Let’s make something clear, I feel and have always felt that taxes are a necessary evil. I have spent my entire adult life working to try to keep taxes low and in some cases lowering them. Through political activism at all levels of government, through running for office and through writing letters to the editor I have always kept the pressure on elected officials when it comes to taxes.
I have worked countless hours meeting with City Managers (in Keller going back to Lyle), Superintendents, council members and school board members. I have copies of the City of Keller budgets going back to 2002 where I have marked up items for questions to the City Manager.
That continued on after I was elected. In the 2012-2013 budget, I had a 4 hour meeting with the City Manager and his staff on over 28 individual spending line items that I felt needed more justification. This year’s budget was much better and only a few major line items I felt needed justification. Why the big difference between last and this year? I would like to think it is because the city staff knows that I will be looking at every single spending line item, but in reality it is because our City Manager started a program of Zero Based Budgeting in the city. Something that I’ve been pushing for since I moved to town. This program will take a number of departments each year and zero their budgets out, and the department heads will need to justify every dollar spent. This will continue with a new group of departments every year and then begin over after all the budgets have been zeroed out. A lot of the smaller “fluff” items that seemed to get passed in the past are no longer in the budget.
In the two years I have been on Council, I campaigned and then pushed for a change in our retirement funding, a change that put our retirement system back on a solid footing. Before that, the citizens where having to fund a “catch” up payments that would have gone on for 18 more years. Something that if had not been changed would have required a half cent increase in property taxes.
Last budget year we changed the whole philosophy of our health care coverage for employees. Going from a “Platinum” type health insurance to a high deductible plan, this saved the city from a huge increase in premiums that we just couldn’t afford. If the city council had decided to just stay with the status quo, it would have required an increase in taxes of over 1 1/2 cents.
This coming budget year, due to another huge increase in premiums, the City Council is asking the employees to pay a much larger portion of their health insurance premiums, a first for the City. The offsetting costs being carried by the employees are equal to 9/10 cent in the tax rate.
During the past few years, the city was able to open a new fire station and fully staff the facility without having to raise taxes. Just the staffing portion of the facility is equal to 2 ½ cents on the tax rate. The building if financed would have been an increase of about ¾ cents.
Keller has also been at the forefront of looking for cost savings in each of our departments. We partner with neighboring cities for our Police Dispatch, our Jail facility, our courts and we will soon be able to formally announce a partnership for our animal shelter. These cost savings are over $1 million each and every year, not counting the savings from having to build a new court facility which would have increased taxes in the neighborhood of a penny on property taxes.
When it comes to infrastructure, the City has been playing catch up for years. During the good times, previous Councils were more worried about Taj Ma Hall Libraries than they were about water, sewer and roads. The city grew at a double digit rate for almost two decades, and during that time our roads started to fall apart, but yet nothing was done to alleviate the issues. About six years ago, the city put to the voters an amendment to the sales tax funding for road improvements, and the voters overwhelmingly decided to allocate ¼ cent of that revenue to that purpose.
In that time, that money has been used as a “force multiplier” of sorts, by using that money to address the much needed repaving of residential neighborhood streets and freeing up other money for partnership opportunities. Our ranking of our residential asphalt streets by the city’s consultant have gone from unacceptable to acceptable during this time. There is still a ways to go, but each year the public works department takes those street rankings and tries to take care of the worst streets on the list. There is a plan in place to continue to address those streets without having to dip into the general fund (or raise taxes) to do so. The money spent in that program is equal to over 2 3/4 cents of property tax value.
We also partner with the County Commissioner’s office for larger projects every year, such as this year’s project to repave Mt. Gillead Road. The County has also partnered on three very large projects as part of their bond program, the reconstruction of Rufe Snow, North Tarrant Parkway and FM 1938. All three of these major reconstruction projects were done without having to raise city taxes.
The City also has addressed immediate needs out of our general fund, such as a new stop light at Johnson and Rufe Snow that will soon be going in, or the thousands of feet of curbs and gutters that have been replaced around town.
The Council spent the last two years garnering public input on transportation issues, everything from cut through traffic on the south side of town to the ill-conceived “Couplet” through old town. We also put together a transportation bond committee to discuss over $25,000,000 worth of projects that are on the “needs” list for the city. That committee spent 6 months meeting and conducting public hearings, listening to the public. Hundreds of people showed up to express their opinions on the projects being considered. That committee made a recommendation to the council, and then the Council went to work trying to find ways to lower the costs of their recommendation.
We ended up with the package that will come before the voters in November. Yes, it will increase taxes by a maximum 1.5 cents. Yes, I know it puts me in a position where it allows somebody to run against me in the spring and attempt to run to my right.
This proposal going in front of the voters is for infrastructure, it isn’t for a fancy building or a $7 million tennis facility. There will not be a brass plaque somewhere with our names on it. It is for street and intersection improvements, a majority of which should have been addressed a decade ago, back when the City was “flush” with cash. But that didn’t happen and now it is up to this Council to decide if we should just ignore the problems, as was done in the past, or address them.
I could have easily voted against this proposal, politically it would have been the easiest thing to do.
I would have done just that unless it was a proposal that I could support.
I would have also voted against going to a bond election if there was any way we could have figured out how to find the needed money in our existing budget to pay for these improvements. As I have written above, we spend hours and hours and hours meeting and discussing every which way to either cut spending or combine city services to save money. Just two examples; I spent over 100 hours during the summer of 2012 meeting to discuss the new court facility and the hiring of a new judge. We spent over half of our time during that committee not on interviewing a judge, but discussing how our decision would affect the costs of operating that department and the impact on the costs of operating the jail facility. We also spent countless hours discussing implementing a non-resident fee for the sports park, a decision that was made because the funding mechanism for the maintenance at the sports park was not sustainable. It would have been politically easier to just leave well enough alone, no harm no foul, nobody was complaining that there wasn’t a nonresident fee, but if we would have had to increase taxes to pay for that maintenance, our phones would have rung off the hook.
Yes, I could have played the political card and just stated in the meeting that “I wasn’t for taxes, but I will let the citizens decide.” Sure, that would have been a great idea from a political perspective. But I would not ask the citizens to decide on a proposal unless I could publically say that I was in favor of the needed improvements to our infrastructure. I believe I was elected to be a leader and to make the hard votes. Whether those votes hurt me politically is neither here nor there, if that is the only thing I was worried about I wouldn’t be any better than our feckless elected officials in Washington D.C.
There are issues that are larger than me, or my political future in Keller. The issue is whether we want to improve our roadway and intersection infrastructure or not. If the citizens decide that it isn’t important that we address these issues, I will respect that decision.
And finally, I will address a couple of items in the comments on the other post.
The splash pad was brought up, the monies that are spent at the Keller Pointe come from a different revenue source than property taxes. The money for improvements comes from both the ½ cent sales tax allocated to Parks and Recreation and from the revenue generated from the operation of the Keller Pointe. We can’t use that money except for that purpose, Parks and Rec.
Somebody made a comment about the round-a-bout. Well, as I stated in the meeting the other night, I am not in favor of them. But the addition of the round-a-bout came at the insistence of a member of the City Council who eventually voted against the proposal. We all had a feeling up front that this person was going to vote against the package, but we all agreed that since this person felt so strongly about inclusion, we did make provisions to include it in the final program as a hat tip to our colleague.
Keller- Mike stated that how can we even decide to do this bond without knowing whether or not we can get funding from other sources? Well, we have accounted for help in funding the intersection improvements on 1709 from TxDOT. We have received assurances from them that they will do all they can to participate in addressing the needs on this road. We have also received assurances from our County Commissioner and our State Rep that they will work with us to help us receive that funding. But also realize that within the last few weeks, TxDOT has made public statements that they are starting a program to eliminate funding for any Farm to Market road within a city limits. They have somewhat backed off this position in the last week or two, but future funding from TxDOT for any road improvement in Keller is going to be an uphill battle. This does not eliminate funding from organizations such as NCTGOG, and the city will actively pursue all grants and partnerships on all of these projects. We will also look at using any applicable impact fees we have received or will receive from developers. Every funding source will be looked at, as has always been the case in Keller. Just a couple of examples of that, the city will be doing upgrades to sidewalks at a number of schools around Keller because of a grant opportunity the city applied for over 6 years ago. Those sidewalks will finally be going in this fall. Another project that will finally get under construction, and I’m sure Jim Carson will have a comment about, is the addition of a turning lane at 1709 to 377 southbound. How long has this project been under review? Well, Carson was Councilman Carson when it was approved in a 4 to Jim vote.
Keller-Mike also asked will this rate increase will never be reduced? Well, that will be up to a lot of issues in the future. First, will the economy and development improve in Keller bringing in increased revenues? Will health care costs level out? Will future councils even care about reducing taxes? Will the TIF district see some more development before the 2018 end of the district, helping to offset some of the extension of bond payments? Will we continue to have a City Manager that has as his number one priority of keeping spending to a minimum? Will we continue to have department heads such as Mark Hafner that look for saving and consolidations at every turn?
I made a pledge the other night that if this does pass, I will look for ways so that the citizens never see the full 1.5 cent increase. This can be done by offsetting some of the future bond payments by either growth in revenue from new property value on the ground or a reduction in the growth of expenses.
But it will only be done if somebody is actually pushing for it in the future, whether on council, or out here in the real world. I feel very comfortable stating that I have worked hard, not just in the past two years, but my entire adult life, finding ways to make that happen. Randy stated that in the comments that I am a different person than before I was elected, I disagree. I am that same person, and will continue to work to find cost savings and reduced spending every day.