Mayor defends proposed City budget



No one has to look too hard into the budget process for the City of Liberty Hill to see dramatic changes from last year, in both how it was crafted to the philosophy on revenues and staffing.

For Mayor Rick Hall – who worked closely with Mayor Pro Tem Liz Rundzieher and City Finance Director Becky Wilkins – this year’s budget is about what he sees as better management.

“It’s just different styles of management,” Hall said. “You can have effective management or you can have management, and I think the Council right now is working toward being effective management for the City.”

The biggest change proposed in the $4.2 million general fund budget is a salary for the Mayor and Council members.
The number proposed for the Mayor is $40,000, with $12,000 per Council member.

Hall said the salary issue arose when Rundzieher suggested he be compensated for the time he was putting in as Mayor.

“I think a lot of it, for her part, is that ever since I’ve been the Mayor I’ve been here a minimum of 40 hours per week every week because I know there’s a lot of things we need to be doing differently to be prepared for the growth we know is coming,” Hall said. “It was my decision to do that. It was not something I was intentionally trying to make a full-time job, but it was something I wanted to do. With that amount of time I am putting in, she said ‘you’re doing a lot more than any mayor has ever done’.”

Rundzieher said Hall is the first Mayor she has seen that has truly taken on the role.

“Before, we only had a Mayor in name only,” she said. “Rick is the first one who has been a Mayor.”

The reason Hall said he has taken such an active role in managing the City day-to-day is what he has said a number of times is a lack of desire to supervise staff as they should be.

“What really changed it to me was right after I was elected I met with Greg (Boatright) and his comment – and even a multitude of times after that – was he doesn’t like managing people,” Hall said. “In order for you to be successful in anything it starts from the top down, obviously, giving the right direction, right guidance and being a good manager is how you lead your troops to the ultimate end goal. So after a few weeks of me being here and hearing that, I told him I needed to get more involved in the day-to-day to try and help with the management of the people because that was just not his forte.”

For his part, on two different occasions, Boatright told The Independent such a conversation never took place.

The shift in leadership from a City Administrator to the Mayor is what Liberty Hill was intended to have, according to Hall.

“Our current ordinances say it is a Mayor and Council run city,” he said. “It’s always been that way. That’s what was voted on initially when the City was formed in 1999 and they’ve gone away from that. We’re putting it back. The citizens voted for a Council, Mayor run city and we’re putting that back in line the way the citizens asked for.

“That’s part of the change I felt I needed to help facilitate, by being here, being available, not just being here for Council meetings or workshops, but be here on a day-to-day basis to be the Mayor for the City that the people elected to have the City run like.”

Asked whether Hall would have supported a salary for previous Mayors and Council members he did not hesitate to say yes.

“I would have,” Hall said. “Because this is not my first role in politics. It is my first time as Mayor, but I know what it takes – how much effort and how much time it takes to serve your community – anytime you’re in a community service type role. In order for it to be effective it takes a lot of hard work and I was really shocked to know that when they voted for a stipend for the Mayor two years ago that the Mayor was not paid at that point.”

With the compensation, though, will come additional expectations for council members, though Hall was not ready to spell out exactly what that meant.

“There will be some expectations with this, too,” Hall said. “I’m not just about handing out taxpayers’ money, there will be some guidelines. We have to figure out how we’re going to do this, but there needs to be some kind of stipulations as far as the involvement.”

With the Mayor managing the daily operations of the City, there are questions about the role of a new City Administrator, or if one is even needed, but Hall said he believed it is a needed position.

“The Mayor runs the day-to-day operations, the city manager’s job, from my standpoint, is to take direction from the Council about where we need to be 15 years, or 20 years down the road, and it’s that person’s job, him or her, to get us there,” he said. “From getting the new commercial businesses in town to work with the EDC on the growth of our city while someone is maintaining the day-to-day operations.”

Hall’s description of the role he sees for the next administrator is more of a development position.

“They should be out working all the deals, working with developers, working to get new businesses in here,” Hall said. “They should be going to different conferences and stuff like that to go out selling our City, getting and attracting those businesses in under the direction of the Council to make those deals.”

The proposed budget has additional revenues of $1 million at a total of $4.23 million.

The current year budget projected general fund revenues of $3.23 million, which includes ad valorem and sales tax as well as franchise, permitting and other fees.

The projected increase is not a concern for Hall, noting that revenues were considerably higher than the projections, though exact numbers were not available.

“Not at all,” Hall said when asked if the projections concerned him. “And the reason I say that is we have had a more than healthy reserve and we keep adding to that every year with the current growth. Even with the current budget right now we haven’t projected all the revenue coming in and we probably won’t have it all until March with all the tax assessments.”

The Council has identified the large reserve fund as evidence that there are funds available for additional expenses.

“What was happening before was that money was being set aside to pay for projects,” Hall said. “That’s great, we need projects to be done, too, but the biggest issue with the City that I’ve seen it not being prepared for is our growth.”

Making sure Liberty Hill is prepared for growth is what Hall cites when talking about the need for additional staff included in this proposed budget.

“Every developer I talk to, whether it’s retail, commercial, or whatever, asks three different questions: How is your public safety? How is your infrastructure? And how are your schools?” Hall said. “For the public safety and the infrastructure, those are things we need to take care of, and if we’re not staying one step ahead of that game all the time, then we’re going to be in trouble.”

Liberty Hill currently has 37 employees, with vacancies in the City Administrator post and project manager/inspector position. The proposed budget has 17 positions added that were not in last year’s budget, including the vacant project manager/inspector position and recently filled Emergency Management Planner post recently filled that were on the books prior to the new budget being proposed.

The administrative personnel budget is increasing from $505,420 for the current year to $1.12 million next year.

Among the additional positions are two street maintenance positions, which fall into the administration budget under the general fund, as well as two new water department and two new sewer department employees, which fall under the water and sewer funds, respectively.

“The growth we’re seeing in our overall population, whether it’s in our current city limits or our ETJ where we have water and wastewater outside of our city limits, that requires more staffing, too, to maintain and keep it up,” Hall said. “We’ve got the money to cover all those expenses without having to worry about anything.”

Hall also defended the addition of five full-time and one part-time positions for the police department. Personnel expenses under the police department’s budget are increasing nearly $400,000 over the current budget to $1.26 million.

“A lot of people won’t see this, but before too long we will have a staff of 50 to 60 police officers because we will be large enough to handle that, but you can’t do it all at once, you have to do it over time,” Hall said.

The addition of so many employees in this budget year is something Hall attributes to the City getting behind in its staffing in recent years.

“This is something that, if we’d have been doing it over the past few years, it would have been a real small increase and right now it wouldn’t have been such a drastic change,” he said. “It’s just something where we need to be one step ahead of the game.”

During budget talks in August 2018, some on the Council, including Rundzieher and Hall, wanted to see additional staffing included, but the rest of the Council, on Boatright’s advice, felt that the City’s reliance on fees to cover expenses was not wise. That is not as much of a concern for Hall.

“It’s not really a shift in philosophy, it’s just a realignment if you will,” Hall said. “To me, the biggest majority of our budget is based on our ad valorem and sales tax that are coming in. The fees and stuff like that we collect weigh into it some, but the staffing is not reliant on that. That’s money we can use for different projects.”

According to the proposed budget, the ad valorem and sales tax revenues projected account for $1.88 million of the $4.23 million general fund budget.

Hall cited the nearly two years worth of reserve funds as evidence there is more money available, proposing four to five months in reserves be kept instead of the larger amount.

“I don’t see a reason to have more than we really need to to have our rating when there’s other projects that we should be doing with that money,” Hall said.

Money saved by not completing projects such as the roundabout or Stubblefield Lane at this time also open up other opportunities financially.

“I, personally, and the Council, don’t see the need for that right now at this point especially with everything else we have going on that needs to get done in the city,” Hall said. “We’re scaling those things back so we don’t have to keep putting away, into the rainy day fund if you will, money from the budget at year end. We can roll that over and keep supporting the growth we have coming.”

There is nothing included in the proposed general fund budget for capital projects this year.

“The reason there’s nothing showing there in this year’s budget is we are finishing up a pretty large bond that was from a year or so ago,” Hall said. “If we were to try and do another bond this budget year we would have probably gotten around a million or million and a half bond, and we’re at the point now where most of the projects we have are going to be much more than that.”

Future projects, such as improvements at the intersection of RR 1869 and Loop 332, as well as the Stubblefield extension, will require a larger bond package to complete.

“Everything else we have identified that we need to be doing is much larger than our bonding capacity for this year, so our FA (financial advisor) told us if we would skip a year, and we get this bond handled and controlled, then the next year – the 2021 year – we should be able to get one of those larger bonds where we can do some of these larger projects,” Hall said.

When asked whether the possibility of higher personnel expenses and the need for larger bond packages in the future made him worry about the financial future, Hall said no.

“I think if anyone who sets a budget, in the private sector or public sector, had a crystal ball our jobs would be so much easier,” Hall said. “I think it’s a lot of planning and a lot of dedicated time from our finance director, our financial advisor, our bond committee, to try to really have a good estimate or outlook on the future.

“At any given time we could have a recession and it could change overnight. You have to weigh your options and make sure that the people you trust in collecting that data for you look at trends over a few years and they can estimate based on history how often you have a recession to try and get us through those rough valleys. Again, that’s why you have the reserves set up in case that might happen.”

The budget also includes an increase in the amount budgeted for staff and Council training from $50,000 to $166,000.

A five percent merit raise has been written into the budget for all employees, but Hall said that doesn’t mean everyone will automatically see that raise.

“We’ve never budgeted for (the raises) so we would get to that point and we’d have to do a budget amendment at the end of the year because we’ve added additional payroll in there that was not planned for. Even though they don’t hit until the April timeframe we’ve budgeted that five percent. They may not get that, but we’ve budgeted the max so we don’t have to do a budget amendment due to poor planning.”

The proposed budget for next year is set to be voted on Monday.

The proposal also shows a balanced budget of $4,505,862 for wastewater, $1,230,720 for City Sewer, and $1,431,325 for City Water.

The proposed tax rate has been lowered to $0.49 per $100 valuation from the current $0.50 per $100 valuation. Leaving the tax rate at $0.50 would have opened the door to a rollback election due to the projected revenue increases because of property value increases.

Hall is happy with the budgeting process, saying it is much smoother than last year.

“This is the second year I’ve done the budget with the City, and if I can compare my two times, from last year to this year, I think this process has been a lot smoother,” he said. “I think we, me and Liz (Rundzieher) with the department heads, asking them about their wants, needs and must-haves.”

And the lack of discussion or debate on the budget is attributed to the process and clarity of the budget presentation.

“We’ve given enough information to our City Council so they can see it and understand that our department heads are happy with this,” Hall said. “I think it’s going to make it a lot easier on everybody, including our Council, to try and approve a budget. We’ve talked about it at the tax and budget workshops and there have been very few questions at all asked because it has been self explanatory.”