City of Blanco Faces Tough Choices in Budget Workshop Process
By Priscilla Seals
In its budget workshop process, members of the governing body of Blanco are faced with tough choices in a tight economy, with revenues down in some areas and fuel and water costs rising. These costs impact the operation of city services, including police and city vehicles. Members of council tossed out many options for staying within a proposed water-sewer budget of $938,500 and a general fund budget of $1,182,500 while still giving modest raises to city employees and providing financial support to community entities.
Options for obtaining additional revenue that were discussed included raising water and sewer rates, which have not gone up since 2005. As city secretary Bobbie Mowery pointed out, a modest increase would not have a major impact on senior residents, who are typically low water users.
“I don’t think water and sewer [increases] are outrageous,” commented council member Al Turner. “Canyon Lake has gone up, and GBRA.”
But council member Danny Ray countered, “A simple fix is to raise taxes, and they never come back down.”
A decision was made to factor in a residential rate increase of $1 per thousand gallons for the next workshop. The increase from $6.35 to $7.35 would yield $18,000 in revenue for the city. Out-of-city users’ rates would increase to $10.50 per thousand gallons. Raising sewer rates by 55 cents was also discussed.
Basic differences in priorities surfaced as deliberations continued, with council member Rebecca Howerton advocating waiting to see if people pay their taxes before giving city employees raises. “We need to think about our organizations first,” she asserted. “They are not getting bad salaries,” she continued. “Some people are getting no salaries.”
Council members Al Turner and Maria Guerrero countered that employees should be a priority. Mayor Chuck Homan suggested, “Lowering the budget and still offering them the possibility of a raise is a win-win situation.”
Public works director Nathan Cantrell defended street workers by saying, “My guys are dedicated; they come at 3 a.m. to unplug your sewers.”
Good news in the General Fund included the fact that property values are up $4 million and building permit fees have already almost reached the proposed $15,000 income for the current year.
Hotel-motel tax revenue (HOT) money has already exceeded the $30,000 budget. A discussion of how much of the proposed $50,000 revenue from this source to award Blanco entities sparked a lengthy discussion.
HOT moneys are designated for agencies which meet a set of criteria, including promoting tourism. Currently the Blanco Chamber of Commerce receives 70 percent of these funds. Although those in attendance were reminded at the beginning of the meeting that they were not to speak unless questioned, Chamber president Liz Waller-Broyal asked to speak and defend the chamber, which she said promotes the city in general.
Other entities requesting money include the Old Blanco County Courthouse Preservation Society, the Blanco Performing Arts Center, Keep Blanco Beautiful, and the Blanco Historic Preservation Commission. A request by Blanco Luxury Suites to receive money was dismissed rather quickly, as it would benefit only that hotel, not the general community.
Members also discussed whether to continue support of the Blanco Library at the current rate of $12,000 per year, increase it to the library’s request of $17,000, or reduce support. Other community entities which requested funds included the Blanco Recycling Center, Community Action, which sponsors the Meals on Wheels program for seniors, and the CARTS program.
Police, fire, and EMS needs dominated discussion as well. Rebecca Howerton, calling them the “three important entities,” said earnestly, “We somehow can find money for them. You just need to manipulate the money a little bit, Bobbie.”
A suggestion that money be taken from city reserves sparked a comment from Nathan Cantrell, that if every request for reserve money had been granted since his tenure began in Blanco, there would be no reserve money left by now.
At issue is the request by EMS director Mike West for improvements to one of the ambulances, including remounting it on a newer frame and adding additional life-saving equipment. Financing the improvements by financing them would cost the city $16,000 a year for the next five years. An increase of $7,000 for the fire department will allow payments on the new truck, which Mayor Homan reminded those in attendance belongs to the city, not the fire department.
A budget request of $358,860 for the police department submitted by Chief Milton Willmann came in considerably higher than the $340,575 budgeted. Although the Tahoe has been paid for, other vehicles in the department have cost over $7,000 in repairs so far this year, with four vehicles logging over 100,000 miles, the oldest being a 1998 model. Rebecca Howerton pointed out that a new vehicle could be financed cheaper than the cost of repairs.
“We need to build a plan to replace one vehicle every year,” said Willmann.
Maria Guerrero also advocated having money in the budget to pay reserve officers. Other police department requests included buying six tasers and adding video cameras to police vehicles which do not currently have them.
The mayor instructed Bobbie Mowery to meet with the chief and Al Turner to reach a compromise on the requests.
After two and a half hours of discussion, Mayor Homan instructed council members to look over the materials and be prepared to continue the budget workshop process on Thursday.
Workshop Concludes with Balanced Budget
By Charles Willgren
The Blanco City Council budget workshop picked up again on Thursday, July 21. Mayor Chuck Homan convened the meeting at 5:30pm with council members Danny Ray, Martin Sauceda, Rebecca Howerton, Maria Guerrero, and Al Turner present. City secretary Bobbie Mowery was also present as she was delegated the task of preparing the budget and crunching the numbers.
“[Bobbie] has done some changes,” Mayor Homan began, “and things look better than they did on Tuesday.”
The council first looked at the water and sewer fund budget. Mowery calculated raising the revenue by raising the water and sewer rates, which put that budget at $31,350 in the black. The city would then put $30,000 into administrative fees in the water and sewer budget so the money would go into the general fund.
“It’s in the black with that change,” Mowery noted, with $1,350.
The council then moved on to the general fund budget, which covers administration, garbage service, mayor and council expenses, the police department, the street department, and other items.
The budget, as it stood, was $49,300 in the red, Mowery said.
“I did some figures,” Mowery reported, “if we raise the garbage rates for our citizens by 50 cents a resident–that would bring the charge from $12.75 to $13.25–and if we raised our commercial rates by only 5%, that would bring us the revenue that we need to balance the budget.”
The mayor asked what Johnson City pays for garbage service, and Mowery replied that it was $16.80. Mowery also reported that the county residents are paying $37 per month for the same service and the new rate was still a bargain for the city residents.
“I believe that’s still well within reason,” Homan commented on the rate increase.
Mayor Homan moved on to the budget item regarding ambulance upgrades, reporting that EMS Director Mike West had informed him that the money request was reduced from $16,000 to $14,000.
According to the budget released after the workshop, the Blanco Library’s support was reduced from $12,000 to $10,000.
West checked with a local bank that was willing to help out and was given a better commitment in writing. Homan pointed out that the $14,000 is based on $120,000 for the EMS unit; if the Ambulance Corps. got a better deal, the percentage needed from the city would drop.
Mowery added that, if the city raises garbage rates, there was still a $27,000 deficit. The $30,000 moved from the water and sewer budget would resolve that, leaving a cushion of $2,700.
“I told you, Bobbie, you could find it,” Rebecca Howerton commented.
“I don’t believe raising the water rate, or the garbage rate, is a hardship,” Homan said. “We have not raised taxes again this year–it has been numerous years since we’ve had to.”
Howerton and Homan discussed HOT money. $400 is allocated for the Blanco Pioneer Museum but Howerton noted that the museum won’t spend all of that. Homan pointed out that the organization doesn’t need to use all of it, just that the money is allocated.
Howerton added her disapproval of the money reserved for employee raises. “I want you to know that I’m opposed to 5% raise on salaries,” she said. “2%, that’s okay. I’m opposed to 5 because there are too many people in this town that are getting minimum wage still, or they’re making $8 per hour. Not one of us at this table is getting that little.”
“Just because we budget the money, we still have to agree to and vote on raises at a later time,” the mayor explained. “This puts the money in there with the overall picture of everything. That 5% isn’t much in this budget. Since it’s balanced... there were many years, it has come to my attention, that there was a lot of money left over in the budget because raises weren’t given. It was just carried over to the next year. We’ll have to vote on, and decide on that, when it comes time for the raises.”
Guerrero asked when the raises would come up for a vote and Homan responded that it would be after the employee evaluations and would take affect by January.
“Are we in agreement that $2,700 is not over the limit that we can have as a cushion?” Homan asked the council. Mowery added that the council would set the tax rate and vote on the budget during the September 13 meeting. The water, sewer, and garbage rates could be set at the August 9 meeting, she said, and would take effect September 1 with the citizens getting bills reflecting the new rates on October 1.
Before the workshop could be concluded, council member Danny Ray asked if the council could revisit the HOT money issue.
“The Chamber has done a really good job, and Penny has plans for advertising,” Ray said, referring to Chamber Executive Director Penny Thomas. Ray asked that the council try a little harder with the Chamber as many publications the city receives talk about the importance of the chamber of commerce. “I would like to suggest that we bump them from 60% to 65%.”
Guerrero asked about how HOT money was dispensed. She had read that many organizations show how they want to use the money, hold the event, show the city how many heads were in beds, and get reimbursed. Al Turner said the city can’t expect the Chamber to pay for the festival and then give the city a bill.
Penny Thomas with the Blanco Chamber of Commerce was recognized.
“Chambers and visitors centers are an exception to the rule with the HOT money,” she began, answering Guerrero’s question. “Cities have contracts with Chambers and CVBs where they get a certain percentage of the HOT money to do advertising for the community; in our case that includes the festival.
“We made very clear that we received over $20,000 and less than $10,000 was spent on the festival; the rest was spent on the town. We make it a point in our ads–it’s not a picture of our smiling face. Every month we run an ad in the Current and it actually has a picture of the courthouse in it. On the ads that we run out of town–San Antonio, Austin, Fort Hood–it’s a picture of the park and has coming events for the town. It’s not a chamber thing, it’s a visitor center thing. [...]
“I implore you to think about it; we’re on a roll with advertising. We’ve got some really good things we want to look at. Even though you cut the percent and say the dollar amount is the same, you’re still capping us. We can do no more at this point if it stays there. My hope would be that you’d bring us back up to 70% and give us another year of proving to you that we’re the right place to use it. The Chamber is in no way saying that nobody else can get any money. We’re not saying that. When you think about it, you’re not hurting anyone but Blanco.”
Guerrero asked about the Chamber’s contract with the city and Mowery noted that it had expired. “Has the city designated the Chamber or the Courthouse as a visitor’s center?” asked Guerrero. Mowery reported that the expired contract designated the Chamber as a visitor center.
Mayor Homan suggested that the Chamber could come to the city with an advertising proposal, and the city could decide to go above and beyond the 60% HOT money.
“We get more money, we have more money,” Homan added, “we can still give it to you on an as-needed basis.”
In response to a question from Utilities Director Nathan Cantrell about whether the Chamber would need to hit their 60% allocation before requesting more funds, the mayor said the Chamber could request funds at any time.
Mayor Homan moved on to fuel usage. “We need to be thinking about next year,” he said. “All the agency heads, please conserve as much as possible in the fuel usage. I’m not saying you can be everywhere all the time, but unless there’s physically a body in a vehicle, it is city policy that the key is off. I’m not scolding anybody. This is about money. Vehicles need to be off.”
To conclude the meeting, Mayor Homan thanked Director Cantrell for giving up money from the water/sewer budget to help the city again, and the mayor thanked Bobbie Mowery for crunching the numbers for the budget. It’s the mayor’s job, he said, and he delegated it to her, and she did it.
The workshop concluded at 5:55pm, at just under a half hour and decidedly shorter than the Tuesday workshop.