By ANDY SEVILLA
Kyle Mayor Lucy Johnson apologized to council members last week for her comments during final budget talks. The council ultimately voted 4-2 to approve a $41.64 million budget that increases property taxes and utility fees.
“I’d just like to quickly thank council members for all their work on this budget over the last weeks,” Johnson said. “I know emotions got high last night, and I’d like to quickly apologize if any of my words were taken as a reflection and a critique of council members’ actions. We all care very much for this town and I’m happy to be serving with people who are willing to take the time and the effort to create a better city.”
The tax rate of $0.5244 per $100 of taxable property valuation jumped up $0.0399 from the current fiscal year. Water and wastewater rates increased 20 percent and are projected to increase next fiscal year, as well.
Council Member Brad Pickett said the utility increases are necessary to balance the utility fund, but because those fees are going up for Kyle residents, he said he wanted no increase on property taxes and he “was willing to do whatever it took to get there.”
A city funding gap analysis shows that with the rate increases, the utility fund would still have a funding gap of $530,043. Should the city not have implemented the rate increases, water would be in the red for about $1.8 million, and wastewater also would have a funding gap of about a half million dollars.
Frustration and confusion encumbered Kyle council members during last week’s first formal reading of the budget.
Johnson exhorted council members against making last-minute urges for spending cuts, since all council members were afforded at least five public meetings to make their budget suggestions clear.
Council Members Pickett and Ray Bryant vocalized dissent for the proposed 5.68 percent increase in property taxes and warned against reaching too deep into residents’ pockets.
Bryant and Pickett proposed lowering, if not completely removing, City Manager Lanny Lambert’s proposed 3.5 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) for all city employees, if spending cuts were not produced.
Mayor Pro Tem Diane Hervol joined in chorus and said she, too, would be interested in seeing the effect a lower COLA would have on the proposed tax rate of $0.5244.
According to city documents, Kyle employees did not receive pay increases during the current fiscal year, but received a 1.5 percent pay jump for fiscal year 2011 and a 2 percent pay increase the year before that.
“I think to bring up COLA and some of these other cuts, when you were fine to let them in – and council members didn’t discuss the need to cut (the budget) in the majority of workshops – and to bring them up here at the last hour, I’m not sure where this is coming from, but I feel like it betrays the process,” Johnson said. “If you have issues with this (budget), I wish we could have talked them out in a workshop. I wish we could have come up and let the public, who is part of all these workshops, who came to all these public hearings, hear your opinions on these things and hear your concerns. I think to do this at the last hour betrays the process.”
Council Member Samantha Bellows-LeMense seemed the most eager to get the budget passed, making motion after motion, but her efforts fell short after council members didn’t back her up.
“We have wasted so many weeks of work, and I’m a little upset, because I have done the compromise,” LeMense said. “I did go there with y’all. I tried to meet you halfway, even taking out the COLA completely, and I would really like to hear a motion from someone.”
Johnson reminded council members that nobody raised concerns about the COLA during the budget workshops, and that council went through the budget line by line and moved forward with council majority on every item – though she did excuse Pickett from the critique, because he was out for most of the meetings due to an illness.
“I’m confused about a lot of the things that are being brought up today,” Johnson said. “This is why we have so many workshops – for you guys to bring up your concerns – and why we show the proposed tax rate at the beginning of the process, so you know what you’re looking at a whole month in.”
“I really want to make sure that the budget that we pass tonight is a good one, and one that is thought out really well,” Johnson continued. “I wish that these concerns were brought up earlier. It makes decision-making really hard… (This is) why we started having all these workshops, to put these discussions far in advance. This is why we talk about the tax rate far out in advance. Because when it comes to the actual formal reading of the budget, it should be something where we’ve all talked about this and workshopped this, and know where council members stand on the issue.”
Despite Johnson’s admonition to move forward with the budget, council members remained at a standstill and continued to mull over numbers, potential cuts and budget additions and subtractions. Some council members made motions and then withdrew them, while everyone was adding amendments. The clamor forced the befuddlement and discomposure to a boiling point, and Johnson popped.
“Does anyone else see how convoluted it is to wait until the last freaking minute to change all these things?” Johnson asked. “I understand, you think about things and you change your mind, but holy crap! I’m sorry, but this is just ridiculous. We worked really hard (in) these workshops and we had good discussion, and I know we didn’t always agree, but this is what happens. You have a month worth of discussion on these changes that are agreed to by the majority of council each time we discuss them, before we decide to move forward with them. Those are compiled and put into the item that’s before us now, and all of a sudden none of us are still on that same page or still sticking to the things that we fought for over the last month. That really sucks.”
Hervol said she understood the mayor’s frustration with the last-minute budget deliberations, but when all is put into perspective, she said cuts need to be made.
After much discussion, a majority of council members moved forward on a motion by Council Member David Wilson that kept the 3.5 percent COLA for all city employees, and eliminated Kyle’s membership in the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. It also did away with a raise for the city’s municipal judge, and cut down a proposed second animal control officer from full-time to part-time.
Johnson, Hervol, LeMense and Wilson voted to pass the budget and the proposed tax rate at both formal readings of the budget, while Bryant and Pickett voted against them; Council Member Becky Selbera was absent for both readings.
“From the night that it was proposed, I opposed this budget,” Pickett said. “One thing I could have done better, was bring in the COLA sooner. But I did mention a lot of cuts at the workshops I did attend, and every one of them failed… I made my stance clear. I think what we’re doing with the water rate and the wastewater rate is the right thing to do. As much as I hate doing it, it’s the right thing to do.”
The budget for Fiscal Year 2013, along with the new tax rate and utility fees, go into effect Oct. 1.