The Kyle Report

The Kyle Report

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Tonight’s council meeting — quick and inconclusive

Boy, did I underestimate the alacrity of our City Council. Last week I wrote of this pending get- together that it "should last, oh, I don’t know, all of 10 minutes at the most." Try one-fifth that time. The five council members who attended (Becky Selbera and Daphne Tenorio didn’t) took less than two minutes to dispense with the city’s business this evening. Less than two minutes — from the call to order to adjournment. Roll call. Citizens comments period. The dispensing of three agenda items. All accomplished in under two minutes. I mean when these fellas want to get it done and get out of there, they get it done and get out of there.

I also wrote last week I had questions about one of the three items on tonight’s agenda — the $141,826.03 change order for construction on Lehman Road at the Goforth intersection. I was hoping the council would clarify the source of that money. But, no. Wham! Bam! Two minutes! We’re done! No explanations necessary.

So I decided to ask City Engineer Leon Barba about it after the council adjourned. I told him I was under the impression the money was simply being shifted from the amount the city was paying the contractor working on the Lehman Road part of the road bonds project over to the contractor working on the Goforth Road project since that latter one is just about finished and the Lehman deal hasn’t really even begun. And the city desperately wanted to get this intersection completed before classes resumed at Lehman High School which, of course, is located right at that intersection.

However, just as I grossly underestimated the speed at which the council dispensed with business this evening, so was I wrong — OK, partially wrong — about the source of this $41,826.03. Barba told me that part of the money is coming from the Lehman budget, but another part of it is new money. Now, presumably, since this falls under the auspices of the 2013 bond proposal that was approved by voters, by "new money" he meant some so-far unencumbered proceeds from the sale of those bonds the voters told the city to sell to pay for this construction. The way I understand it, it’s illegal to use any other money for a voter-approved bond project other than funds derived from the sale of the bonds the voters approved.

But when I asked Barba exactly how much was coming from the Lehman account and how much of this was "new money," he flipped through several pages of his notebooks, looked at the same ledger I examined when I wrote my story last week and came to the same conclusion I did after examining that ledger: "I don’t know," he said. "I don’t seem to have those figures with me." Then he gave me the familiar City Hall Shuffle — "Let me find out and I’ll get back to you."

Here’s the real bottom line. I really think the City Council members could have stretched their meeting out to, say, three minutes at the most, to ask the same question and possibly gets an answer of one sort or another on the record, even if it was the same answer Barba gave me.

Speed kills. In this instance, the victim was clarity.

Monday, June 26, 2017

What were they thinking at City Hall last year?

Maybe a better question to ask is "What were they drinking?".

This is yet another in my regular monthly installments on how poorly sales tax receipts fared this month against expectations. The raw figure is $53,901.03 meaning the city received that much less than the budget forecast it would receive. On the ledger, that means the city is facing a $214,411.59 budget gap for this fiscal year which city officials constantly try to reassure me is no big deal because it has the reserves and the empty budgeted staff positions that more than compensates for this shortfall.

But those same raw figures still leave me scratching my head. The $568,870.97 the city received for the month of June is a nice 12 percent more than the receipts from the same month last year. Most cities would be ecstatic to experience a 12 percent increase in sales taxes per month. I've heard Buda projects a measly 8 percent month-over-month sales tax increase. For them, a 12 percent hike is manna from heaven, but for us it is not good news.

Here's the kicker, however: the city’s forecast was that Kyle would actually collect $622,722 in sales taxes this month. That’s a whopping 23 percent increase over last year’s number. 23 percent!!!! Are you freaking kidding me?

For the year, the city has collected 10.03 percent more than it did last year, but the forecast was for a 14.58 percent increase in sales tax receipts after nine months of the fiscal year.

Travis Mitchell seems to be the only person on the City Council who’s overly concerned about all of this and during last year’s budget negotiations he tried, unsuccessfully it turned out, to cut Finance Director Perwez Moheet’s sales tax estimates. Look, I respect Moheet. I consider him one of the better municipal finance directors I’ve come across in my 50+-year professional life. But it doesn’t take that much of a financial wizard to realize that with the type of growth Kyle is experiencing, the city’s sales tax numbers will continue increase, but the percentage of that increase will most likely decline year-after year.

I would like to see Mitchell or someone else have the courage this year to hold the city’s feet to the fire and insist on a budget that forecasts, at the most, a 10 percent increase in sales tax receipts — maybe even 9.5 percent — during the upcoming fiscal year. That amount of an increase is still worth celebrating and it will send a signal to those looking to invest in our community that (1) we appear to be fiscally realistic about our financial revenue expectations and (2) there’s nothing funny seeping into the city’s water supply.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

So much for a morning council meeting

At the end of last week’s regular City Council meeting, City Manager Scott Sellers announced a special meeting would have to be called for this week, presumably to be held on Wednesday since the regular Tuesday date was reserved for a Planning & Zoning Commission meeting and the Park Board had Monday reserved. The consensus at the time seemed to be the best time for the meeting would be Wednesday morning. The question that loomed was would the meeting begin at 8 a.m. or possibly even earlier.

Now the meeting has been posted officially and it’s for the normal 7 p.m. time, except on Wednesday instead of the regular Tuesday. I’m guessing that in polling all the council members, Wednesday evening was the only time a quorum would be available, which seems strange to me — back in Dallas where I worked for 47 years before moving here two and half years ago — no city meetings of any kind were ever held on Wednesday evenings because that was considered "church night," by a majority of Christian denominations. I guess that’s not the case here. (There was also the fact that Dallas City Council’s meetings began at 9 a.m. on most Wednesdays of every calendar year, but normally they adjourned well before 6 p.m. giving everyone plenty of time to attend to their individual religious obligations that evening.)

But even if Wednesday is a big church night in Kyle as well (truth in advertising: as a Jew, I really don’t keep up with the religious practices of my Christian colleagues), there’s no real reason for anyone other than at least four council members, the requisite city staff and the smattering of news junkies to break their normal Wednesday religious routines because Wednesday’s meeting is a strictly non-newsworthy housekeeping session that should last, oh, I don’t know, all of 10 minutes at the most. Here’s the agenda for the meeting; check it our for yourself and see if you can find anything on there that’s going to shake your soul.

The only question I have about all this surrounds Agenda Item 3, a change order for $141,826.03 for reconstructing 150 feet of Lehman Road, starting from its terminus at Goforth so that Lehman will have a designated left and right turn lane at that intersection. As I understood this project, from how it was described at last week’s council session, this is simply money being lifted from the Lehman Road account created as part of the 2013 bond package and added to the Goforth Road account, so that construction of these lanes can be completed before fall classes resume at Lehman High School, located right at that intersection. All the paperwork accompanying this agenda item details how it’s being added to the Goforth project, but there was no corresponding accounting to show it’s being removed from the Lehman project’s books. So is this really a $142,000 cost overrun? Hopefully we’ll learn that Wednesday.

Watch this space.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

IDEA charter school to open here in fall 2018

A spokesperson for IDEA Public Schools announced at last night’s City Council meeting it plans to open a charter school on Goforth Road, just a few hundred yards from I-35, in the fall of 2018 for students in kindergarten and first, second and sixth grades.

However, in conversations I had last night and again today with IDEA Executive Director Lankin Tackett, he insisted I can take the word "plans" out of the above sentence. He told me during both conversations the school will definitely open next year.

He also said students can begin registering to attend the school this fall simply by going to IDEA’s web site.

"It’s part of our mission to serve students who will be the first in their families to graduate from college," Tackett told the council. "Our mission is college for all. We just believe deeply in the possibility and the potential of every child. Regardless of their background, regardless of their ability level, we think they can go to college so that’s what we focus on."

This, of course, is in sharp contrast to what’s currently being offered in terms of college prep in Kyle. Lehman High School’s college readiness score, for example, is 21.9 out of 100, according to research conducted by U.S. News and World Report. The IDEA charter school in Brownsville, on the other hand, has a college readiness score of 90.8 and is ranked the 55th best high school in the entire country, according to that same research.

That’s the reason the idea of a college prep charter school poses such a threat to council member Daphne Tenorio, a staunch defender of Lehman High School here and whose husband is a member of the Hays CISD board. Tenorio’s hands were tied at last night’s meeting, however, because to oppose the school outright would, in effect, place her in position of advocating for a reduced public educational product for her constituents. So she tried to attack the idea by questioning Mayor Todd’s Webster objectivity and the fact that the public hearing on the bond sale was held in downtown Austin and not Kyle. Neither argument gained any traction: Webster made public all his work as a pro-educational lobbyist in the Texas Legislature Tuesday immediately prior to the IDEA announcement, thus making his objectivity irrelevant to the discussion at hand, and the school’s bond representative explained the reason the meeting was held in Austin was that the majority of the proceeds from the sale of the bonds will be used for projects in Travis County. She told Tenorio a notice of the meeting was published, as required, in the Austin American-Statesman, which forced a frustrated Tenorio to make the startling admission that she never reads the daily newspaper that is the principle in-depth source of legislative, national and international news for persons in this area who wish to be informed on those subjects (and taxpayers should hope their council members would wish to remain informed on them). In the end that left Tenorio sputtering that the fact she chose not to read the publication that was required to carry the notice of the public hearing amounted to "a lack of transparency." Go figure.

Council member Shane Arabie, on the other hand, held a completely different view.

"My son is a product of a charter school education," he told Tackett. "I believe in the charter school system and I advocate for it highly. I’m extremely excited to have this in the area. I’m only saddened that my child won’t be able to participate in it, I welcome you with open arms and I want to thank you for bringing this opportunity to our area."

Tackett said the school has already purchased the land for the school and construction will be completed on the first of what will eventually become two buildings on the campus in time for the start of the 2018-19 school year. He said that building will house approximately 116 students in each of the grades with an eventual total enrollment of around 1,400. A lottery will be held if the total number of applicants exceeds that 116-per-grade figure and Tackett told me today there’s never been an instance in the nearly 17-year history of IDEA schools that a lottery wasn’t required when a new school opened.

Beginning with the 2019-20 school year, a third and seventh grade will be added and two new grades will be added each school year until ultimately the Kyle IDEA school serves pre-kindergarten through 12th grades. The school will have two principals — on supervising the elementary grades and the other overseeing what Tackett called "the college prep" academy which includes grades 6-12.

Tackett said a second building will be constructed on the campus that will be exclusively for the college prep academy and it should be open by the 2020-21 school year.

In response to a question from council member Becky Selbera, Tackett said IDEA strives to hire teachers from the local area. "We want educators who know the community in which they’re working," he said. "We do a lot of training of our instructional leaders and principals. We have something called the Principals in Residence program where an IDEA principal has gone through a fellowship over a two-year period to get ready."

Not only was no council action required on the matter, there was really no reason for the item to even be on the council’s agenda except for Mayor Todd Webster desire to avoid any questions of impropriety because of his role as an educational advocate at the state government level. The IRS requires the mayor of each municipality directly affected by the proceeds from charter school bond sales sign a letter acknowledging that a public meeting was held to announce the intention to sell said bonds. Webster decided to use the formal setting of a council meeting to make public the fact that he had complied with this IRS regulation.

In addition last night:
  • High-tech police equipment. The council decided the question was not whether the city manager should enter into negotiations to purchase new high-tech tools for the Kyle Police Department, but when those negotiations should take place. Police Chief Jeff Barnett wanted the negotiations to begin immediately, claiming the tools the police are currently using too time consuming even in those rare instances when they actually work as they as designed to do. Many city council members questioned whether this discussion is going to be seen as something related to the planned co-location of many police activities with other law-enforcement agencies in Hays County and whether the entire conversation should be postponed until discussions begin on the Fiscal Year 2017-18 budget. The contract would be for the purchase of tasers as well as body cameras and in-car video cameras along with the software needed to label, store and share the videos recorded on those cameras. But whether the negotiations are held now or during the budget discussion, there is really nothing at issue here until the city has a formal contract offer. The devil, as they say, are in the contract details. Here, according to The Motley Fool, is what Axom is trying to pull off: It provides up-front bargains in order to entice municipalities into what eventually become expensive long-term deals the cities can’t get out of. In an article just published Monday, The Motley Fool reported: "On April 5, Axon announced an offer for free body cameras for every police officer in the U.S. Even accounting for the fact that it was effectively an offer for officers who didn't already have an Axon body camera, it still amounts to a promise for a free product for around 1 million officers across the country. Not only will officers who accept this offer get a body camera, they'll also get a year of the unlimited pro licence to store data on Evidence.com, two mounts, a docking station, and access to the Axon online training library. To understand why Axon would offer a free body camera in the first place, we have to look at where the company makes its money. Axon is trying to get customers to buy a subscription to a suite of services that include the Evidence.com evidence management system and a body camera upgrade every two and a half years, and future add-ons like artificial intelligence and improved wireless services. … The beauty of the entire platform is that once a law enforcement agency and prosecutors begin using Axon's products, they'll likely be locked in. Video from body cameras can be used by prosecutors, while new technology allows officers to reduce paperwork by using body camera software. It would not be feasible to switch systems every year, because training costs would be high, so customers would renew their Axon subscriptions year after year." I have queried the city to learn whether it, or the police department, has a formal, written policy on the use of tasers and body cameras, but I don’t expect to receive a reply by the time I publish this article. If and when I do receive a reply, I will publish an update.
  • Road bond updates. City Engineer Leon Barba told the council 85 percent of the work has been completed on the Goforth Road bond project and is scheduled to be completed by the end of next month; that a traffic signal "should begin flashing in two weeks or less" at the Goforth/Bunton intersection; "71 percent of the work has been completed" on the Bunton project between I-35 and Lehman and that it should be completely done by the end of September; a 150-foot segment of the Lehman Road Project that extends from the intersection with Bunton has been fast-tracked so that it will be completed by the time school starts Aug. 21; for the rest of the Lehman project, two easements still need to be acquired and utilities can’t be moved until those acquisitions are completed and that construction should begin, hopefully, the last quarter of this year with a 15-month construction schedule; four more parcels still need to be acquired before work can begin on Burleson and that an 18-month construction schedule will commence some time next year.
  • Rail House wants its own water tower. Community Development Director Howard Koontz told the council that the new owners of the downtown Rail House restaurant want to install "a reasonably large and not in any way code compliant sign in front of their property." Koontz said the owners deliberately want the sign to be "conspicuous." He added "On the surface, we don’t have any means possible to permit it. It would be a large water tower and would have some writing on it that would basically advertise their property a little bit closer to the main intersection." The surprise in all of this to me was when Koontz revealed "The staff is actually supportive of the idea that they be able to put this sign up for the sake of it being an attraction downtown much like the signage in front of the Pie Company or anything else that can be talked about." Koontz said the only way to allow the sign, however, would be a text amendment "which would allow for staff to enable language to create a conditional use process for wayfinding and other types of landmark signage." Here’s the rub: this agenda item was listed as a presentation with no action scheduled to be taken. Yet Koontz asked the council to approve directing the staff to come up with such an amendment. The Rail House owners apparently want to use available city grant money to fund the project, an idea that did not seem to be well received by the mayor. "If the council agrees to do something like this, it needs to be things that actually contribute to the ROI of the property. In time it generates increased property values and increased property taxes. Things like signs and volleyball courts (which the Rail House also wants to install) I don’t think accomplish that." He also said making a sign exception for the Rail House could alienate other area business owners who would also like to see changes in the types of signs that are allowed. Council member Travis Mitchell said he definitely did not want to see a Cabella’s-type water tower in Kyle similar to the one that looms over Buda.
  • Special council meeting scheduled. City Manager Scott Sellers announced a brief special City Council agenda meeting will need to be called for Wednesday, June 28, most likely at 8 a.m., to consider at least two items: An item that was postponed from last night’s agenda to accept the Woodlands Park, Phase 3 subdivision improvements and another involving a multi-family project scheduled for construction in Plum Creek that needed to be delayed months ago because of a required relocation of a wastewater line but must be approved before the end of the month in order for the developer to close financing on the deal.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Kyle may get an IDEA

Look at this. You should really look at this if you have school-age children living with you in Kyle. This is the Washington Post’s most recent rankings of "America’s Most Challenging High Schools." If you’re like me, the first thing from this list that jumps off the page is that six of the top 10 ranked high schools are in Texas and the names of five of those six schools begin with the word "IDEA."

IDEA, in this case, is an acronym for "Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement." It is a growing network of 61 tuition-free pre-K to 12th grade public schools serving 35,000 students in Austin, San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley. Approximately 85 percent of its student body is economically disadvantaged. It was founded in Weslaco, Texas, just before the turn of the century by two former Teach for America corps members, Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama, with the mission of serving impoverished students. They opened their first school in Donna, Texas, in 2002. By 2008, IDEA had expanded to 10 schools serving 4,000 students and it currently has 14,000 students on its waiting list for its schools in the Rio Grande Valley. At the invitation of former NBA great David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs, IDEA opened its first school in San Antonio in 2012, the same year it launched in Austin, where it recently received a $16 million donation so that it could expand to 26 schools in the Austin area.

According to figures released last year, 95 percent of IDEA’s student body is Hispanic and English is a second language for 33 percent. About 5 percent of students have special education needs. Admission is initially carried out by lottery, but students who have a juvenile record or a history of disciplinary problems may be excluded.

The schools have the reputation for being academically rigorous. In the sixth grade, students begin to take the classes needed for Advanced Placement courses (college-level courses and examinations for high school students) and they take their first AP course in the ninth grade, By the time they graduate, students are required to complete 11 AP courses.

IDEA likes to boast that 100 percent of its graduates attend college, but that braggadocio can be somewhat misleading; the truth is being admitted to a four-year college or university is one of the requirements needed for a student to graduate from an IDEA school. According to the IDEA student handbook, a student may graduate "only if the student successfully completes the curriculum requirements identified by the SBOE (State Board of Education), has been accepted into a four-year college or university, has completed a minimum of 125 hours of community service, and has performed satisfactorily on required end of course assessment instruments." Again, referring to last year’s numbers. 65 percent of the students who enter the ninth grade at an IDEA school do not graduate at an IDEA school.

Normally, a new IDEA school will contain three grades, kindergarten, first and second (in what IDEA calls an ‘’academy,’ its name for primary schools) and sometimes a sixth grade which is used to seed its "college preparatory," IDEA’s name for its grades 7-12. It establishes and fills the rest of the grades over a subsequent six or seven year period.

There’s an excellent chance that Kyle residents will have the opportunity to see this process unfold up close and personal. Tuesday’s City Council agenda includes this item "Discussion regarding the Mayor’s signature requirement to comply with federal tax law for tax-exempt financing for bond financing documents, IDEA Public Schools." Now there is really no reason this item has to be on the council’s meeting agenda. These bonds do not indebt the City of Kyle in any way; there’s no municipal liability here. Their authorization does not require council approval. State law simply requires the signature on these documents of the "highest elected official" of any city where IDEA plans to locate. Therefore, the only reason I can see for its inclusion on the council’s agenda is so that a public announcement can be made that IDEA plans to locate a campus in Kyle.

It will be interesting to see the reaction to the announcement, especially from the existing public school community. However, if that community is truly interested in education and not in its own entrenched fiefdoms, that community should applaud any and all efforts to increase the number of Kyle students who will graduate from high school and attain a post-secondary degree. We may get a glimpse of the actual priorities of local school officials and their hangers-on during Tuesday’s council session.

Overall, Tuesday’s council agenda appears on the surface to be comparatively routine (and possibly even briefer than average — an executive session may not be necessary). The only other items worth noting on the agenda are:
  • A public admission that the cameras installed in police vehicles have, in the words of Police Chief Jeff Barnett, "failed to perform." In a memo Barnett sent to City Manager Scott Sellers, the chief said "These failures have caused a tremendous amount of work for both PD and IT staff, as well as being costly and detrimental to the quality of services provided to the citizens of Kyle." To remedy the problem, as well as to outfit Kyle police officers with body cameras and tasers, the council’s agenda includes an item that authorizes Sellers to enter negotiations with an outfit call Axon of Scottsdale, Ariz., (formerly known as Taser International) for a possible contract to provide some or all of this equipment. It is worth noting that three days ago television station WWLP in Springfield, Mass., reported that Axon made an offer to Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno to deploy body cameras to every police officer, with all supporting storage and training, for a full year at zero cost. The station’s report added "It’s a sort-of 'try before you buy,’ meant to help the city see how well they work before committing to using them. The offer will also include docks, use of Evidence.com software and accessories." Perhaps the council’s authorization should include instructions for Sellers to seek a similar deal.
  • A presentation from Planning Director Howard J. Koontz on a "grant request" from the Rail House, the reconverted restaurant/entertainment facility current undergoing extensive renovations and expansion across Center Street from City Hall. No details were provided on the reason for the request or, for that matter, exactly what the grant will be used for.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Kyle may “Dexter” its government operations

I am not a big fan of episodic TV. I will watch a series via streaming or on disc after it has completed its first-run telecast if one is recommended to me by fellow members of the Writers Guild whose opinion I respect. I don’t "binge watch" as a lot of folks apparently do. Usually I watch a little less than episode per week. One of those series I’m currently watching — I’m about two-thirds of the way through Season 3 — is Dexter.

And, frankly, I am beginning to wonder why this one came with such a strong recommendation. It is a tad melodramatic for my tastes and it lays on the angst of the story’s titular character way too thickly. I will admit to admiring the audacity of creating a television series around a despicable human being — in this case, a serial killer — but Dexter is not the first TV series based on that premise: both The Sopranos and Breaking Bad handled that concept far more successfully than Dexter.

But the real problem I’m having with the program is that I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that the show actually believes its main character is a "hero," a "good guy." It seems they are buying into their own false premise that it’s OK to murder your fellow human beings if, in the opinion of the murderer, the victims "deserved:" to be murdered because of some heinous crime they may have committed but escaped justice for. I have no idea how the series ends — and I don’t want anyone to spoil it by trying to tell me how it ends — but I’m going to be furious if this guy doesn’t get the punishment he deserves, i.e., a gruesome demise.

I mention this only because I want to pose the argument that it is inherently wrong for a city government to use public, taxpayers funds to repair private property. Stated like that, I think most people would agree with me. The City of Kyle, however, appears set to go all Dexter on that argument. Just as Dexter seems to be arguing its OK to diabolically, gruesomely murder another human being if the murderer feels the crime is justified , the city is prepared to make a similar exception to the "using taxpayer money to repair private property" rule when it applies to sidewalks.

It’s a dangerous precedent that simply doesn’t stand up to the arguments against it. However, of the six council members who attended last night’s City Council meeting (Mayor Pro Tem Damon Fogley missed last night’s meeting due to a death in his family), the only one who agrees with me on this is Shane Arabie.

I don’t have enough time or the energy to enumerate and elucidate on all the problems with this notion ventured during last night’s City Council meeting, but I will mention a few of them.

First of all, the council is lying. Well, perhaps, not really, but based on last night’s conversation most observers are going to walk away thinking the city is now willing to accept responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of all sidewalks in Kyle. And, going forward, if this hair-brained scheme is approved, that’s the message that the public will her and absorb. But that doesn’t appear to be what the city is planning on doing. What the council discussed last night was strictly a relatively inexpensive way to fix a sidewalk in certain situations, specifically one in which a crack in the sidewalk has caused the walkway on one side of the crack to be lower than the walkway on the other side. That’s it. If you’ve got a hole in the sidewalk, forget about it. It doesn’t appear the city is going to repair that. If a tree root has busted through the sidewalk, effectively splitting it in two with a space between the two sections, I don’t think the city plans on coming to your rescue there either. What the city is actually planning, according to council member David Wilson, is contracting with a private company that will inject a polymer under one side of a sidewalk to elevate that side and make it even with the other side. That’s it. The cost will depend on the number of inches one side needs to be raised, i.e., how much polymer is required.

Now Wilson said the city has identified 270 instances in Kyle that could use this type of repair and the decision the council needs to make at some future date is whether to budget the money needed to make these 270 repairs over a five-year period. Which raises even more concerns that I will address momentarily.

But let’s get back to my original problem. The public is going to perceive that the city is going to be repairing and maintaining all sidewalks and that doesn’t appear to be true: it only plans on leveling those 270 sidewalk locations and even that will take place at what appears to me to be the incredibly slow pace of one sidewalk leveling repair per week over a five-year period. So what happens when some homeowner sees the city repairing a sidewalk across the street, but then learns the sidewalk repairs he needs are not leveling, but, say replacing? How is that homeowner going to react?

Like I said, it’s a slippery slope, a dangerous precedent.

If a homeowner carefully examines the deed for his/her property, that homeowner will see the front of the property line extends to, at least, the curb of the street on which the property fronts. That means the sidewalk is on private property and thus is the responsibility of the owner of that private property. "But," council member Travis Mitchell argued after last night’s meeting," that sidewalk is a public right-of-way and the homeowner doesn’t have the right to remove it," True, but neither does the homeowner have the right to remove all the landscaping from the property and just pave it all over to avoid landscaping time and costs. However, under the city’s new sidewalk rule, if the fact that a homeowner can’t remove a sidewalk is to be used as justification for the city to make and pay for (certain) repairs to that sidewalk, doesn’t that mean the city can he held responsible for maintaining the property’s landscaping as well? If Code Compliance can cite a homeowner for, say, overgrown weeds, and order that homeowner to fix the problem, why not simply have Code Compliance site the homeowner for needed sidewalk repairs as well?

Now the city will claim that the reason it is getting this great price break for the repairs is because of the amount of such repairs that is required in the city is such a high number and individually those numbers would not work for the contractor at that reduced price. Bull-pucky. If the city cited a homeowner and the citation noted that the homeowner had one year to repair the deficiency or would be subject to a fine greater than the actual cost of the repair, the homeowner would most likely not only contract to get the job done but possibly even thank the city for finding a company that could make the repair at such a reasonable price. Not only that, the repair could be made within a year and the homeowner wouldn’t have to gamble on whether his address in the city’s lottery would be at the beginning or at the end of a five-year period. That means the company gets five times the volume of business in one year than it would under the city’s plan.

The reality here is the city wants to Dexter the sidewalk issue: "Yes," the city will argue, "it is wrong to use taxpayers funds to pay for repairs on private property, but when it comes to sidewalks we’re going to find a way to justify it." It’s not right, but it’s politically expedient (until the public finds out it isn’t entirely true).

Here’s another fallacy in Mitchell’s "public right-of-way" argument. Suppose a water pipe located beneath the foundation of my house breaks resulting in a major water leak. Whose responsibility is it to fix this? Technically, that water is not my property. It haven’t "purchased" it from the city until it flows into my hot water heater or I turn on the faucet or flush the toilet and it actually enters my home. The answer, however, is obviously it’s the homeowner’s responsibility to pay for the excavation, perhaps though the home’s foundation, and repair of that water line. But if the city is now going to assume responsibility for maintaining certain items of private property, what’s to prevent some hotshot legal mind from deducing it sets a precedent that covers all such repairs, including those that involve the delivery of any city service, i.e. water? Certain responsible city governments do assume a limited amount of liability in matters such as these. I realized I faced a potential major water leek under my home in Dallas when, for two straight months, my monthly water bill, which normally averaged a little more than $100 a month, was close to $500. After I arranged for and paid for the needed repairs (which resulted in a major hole having to be drilled and later refilled in my kitchen floor), the City of Dallas had a plan which allowed me to take the two $500 water invoices (which I had also paid — I didn’t want my water turned off) along with invoices from those same two months the year before, to Dallas Water Utilities which then credited me with the difference. I didn’t have to pay for water again for almost a year. But it didn’t assume responsibility for fixing the leak. In fact, Dallas, like the overwhelming majority of city governments in this country, doesn’t use taxpayer funds to pay for any repairs on private property, including sidewalk repairs.

To his credit, Arabie disagreed with this entire Dexter approach on both a practical and a philosophical level. But, unfortunately, he was the only one with the courage to do the right thing and not to bend in the political winds.

On the practical side he questioned "What is the life span of the poly-fill? What is the longevity of the poly-fill? What’s the weight-load capacity of poly-fill? What are we going to do if we have problems later on. I have a problem with all of those." And then he asked the pertinent question I addressed earlier: "What are the percentages of the sidewalks that will be fixed with the poly-fill.?" And if the city decides it needs to fulfill the promise it appears, on the surface, to be making and that is to assume all responsibility for sidewalk maintenance and repair, Arabie wanted to know "What are the percentage of sidewalks that will be fixed with conventional methods? How many miles are we going to fix? How much tax dollars are we going to appropriate towards this?"

Then he made what I believed is the concluding argument: "If we’re going to consider this, then it’s going to be a policy that we’re going to fix the sidewalks. So what’s the policy standard we’re going to fix them to? The reality is, this idea doesn’t fix all of our (sidewalk) issues. The soil will still flex and still move. We’re still going to have problems with sidewalks. The policy decision that needs to be made is whether we’re going to assume responsibility to fix the sidewalks. That’s the policy decision, not what we’re going to pay for. So I don’t necessarily agree with the way we’re moving forward right now."

After the meeting, I posed the more philosophical side of the question is Arabie and he replied "I vehemently oppose using taxpayer funds to repair any private property."

So there’s that, as well.

In other matters worth noting from last night’s City Council meeting:
  • The city appeared to be leaning in favor of spreading over a 30-year period, not 20 years. Kyle’s $60.1 million share of the total cost of the Hayes Caldwell Public Utility Agency’s project to transport water from the Carrizo aquifer to local customers, even though Mitchell, noting a 20-year option would save taxpayers $21.3 million in interest payments, argued for the shorter time span. The reason given for the longer period is that would allow for additional customers moving into the area during years 21-30 to share in the pain of having to repay the note. City Finance Director Perwez Moheet estimated the average water customer could see as much as a 42 to 50 percent water bill increase under the 30-year plan, although Mayer Todd Webster said some of the debt could be repaid from available moneys in the General Fund. "There was a time not that long ago when the city hadn’t adequately planned for water" and the result was "we didn’t have water," Webster noted. "I went through the experience of trying to turn the faucet on and the water didn’t work. A number of times. And that was one of the two things that prompted me to get involved and be part of the solution. That solution grew into and became a regional collaborative to try to bring water to the region and that’ has evolved into the HCPUA And Kyle was actually the prime mover and the ones that initiated the thing." Webster acknowledged residents will suffer sticker shock when they see the effects the three proposed bond sales ($8.99 million this year, $24.19 million two years from now and $26.92 million in 2021) will have on their water bills "but I can assure you the cost of not doing something is far more than this." The city did not officially make any decisions on this issue — it really didn’t even give city staff a clear direction on how to pursue the matter — but the overall impression I got was the majority of the council is leaning in favor of financing the project over 30, not 20, years.
  • The council voted to create a PID in the Blanco River Ranch Development project, a decision that was little more than a formality since the PID had already been part of a previously negotiated Development Agreement.
  • On a 3-3 vote on a motion to approve it, council members initially failed to OK the rezoning of a subdivision in far east Kyle that would have increased its density to the maximum allowable. However, Mitchell, who not only voted against the motion, but forced a change in the mid-term update to the city’s Comprehensive Plan because of his opposition to high-density projects on the city’s borders, sought and won a reconsideration of the vote. His subsequent motion to table discussion on the issue due to Fogley’s absence last night was approved 4-2 with Arabie and council member Daphne Tenorio, who both joined Mitchell in opposition of the original motion, voting against the delay.
  • On another zoning issue, the council affirmed its decision last month to defy the Planning & Zoning Commission’s recommendation and voted to rezone a half-acre of land at 1408 W. Center Street from Construction Manufacturing to Community Commercial. P&Z had recommended a more restrictive zoning.
  • The council passed on a 5-1 vote the final reading the mid-term amendments to that 2010 Comprehensive Plan. Tenorio cast the one opposing vote. She failed to give a reason for voting no, but, according to last week’s edition of the Hays Free Press she opposed its passage because she felt there had not been enough public input into the plan, which, in true Tenorio fashion, is her way of blaming others for her own shortcomings. She (and the rest of her colleagues on the council as well) needs to realize that the main, direct link between the voters and the city are the members of the City Council, not the city staff. Voters don’t elect the city manager, or the city’s chief of staff or the communications director; only the mayor and the council members. It is the council members’ responsibility to absorb the wishes of their constituents into their service and decisions on the council. During the almost two-year period this update was in the works Tenorio failed to schedule even one town hall meeting on the subject. Admittedly, none of her other colleagues did either, but they also did not achieve Tenorio’s level of duplicity by voting against the document, supposedly because of lack of public input, a situation she had the power and the authority to rectify if she really wanted to, if it really was that important for her. But once again Tenorio proved she is not interest in substance, only in posturing. I will have more to say on this subject in a later post.
  • The council held a 52-minute executive session which was incredibly brief since the session’s agenda called for engaging in negotiations on eight different economic development projects. After the session, I asked the mayor if he could tell me, without divulging confidential information, if any of these projects were major job creators. "I think so," he replied. "Certainly by our standards. Any of them individually and all of them together will have a substantial economic impact. Without getting into details, which I can’t obviously, I will say I am very excited about these opportunities and they are just opportunities — nothing’s done. What the volume of these opportunities means is that all of our investment in infrastructure and capacity building and getting things straightened out here are starting to pay off now. Regardless of whether any of these come through there’s going to be dozens more. Regardless of the outcome of these negotiations, I feel optimistic. It affirms all the work that’s gone into the city’s increasing the ability to accommodate these kinds of things. It hasn’t paid off yet because we haven’t got there, but it’s a sign that the corner’s been turned."

Monday, June 5, 2017

Governor, lieutenant governor could kill Kyle property tax rate cut

The tone of the discussion at the City Council’s May 6 budget workshop indicated many, if not most, of the council members were leaning in the direction of shaving at least a penny off the city’s $.5748 current property tax rate. In fact, one council member proposed the radical idea of taking the tax rate all the way down to the rollback number — i.e., the rate that would produce the same amount of revenue as the General Fund collected this fiscal year.

However, if Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his puppet, Gov. Greg Abbott, get their way, it would be irresponsible of the Kyle City Council to even consider a reduction in the property tax rate.

Patrick is trying to convince Abbott to call a special session of the legislature to enact a couple of measures that Patrick rammed through the Senate, but failed to make pass in the House of Representatives in the regular session — misguided regulations concerning public bathrooms, but, more germane to our local situation, laws that would restrict a city’s (but not a school district’s) ability to adjust its own property taxes. Currently, if a taxing authority attempts to increase its property tax rate by 8 percent or more, the voters within that authority can petition for an election that will force the rate back to the rollback number. Patrick wants to reduce that 8 percent number to 5 percent.

The problem with Patrick’s demagoguery here is (1) since it doesn’t apply to school taxes, which accounts for more than 50 percent of a property owner’s annual tax bill, the overall effect on that bill would be negligible if there is any effect at all and (2) it cripples the ability of local communities, especially smaller ones, to react in times of economic downturns and/or unforeseen budget crises. It could cripple a city’s ability to provide for the basic public safety of its citizens during bad economic times. Property tax valuations are a mirror of the current economy; if that economy goes south, property valuations drastically drop as well, which, of course, results in far less revenue a city has to provide basic city services.

It would be irresponsible for any elected city official, at least one who places more emphasis on the long-term interests and needs of his/her constituents than on his/her re-election chances, to recommend a tax cut in the middle of a good economic climate when that same or a future elected official is hamstrung from re-adjusting that rate when the climate turns bad. Especially when the corresponding school district is not similarly restricted and can still jack its rates as much as 8 percent. For some reason, when property owners complain of high tax bills, they always blame the city for the amount, never the real culprit -- the school district.

Kyle has, not that long ago, experienced a significant economic downturn that resulted in a major decrease in property values. It placed the city in a severe financial emergency that could only be and eventually was alleviated by a significant tax rate increase. If such an economic cycle happens again, the city must be allowed to respond accordingly.

Of course, a lot of this is premature. Abbott has yet to decide whether he wants to call a special session. Texas House Speaker Joe Straus successfully killed Patrick’s property tax plan during the regular session and hopefully he can convince Abbott he has the muscle to do the same in a special session as well so therefore it would be a waste of time and taxpayer money to call a special session on this subject.

The City Council is not scheduled to take up the issue of next year’s revenues and spending again until July 29, when City Manager Scott Sellers formally presents his proposed budget. I imagine we’ll know whatever the state decides to do or not do by that time. Regardless of what action the legislature and the governor take, however, a council conversation on this subject will, at least, be a reflection and a test of the council’s long-term vision for the city, or lack of same.