By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
KYLE – According to form, any city budget discussion will boil down to a contest between an administration wishing to increase services and city councilmembers wishing to hold down the tax rate. In between are the councilmembers who favor more services.
As the last of those groups appears to be the majority on the Kyle City Council, it’s likely the city will add 26.5 full-time equivalent positions and raise the property tax rate by a dime on the Fiscal Year 2009 budget.
But council and staff left a budget workshop Thursday night without settling the matter, and it could go all the way down to a second and final reading on the budget and tax rate on Sept. 16. In the first audible rumblings of protest about the ever-increasing tax rate proposal, three councilmembers said Thursday that the city needs to find cuts. The city staff initially proposed a 35-cent tax rate, then revised its recommendation this month to 37.31 cents.
The council will take a first reading on those issues Tuesday night. The council could approve the staff recommendations for a $33.3 million budget and a tax rate of 37.31 cents per $100 of assessed value at the first reading and still revise those numbers at the second and final reading two weeks later.
Kyle City Manager Tom Mattis suggested that councilmembers wishing to make budget cuts bring their suggestions to Tuesday’s meeting.
The city staff has put on a full-court press in the last month trying to argue that the tax rate increase from 27.07 cents is fair, necessary and competitive. In strong support of the staff’s position are Mayor Miguel Gonzalez, as well as Councilmembers Michelle Lopez and David Salazar, all of whom endorse service increases in principle. Councilmember Becky Selbera argued in favor of the budget’s proposal to increase the police department and offered no arguments against the budget.
The three newest councilmembers – Ray Bryant, David Wilson and Lucy Johnson – all expressed reservations Thursday about the extent of the proposed tax increase. However, none suggested specific budget cuts immune to arguments from city staff or the will of the council majority.
“I want to feel good in my mind that we’re doing everything we can do,” Bryant said of his desire to minimize the tax increase.
At the present 27.07-cents tax rate, a $150,000 home in Kyle pays $406.05 in city property taxes. If that home is appraised five percent higher and the tax rate increases to 37.31 cents, the property tax bill increases to $587.63, a difference of $15.13 per month.
The staff argues that the city already is behind in its services after 11 straight years of tax-rate cuts and must pay up to move forward or risk losing track of their own town. In the long run, for example, the staff argues that it’s more cost efficient to spring for street equipment and the experts to use it than to contract for the services.
“We don’t have a street maintenance program,” Kyle finance director Charles Cunningham said. “We don’t even have an inventory of the streets we have, and we go department by department and see the same things.”
Said Assistant City Manager James Earp, “Right now, our employees are running around trying to put out fires.”
On the other side, the council minority argues that uncertain economic times require the city to keep taxes as low as possible.
“I’m talking about not spending a penny more than we have to spend, or a hundredth of a cent more than we have to spend,” Wilson said.
The city staff argues that the 37.31-cent proposal still leaves Kyle a full ten cents below the tax rate for comparable Central Texas cities for 2008. Furthermore, staff said, the proposed rate returns Kyle to about what the city levied in FY 2002 (38.83 cents) and FY 2003 (35.45).
Led by Lopez, the council majority said the budget reflects policy decisions the council has established during the last couple years. Likewise, Mattis told dissenting councilmembers that the budget discussion really is a matter of policy.
“I would love to minimize the tax impact for our citizens,” Lopez said. “But if we’re going to 37.31, that’s (about four) gallons of gas per month that we’re not buying to go to Austin or Buda to meet needs. I know what our needs are and to see our city struggling to meet those needs troubles me.”
At the center of Thursday’s debate was the city’s proposal to increase the Kyle Police Department from 19 sworn officers to 30. The new budget calls for six officers, to go with five more already budgeted this year but not yet hired because the city is transitioning to civil service rules.
In her first performance on the council since winning a special election earlier in the month, Johnson suggested that Kyle should strive to hire the minimum number of police needed to cover the city. Wilson said the city should phase in the hiring of new officers, rather than budget all of them for the full year, then apply the savings to the budget.
However, said Mattis, the city’s voter-approved move to civil service rules requires the establishment of a step salary schedule and the city probably will need those savings to make the pay schedule competitive.
Thus, the debate is joined along predictable lines.
Said Salazar, “For the level of services we provide, I think the citizens are getting a pretty good deal.”
Said Johnson, “For me, as a new councilmember, the hardest part is trying to wrap my head around all these increases.”Email | Print