t want to make major changes to the appearance of it, but we want it to be functional and safe for the public to access the building.”

Boatright said that he had been in contact with another firm about the project, but that he was “cautious” because he expected the firm to come back with a higher budget than they could absorb.

The purpose of the building has not been determined yet, according to Zwernemann. She said that decisions regarding the purpose of the building would likely come after Eckols’ initial assessment of the structure.

“I’ve had several studios myself, and anything to do with art is a passion project for me,” Eckols said in the meeting. “When you called and we had a conversation, chills went up my back, because I got so excited about it. If I can’t own it, I sure would like to participate in breathing life back into that building.”

The City purchased the building for $225,000 in January. It is the former art studio of Mel Fowler, the sculptor who organized the 1976 Liberty Hill International Sculpture Symposium.

City to donate $10,000 to 2nd Sculpture Celebration
The Council voted to donate $10,000 to the 2017 Sculpture Garden Festival, which will take place on Oct. 7.

The $10,000 is included in the budget for event programming, explained Boatright. The same amount is budgeted for the Christmas Festival and Art Walk.

Council voted to support the event even after the Economic Development Corp. Board of Directors postponed the decision to sponsor it at their meeting July 20, asking organizer Susan Barnes to return in August and answer some financial questions.

Organizers are seeking $25,000 total from the City, including funding from Parks & Recreation and EDC.

“We have a really cool asset here in Liberty Hill that’s been long since forgotten,” Barnes said Monday. “We need to really bring back that community. I think that with the downtown [art walk], the community showed, ‘hey, we’re excited.’”

Boatright chimed in to say that the city doesn’t want to lose its “local identity.” He also raised the idea of creating a permanent 501(c)(3) for the event to raise money from private sector donors.

Organizers are working to incorporate downtown into the festival, and clarify the schedule of events for the day. In 2020, they plan to bring in international artists.

“This was a statewide recognition back in the day,” Barnes said. “If we grow that to our community, in 2020 when we have these international artists here, it’s going to be a big deal. But we have to build to that, we can’t just do that right off the bat.”