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With needs piling up, council looks at ways to square ‘wish list’ with reality

Staff Reporter

With the city’s capital improvement needs growing faster than they are getting met, the city council in a workshop on Tuesday approved changes to the process through which big-ticket projects are prioritized and funded.

In the second part of the workshop, the council instructed city staff to include funding for the first phase of Farm-to-Market Road 110 but discussed a moratorium on adding other new expenditures to the list until a backlog of pending projects is eased.

The city’s three engineers are currently juggling 72 projects totaling $106 million either in the design, bidding or construction phase.

“We are very limited in our capacity to take on new projects,” said Sabas Avila, the interim engineering and environment department director. “Does that mean if the city council comes up with a priority project that it absolutely can’t be done? No. We will find a way to do it but it may come with some consequences, it may require that something else be pushed back or eliminated.”

Even many of the projects underway are only partially funded, however, and between streets, utilities and facilities projects, literally hundreds more are waiting in the cue but may never make it to fruition. The 10-year program grew by nearly $100 million this budget cycle alone, Mayor Susan Narvaiz said, with many of the new additions pushing their way to the top ahead of long-time needs, especially in older areas of town.

“It gets to a point where it’s not making sense. We have projects that have bee on the books for a long time not getting done and these little pet projects coming up first. Maybe the process was a good process at the time but it isn’t working anymore,” Narvaiz said.

And when projects do come up for funding, they’re often planned using years-old, obsolete cost estimates that require relative last-minute scrambling to fully fund works. For example, the city council on several occasions had to raid other projects to complete the Staples Road sidewalk project.

Spearheaded by assistant city manager Laurie Anderson, city staff developed a new model for the capital improvement program that puts more emphasis on master planning and removing the program from the annual budget process where many of the new costs are added in year-to-year.

Giving more weight to “programmatic” over “public” projects will help ensure that fundamental needs, especially those without a lobby, are more insulated from political whims, officials said. But city council members and their appointees will still have to restrain themselves to make the system work better.

“Philosophically, you have to be comfortable with moving a way from a ‘wishlist’ where you’re only looking one year out on funding and comfortable relying more on master planning,” Anderson said.

At one point in Tuesday’s meeting, council member Chris Jones was saying how hard it is for him to turn away citizens with legitimate neighborhood needs.

“You’re just going to have to learn how to say ‘no’” the mayor said, maybe half-jokingly.