EDITORIAL: ‘Change’ is relative

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Every politician campaigns on change.

When Rick Hall campaigned for Mayor in 2018 he promised change. When three candidates came together to run in support of Hall’s agenda in 2019, they also promised change.

They all kept their promise.

But change is relative, and can be good or bad, and that’s what’s on the ballot in Liberty Hill’s City Council races this time around. This is a referendum on change – past, present and future.

Consider the many changes made or endorsed by the City Council in the last two years.

Since May 2019, the current Council has stumbled through project management, first pledging allegiance to former Mayor Hall’s whims – which never had a long-term focus or evolved into a developed plan – then stepping into the unknown after Hall’s departure to take a tight grip on projects and plans it proved to know little about. Change.

First, two road projects were canceled – including the roundabout at Loop 332 and CR 279 that had already been awarded for construction. The swim center – which had broken ground months earlier – was mysteriously shifted to the back burner. Change.

But that meant funds were available elsewhere, right? No one really knows how the funds from those projects were allocated once they were scrapped, because this Council fired the City Administrator and handed the checkbook and decision-making authority to Hall — no questions asked. Change.

We do know there were cost overruns on two construction projects – the Municipal Court remodel and downtown streets and utilities project – costing taxpayers nearly $435,000 more than those projects were bid for. That increased cost didn’t come to the attention of the Council until those projects were nearly complete. The excuse was, “cost overruns happen.” Change.

This Council was left holding the bag when the City was sued over the wastewater plant, and left to fund the extra $3 million in construction costs for the plant expansion after Hall decided mid-construction to change companies for the technology used in the plant. The Council approved the change, then each subsequent change order that added about 35 percent to that project. Change.

A lack of long-term planning became evident when someone forced the issue on the swim center and the Council learned there was no money for that project. In fact, the swim center, which the City had funds earmarked for in early 2019, and the new community center that Hall said would be funded with available monies – were both left with no money to start, so the Council put together a bond package to come up with new monies for them. That still left three intersection projects the Council wanted addressed without funding. Change.

The City’s general fund budget increased from $2.96 million in 2018 to $4.2 million in 2019 and sits at $5.68 million this year. Last May, according to city payroll information, the combined expense for city staff was $2.88 million. Today it is $3.25 million without the budgeted emergency management and director of development positions – a 12.9 percent increase in 12 months. Change.

The City’s reserve fund, which totaled $2.7 million at the end of the 2018-2019 fiscal year, was drawn down to cover other projects with no plan in place to replace those funds. In 2020 budget discussions the Council seemed surprised there was not a plan to build the reserve account, with some going so far as to shift blame for the lack of funds to the previous administration. Change.

The current council – without much explanation to either the employees or the community – terminated or forced out nine staff members, and severed ties with the firm that was providing attorney services. Change.

To date, there has been no evidence of unethical behavior from anyone previously involved in the City. The ethics questions hanging over the last two years remain unanswered as the Council repeatedly refused to consider allegations made against Hall, and later refused to hear an ethics complaint against Council member Kathy Canady when it was revealed she had no residential address in Liberty Hill and was residing in her downtown auto repair business in violation of city codes. Even after being asked again this week, Canady has not provided any proof that she has a legal residence in Liberty Hill, and still the Council doesn’t really care. Change.

There were plans before – a drainage master plan, transportation plan and parks plan – all of which have been treated as though they didn’t exist and questioned, but they have not been altered or acted upon in the three years since they were approved. Change.

The Council certainly provided change. Business has come, more people have moved here and city revenues have increased, but there’s nothing that demonstrates this Council’s version of change had much to do with that, and it could be argued that progress came in spite of our city’s leadership the last few years.

Change is inevitable, but with an election May 1, this is a good time to decide if the change we got was the change we needed, and whether a different direction is needed today in favor of new change.

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