The Kyle Report

The Kyle Report

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Dark skies are all that I see

I can see the argument that says Kyle residents have the right to see for themselves if, indeed, the stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas.

And that’s the idea behind a proposed ordinance discussed at the most superficial level this evening by the Planning and Zoning Commission. The proposal, according to the City’s staff, addressed five objectives:

!. Permit the use of outdoor lighting that does not exceed the minimum levels specified in the illuminating Engineering Society recommended practices for nighttime safety, utility, security, productivity, enjoyment and commerce.

2. Minimize adverse offsite impacts of lighting such as light trespass, and obtrusive light.

3. Curtail light pollution, reduce skyglow and improve the nighttime environment for astronomy.

4. Help protect the natural environment from the adverse effects of night lighting from gas or electric sources.

5. Conserve energy and resources to the greatest extent possible.

All that’s fine as far as it goes, but as there’s also the "one man’s meat is another man’s poison" adage.

Let me give you just one example. I was leafing through the materials the staff distributed to the P&Z commissioners when I came to page 13 and discovered a picture of an outdoor lighting fixture that was labeled "prohibited," but one that was actually required to be installed by residents by the Homeowners Association that set the rules for my previous domicile. And the reason the HOA required this type of mercury vapor fixture was exactly the same as the reason the Kyle City staff wants to prohibit it: because it emits a lot of light.

The argument for the comparatively high intensity light is the same reason you’ll hear from a lot of folks for whom public safety is higher on their priority scale than stargazing. Now the stargazers will point to studies that indicate brightly lit areas don’t deter crime, but those studies don’t address the type of crime most homeowners are concerned about, namely breaking and entering. The studies the stargazers point to are ones in which the victims and the perps are both exposed to the same light, but what HOAs are interested in protecting are those homes where burglars much prefer ro operate under the cover of darkness.

I’m not taking sides one way or the other on this ordinance. I’m just saying there are two legitimate sides to the argument over lighting and when it comes to safety I’m betting an overwhelming number of Kyle residents feel more safe in well-lit areas than in dark ones.

That’s all I’m saying.

One other bone to pick. I’m betting staff knew prior to Friday it planned to bring this proposed dark skies ordinance to the attention of the Planning & Zoning Commission and I find it mystifying the agenda for tonight’s workshop simply listed "Discussion regarding potential text revisions and amendments to the Code of Ordinance" instead of the more specific "Discussion regarding proposed regulations for outdoor lighting." The City is often being accused of not being transparent and this is one of those instances where that accusation is painfully accurate and embarrassingly right on the mark.

In other action this evening, the Planning and Zoning recommended 4-1 (commissioners Mike Rubsam and Allison Wilson were absent) the Council approve amending an ordinance regulating peddlers, solicitors and vendors with the notation that the commissioners could not come to an agreement over how long a mobile food vendor can remain in one location. Community Development Director Howard Koontz went to great lengths to point out that the proposed changes had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with food truck parks that may or may not be established in Kyle.

The purpose of the ordinance in question, Koontz said, was to regulate "temporary and mobile and non-permanent and short-term (food vendiors) and not necessarily anything that facilitates the idea of somebody developing something at as temporary standard used in a permanent manner."

Koontz said he envisions that he will be returning to P&Z to take up the discussion of permanent food truck parks in the city.

"I think it’s eventually going to happen that we’re going to enable food parks," he told the commissioners. "We’ll have a series of metrics prescribed — the minimum size of the lot, the density of vendors, requirements for bathrooms and utilities. That’s going to take a little more introspection and investigation to write that all up."

Commissioner Brad Growt was the one "no" vote on the commission, which he cast, he said, "because I didn’t like how the ordinance was written. I didn’t like the way it was organized. I thought it was unclear. I think it’s going to end up causing confusion."

He did not say, however, why he didn’t offer changes to the ordinance to make it better written and organized with increased clarity that might possibly eliminate or at least reduce confusion.

But you can’t have everything.

Monday, June 27, 2016

A sensible, doable tax relief plan for Kyle’s elderly property owners

(Truth in advertising. Truth No. 1: I am over the age of 65. Truth No. 2: I do not own property in Kyle.)

Although you might not know this because no one is publicly discussing it, the city manager’s proposed upcoming fiscal year’s budget is scheduled to be submitted to the City Council in little over a month. I must admit I am baffled by the realization we’re less than six weeks from that submission and, to date, the council has not been briefed even once on how that budget is shaping up. And, even more baffling, I find it distressing the council hasn’t agreed publicly on its priorities for the budget. But I’ll address those shortcomings in a later post when I make recommendations how the council should set a direction for the City and all future budgets and how the City can make the budget itself far more transparent and citizen-friendly.

But right now I want to make a recommendation for this year’s budget which is to initiate a five-year phase out of property taxes for Kyle’s elderly homeowners. This can not only be accomplished but in a way that will place absolutely no additional tax burdens on others. In fact, it won’t even reduce the amount of property tax the city currently receives. That’s right: Property taxes for those over the age of 65 — many, if not most, of whom are on fixed incomes — can be phased out without reducing the current amount of property taxes the City receives.

The plan is relatively simple. In Year One, the FY 2016-17 Budget, the property tax bill for elderly property owners would be reduced 20 percent; in year two, it would go down 40 percent; 60 percent in year three; 80 percent in year four and finally 0 in year five and thereafter.

Here’s why the plan works. According to figures graciously provided me by the city’s expert Finance Director Perwez Moheet (to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude for getting these numbers for me), if elderly property tax owners were granted a 100 percent exemption this fiscal year, it would cost the city $1,142,000, a mere 1.04 percent of the total budgeted tax revenue. But in Year One, we’re only talking about a 20 percent reduction, which comes to $228,400.

Last month, Moheet told me he expected, based on figures released by the Hayes Central Appraisal District, Kyle’s homeowner valuations would increase 3.13 percent over last year’s. But let’s be really pessimistic here. Let’s say those valuations increase only 2 percent. Moheet told me a 2 percent increase would mean an additional $250,000 in property tax income. That’s still more than the $228,400 lost by beginning the phase out of property taxes for Kyle’s elderly homeowners.

That’s why, not only morally, but monetarily, such a phase out is sensible. It’s doable. And it’s the right thing to do for our elderly citizens.

Now I only hope someone on the City Council has the courage to propose this and make it a part of the FY 2016-17 budget.

Friday, June 24, 2016

P&Z to (briefly) consider changes allowing for more food trucks in Kyle

First of all, it’s important here to distinguish between what the City calls a "mobile food vendor" and a "temporary food vendor." Here’s the distinction as best as I understand it. A mobile food vendor is someone who dispenses food from a food truck whose mobility is self-contained. In other words, after dishing out hot lunches or cold sandwiches, a mobile food vendor can climb into the driver’s seat of his food truck, put the key into the ignition a drive off. A "temporary food vendor," on the other hand, has to connect the food truck to another vehicle in order to drive it off the lot.

Got it?

The reason I bring all this up is because the Planning & Zoning Commission is scheduled to consider ordinance changes at its 6:30 p.m. Tuesday specially called meeting that would provide different rules for mobile food vendors and temporary food vendors who wish to do business in Kyle. For instance, for some reason I don’t quite understand, a mobile food vendor would only be allowed to remain in one location for an hour before he or she must relocate. A temporary food vendor can remain in the same place for a year. Go figure.

The proposed ordinance contains no restrictions whatsoever on where a mobile food vendor may dispense its goodies. Temporary food vendors, however, are restricted to those areas of the city zoned for retail services and entertainment as well as the Central Business District. In addition, the temporary food vendor must be on "private property where an existing, permanent business operates in a building with a Certificate of Occupancy at all times while the temporary food vendor occupies the property." That, to me, means if this ordinance passes P&Z and later the City Council, I would expect to see a lot more food trucks in the Target, H-E-B, Wal-Mart, Lowe’s and Home Depot shopping areas, particularly since the proposed ordinance also states a temporary food vendor can’t be located "closer than 50 feet from thoroughfares." There’s another provision in the proposal that prohibits one temporary food vendor from being any closer than 150 feet from another temporary food vendor and these lots will give the vendors room to spread out. They must also be at least 150 feet from the nearest residence and these lots provide that buffer as well. (These last two rules don’t apply for temporary food vendors located in areas zoned CBD-2.)

You can take your (leashed) dog with you while getting food from a temporary food vendor but there’s no mention of whether dogs are allowed anywhere in the vicinity of a mobile food vendor.

P&Z, of course, is not the final arbiter on this ordinance. It will only make its recommendation to the City Council on whether it should be passed. A public hearing is scheduled in connection with the discussion of this item, but the P&Z doesn’t appear to be expecting too much citizen input on the subject. The special called meeting during which this as well as other items will be debated is scheduled for all of 15 minutes to be followed by a workshop on other proposed ordinance changes scheduled to begin at 6:45.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

“Don’t worry. We’ll pay you back. Trust us.”

Outgoing council member Diane Hervol bids farewell

The City Council voted 6-1 tonight to dip into the General Fund for $77,400 — money that was not appropriated in the original fiscal year budget — based on, from what I could gather, Finance Director Perwez Moheet’s assurances the City eventually will be reimbursed for the some, but not nearly all, of the expenditure.

Now this was the first reading of an ordinance so it has to come back for a second vote in two weeks and that’s the reason council member Daphne Tenorio gave me for her lone vote in opposition. "I have some other questions in regards to those events and I want to get those clarified," she said.

As for me, I would like to see a whole lot more than just clarifications.

Moheet said the money, along with $27,000 from the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) Fund, would fund three things. First was $36,400 for the consulting contract awarded to the Gateway Planning Group that was assigned to come up with a rough concept plan for that controversial intersection of I-35 and Yarrington Road, that intersection where a much-maligned truck stop was originally planned. The award was parr of a partnership agreement Kyle entered into with Hays County, City of San Marcos and the Greater San Marcos Partnership.

"It is estimated that the three entities combined will reimburse the City of Kyle up to $15,000 for this expenditure," Moheet told the council. "And so far, the Greater San Marcos Partnership has already sent us a check for $5,000 as its contribution. So were waiting for the other two entities to send their share."

Sure. Fine. Whatever. Would it have been too much to ask that the ordinance be amended to establish reasonable deadlines for when Hays County and the City of San Marcos forks over their respective shares?

Moheet said another $41,000 in General Fund money was to pay for September’s planned Kyle Field Day Special Event, He then told council "It is estimated that up to $32,500 may be collected in event revenue from registration fees, vendor sponsorship and sales." You don’t need a calculator to see immediately the differences between the two amounts puts the General Fund $8,500 in the hole.

I had heard rumors that this council was supposed to be fiscally conservative. Sure. Fine. Whatever. Again. If there had been even one fiscal conservative on the council, that person should have at least moved to amend the ordinance to restrict the General Fund expenditure to the $32,500 the city hopes to take in at the event. That’s fiscal conservatism. Now, I’m not saying the amendment would have been approved but I’m shocked that not a single council member, some of whom tout themselves as fiscal conservatives, offered the amendment and no one demanded another amendment that would have required a full and public accounting to the council of actual festival revenues. You would think the council would like to know how close the festival came to pulling in the $32,500 and since the General Fund is public taxpayer money, those taxpayers deserve such a public accounting.

The third item was the $27,000 from the HOT Fund for expenditures the City expects to incur because of October’s planned Hogwash Special Event. Moheet told the council he anticipates this event producing $23,250 and again I wondered where were the so-called fiscal conservatives on the council. I guess there really aren’t any.

In other action this evening, the council:

  • Bid its collective farewell to one of its own, outgoing council member Diane Hervol who, after six years on the council, lost her Place 1 re-election bid to business owner Travis Mitchell. An obviously emotional Hervol requested that individual council members forgo any attempt to offer her testimonials, but Mayor Todd Webster, who was often at odds with Hervol, said : "For those who have never run for public office or held public office, particularly for the City of Kyle, it’s not something you do for yourself or for money or for any of those kinds of things. You do it because you want to volunteer for your community to try to make a difference and council member Hervol has, in my view, in the time that I have served with her and the time that I knew her beforehand has served in an exemplary manner. She’s been very dedicated and worked very hard. In terms of work ethic, I’m not sure in all my years on this City Council, I’ve seen anyone who prepares as well and works as hard for her constituents as she has." After being presented with a plaque and the framed picture of her that had hung just outside the council chambers, Hervol, in a shaky voice, said :It has been an honor to serve and "I want to thank the citizens of Kyle for electing me to serve on their behalf for the last six years." She also thanked her supporters, many of whom filled the council chambers and left with her following the presentation. "Politics is a tough trade," she said, "but loyalty, trust, respect does exist and I believe I have given that. And I believe I have received that from my many supporters. I am also proud of the many things we accomplished during my six years on council," which included, she said, the new library, the road bond package, park improvements, the purchase of the wastewater treatment plant, the hiring of additional police officers, the Monarch Water contract and the train depot restoration. Interestingly, she did not mention what I think may be her lasting legacy: starting the conversation that may lead to the creation, as soon as the upcoming budget cycle, of a much-needed stormwater utility.
  • Following the 7-0 approval of a resolution, that came at least two weeks late, if not more, declaring the month of June as "Juneteenth Celebration Month" and recognizing "the contributions of citizens of African-American heritage," heard outgoing Mayor Pro Tem (see next bullet item) David Wilson speak about the recently deceased former mayor James Atkins. Wilson called him "someone I miss every day. I miss his advice. I would see him at least three or four times a week. He would tell me what he thought and he would tell me what he saw in the community and he would tell me what he heard. There had been a grounding there and a connection to neighborhoods and people and caring of people that I wanted to communicate to the world that he definitely made a difference to this community and to my life"
  • Elected council member Damon Fogley to succeed Wilson as mayor pro tem.

Mitchell takes seat on council

(left to right) Commissioner Mark Jones, Mayor Todd Webster, Travis Mitchell

A hefty contingent of Travis Mitchell’s supporters crowded into the City Council chambers this evening prior to the start of the regular bi-weekly council meeting to witness the swearing in ceremonies for the new Place 1 council member.

After taking the oath of office from Hays County Commissioner Mark Jones, who made a point of thanking outgoing council member Diane Hervol, the person Mitchell is replacing, "for her years of service to the City of Kyle and her dedication," calling her "a very good council person," Mitchell thanked his wife and family for their support and tolerating his extended absences during the campaign. And then he said that his conversations with voters during the campaign had given him "a clear mandate going forward knowing what the community of Kyle is interested in and what the community of Kyle hopes to see as a result of my time on council.

"I want to echo Commissioner Jones’s remarks in saying thank you to council member Hervol," Mitchell continued. "She served a long time in the City of Kyle and I know she will continue to serve and advocate for the citizens and the community. She fought hard until the end. Something she and I spoke about months and months ago before anyone knew I was going to run for City Council was if we ran a race hard, whether I won or whether she won, in the end the City of Kyle would win. By us campaigning as hard as we did we would have the opportunity to raise awareness about the issues, the citizens would get to be more pro-active in terms of what’s going on and I think that was accomplished.

"I’m looking forward to the future," he said. "The words that I think of when I think about the future are ‘challenge’ and ‘opportunity.’ That’s really what it all boils down to. After conversation after conversation with citizen after citizen, one thing is clear: We have many challenges. We have $95 million in debt. We have the highest tax rate in all of Hays County. Some of our businesses are struggling. Our downtown community is trying to find an identity. Our wastewater treatment facility is at capacity. We have water lines and sewer lines that are old. They have problems. Moving forward there are many challenges that I’m going to do everything I can to help address.

"But there’s the other side of that point and that’s opportunity. We are one of the fastest growing towns in the fastest growing county in the best state and the best nation in the world. That put us. In some respects, at the epicenter of the economy and I’m just privileged and honored to be here and be a part of what happens in the next three years. I believe the future is one of opportunity. I believe it’s one of possibility and I think together we have a chance to make something truly special happen in Kyle for our businesses, for our homes, for our non-profits, for everyone. And I want to be a part of that."

Friday, June 17, 2016

Good news: City can’t fill available job openings

Yesterday, I wrote about how far sales tax revenues were below projections, how it would be nearly impossible to avoid a budget deficit before the fiscal year end, and wondered what could be done to cut expenses or find some other way to meet the charter requirement to balance the budget. This morning, however, I recalled a conversation I had a week or two ago with someone with inside knowledge of the workings of city government, but someone who was speaking to me on a non-attribution basis, who told me the Kyle Police Department was having problems finding candidates to fill the positions added to this year’s budget. I wondered if I could find someone to go on the record with this information and, furthermore, would that "failure" to hire the needed cops be enough to offset the pending budget deficit.

I posed that question early this morning to Police Chief Jeff Barnett and have yet to receive a reply. But, then, Kyle’s chief of police probably has a lot more important things on his plate than responding to questions of this sort. This afternoon, however, I meandered over to City Hall for the workshop being held by the City’s Economic Development and Tourism Board on the subject of Freeport Exemptions (specifically how the school board’s reluctance to grant these exemptions is putting Kyke in a competitive disadvantage for attracting significant business development) and, as luck would have it, City Manager Scott Sellers, who has always been patient and understanding with me throwing questions at him, was also in attendance. After the workshop concluded, I ambled over, sat down next to the city manager and asked him how many of the additional police officers allotted in the most recent budget had been hired. He replied he didn’t know the number and then I told him about what I had written yesterday about the budget deficit.

"There have been a lot of positions filled, but yet there also have been some vacated since the last budget so there are still a number of openings and that does create salary savings,’ Sellers said. "But that’s a very good argument. You’re thinking exactly right that those unfilled positions do help with the overall budget."

I asked whether if it was true the number of police FTEs left open would alone compensate for the deficit.

"There have been other positions that vacated through the year or haven’t been hired yet so salary savings alone will allow us to come in under budge,." Sellers said.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Sales tax revenues plunge City into deficit it may be impossible to get out of

Kyle’s sales tax revenues received this month were whopping $78,000 below projections plunging the city’s coffers into a possible budget deficit that will be difficult, if not impossible, to pull out of by the end of the fiscal year.

Right now the City is looking at a budget deficit of $97,717.46 with three months left in the fiscal year. To make up the deficit, the City would have to average $753,393.82 in sales tax revenues per month during the final three months of this fiscal year and that average figure is $30,868.09 more than the highest total received for any one month this fiscal year. So you can see the problem.

I think the time has come for the City Manager to brief the City Council on plans to make up the deficit.

The easiest way, of course, is not to spend as much as was originally called for in the budget for this fiscal year. But if this is the route the City plans to take, City Manager Scott Sellers needs to inform Council where he feels spending cuts can and should be made. It’s also possible the City has received more than it expected to in property tax receipts, or franchise, court, development and/or rec fees. But the Council should be made aware of that as well.

Sellers may also tell the Council he plans to make up the difference from reserve funds, which is always the last resort because that means the first item on the next fiscal year’s budget is designating money that should go to, for example, expanding and improving the city’s wastewater needs to replenishing the reserve instead.

For the first nine months of this fiscal year, sales tax receipts have exceeded projections only three times, meaning either the projections were far too optimistic or the economy is showing signs of slowing. You would need an economist, which I am definitely not, to argue whether these figures are signs we’re heading into a recession, although all you have to do is study historical economic cycles to know we’re slightly overdue for one.

Here are the actual numbers for June. The City projected $585,000 in sales tax revenues this month; the actual amount received was $506,314,41, which is $78,698.59 or 13.45 percent below projections. Before this month, the worst reporting period the City faced was December when receipts were $43,806.75 or 8.87 percent below projections.

Thinking about Fitzhugh Andrews (and Hogwash)

I know the easiest thing to do is hire a bland, non-offensive rock band few people have ever heard of to headline the first — but what the City hopes will become an annual event — Hogwash Festival that’s scheduled to take place Oct. 21-22 at Gregg-Clarke Park. And that’s exactly what the City did.

At the time the band was hired I wrote an old time fiddler’s contest might have been more appropriate, but the more I’ve thought about this (I think about these things because … well, gee, somebody has to) the more I’ve been thinking an even more appropriate feature of the festival would have been to stage a performance by the winner of the Fitzhugh Andrews Songwriting Competition.

Perhaps you’re not familiar with the Fitzhugh Andrews Songwriting Competition, which is understandable, because it doesn’t exist. Perhaps you might not even be that familiar with Fitzhugh Andrews, which is also understandable because I haven’t seen that many references to this late Kyle resident in the almost two years I’ve lived here.

So, first, for those not familiar with Fitzhugh Andrews, he was a teacher, composer and performer of both classical and popular music, whose family moved to Kyle shortly after Fitzhugh was born (in Buda in 1873) and where he lived until his death in 1961. You can read more about him here.

Now for that non-existent, but should exist Fitzhugh Andrews Songwriting Competition. The individual at the City assigned to hire the bland, non-offensive rock band few people have ever heard of to headline the Hogwash Festival should instead, beginning next year, put out the word through state, perhaps ever national, music channels that the City is soliciting entries for the Fitzhugh Andrews Songwriting Competition. The entries should include recordings of between one and three compositions songwriters have composed that, in some way, involve a piano. It could be anything from a concerto to a pop song in which the singer/songwriter accompanies himself on the piano.

Judges are selected from among the Texas State music faculty, Austin music industry officials, area music critics, etc., and three finalists are selected to participate in the second stage of the competition, which takes place on the first day of the two-day festival. On that day, all three composers get to perform their compositions live and those attending the performances have the opportunity to vote for their favorite. The winner of the contest is awarded $1,000, the second place winner receives $600 and third place gets $400 (the bland, non-offensive rock band few people have ever heard of is being paid $2,000). The winner also gets the opportunity to perform a more extended concert on the second day of the festival.

This makes sense to me because it honors both a Kyle composer who has shamefully gone terribly unrecognized in his own hometown and it might be well promote the career of an up-and-coming composer.

Or you could just stick with the bland, non-offensive rock band few people have ever heard of.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Pardon me, but when I walk out my front door I don’t want to see your rear end

The Planning & Zoning Commission tabled this evening a request from Sac N Pac Stores for a conditional use permit to construct a 17,300 square foot retail center on the I-35 frontage road because the back of its proposed building looked too much like the back of a building.

Now before you go to scratching your head over this, there is sound logic in the P&Z’s decision. In fact, that logic reminded me of the Paul Simon song "One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor."

The proposed building would occupy a space between the frontage road and Old Highway 81, immediately north of East Lockhart Street in downtown Kyle. As proposed by Sac N Pac, the front of the building would face the frontage road and the rear would face Old Highway 81. The problem is city planners envision Old Highway 81 becoming as much, if not more, of a commercial hub than that section of the frontage road (That makes sense because, unlike Highway 81, the frontage road is uni-directional.), but to make that happen, any structure that’s part of that commercial hub must "front" Old Highway 81. At the very least it must give the impression that a front faces that roadway. And the commissioners — all five of them who bothered to attend tonight’s meeting (Dex Ellison and Lori Huey were absent) — were unanimous in their opinion that the developers behind the Sac N Pac proposal hadn’t done that. And Kirk Brumley, the Sac N Pac representative who attended the meeting didn’t dispute the notion; he just seemed a little put out by the idea of having to re-design a building so that, at least, it appears to have two fronts. The commissioners asked Brumley to return with a revised concept at its meeting scheduled for July 26.

Concern about the proposal was first raised by former commission member Mike Wilson during the public comments section of the meeting.

"I think if we allow companies to come in and not develop the back side of that road, then we’re going to lose a whole strip of land that future companies could come in and develop and bring business to," Wilson told the commissioners, "As you get more and more businesses that way that don’t want to promote that side of the road, we’re going to get fewer and fewer people driving that way and fewer possible future development there. I think that’s a critical area of commercial development in Kyle. I think it would be a detriment to that area to have a really large parcel not be aesthetically pleasing on that side of the road."

Chairman Mike Rubsam was even more direct when the item came up on the agenda.

"We’d like to develop Highway 81 and not have it look like it’s an alley," Rubsam told Brumley. "I think the front of your building looks good and I think both ends of your building look good. But, frankly, I am very unhappy with the way the back of it is presented to Highway 81."

When Brumley asked Rubsam what he would like to see different, the chairman shot back "I would like to see something that’s more presentable. It needs to look a whole lot better than it does right now."

In other action during the relatively brief 28-minute meeting, the commissioners:

  • Delayed the election of a commission vice chair until its June 28 meeting because of the absence of two commission members
  • Okayed an additional parking lot on the Austin Community College campus. The new lot will be hidden from the view of travelers on either FM 1626 or Kohlers Crossing.
  • Recommended the City Council get out its giant eraser and obliterate plans for a Wood Ridge Subdivision that was originally planned for 47 acres located between Bunton Creek Road and Kyle Parkway. The proposed Goforth Extension is now planned to go through that property, so any future development would obviously have to take that into consideration.

Kyle City Council turns into mean, vindictive, petty body

The City has announced a special City Council meeting for 10 a.m. Monday to canvass the results of Saturday’s runoff election. I found that strange when it canvassed the returns from the May election at a regularly scheduled meeting and a regularly scheduled City Council meeting was scheduled for the very next day after this specially called one. Was there a deadline that forced the special meeting? The City Charter states "The City Council shall canvass the returns in accordance to state law." State law (specifically, section 67.003 of the state Election Code) states "each local canvassing authority shall convene to conduct the local canvass at the time set by the canvassing authority's presiding officer not earlier than the eighth day or later than the 11th day after election day." In the case of this most recent Kyle election, that means the canvass must take place between Sunday and June 22. Well, the canvass is probably not going to take place on Father’s Day, which is Sunday, but the next regularly scheduled Council meeting is June 21, so why move it up a day? I posed that question to City spokesperson Kim Hilsenbeck, who received the following reply from Mayor Todd Webster:

"Section 5.12 of the city charter says that a new member elected in a runoff election shall take ‘office’ on the first Tuesday following the day on which the votes for the runoff election are canvassed. For the newly elected council member to participate in the next regular meeting, the Special Meeting had to be called to canvass.

"State law only requires two council members to canvass an election. I believe I have called a special meeting to canvass once before because of timing. I think the reasoning then was so we could meet timelines to hold a runoff.

"I wanted to seat the new council as quickly as possible so that the newly elected member would participate in as many council meetings as possible prior to engaging in the budget process, which begins in July.

"I believe that waiting until July for Mr. (Travis) Mitchell to participate in his first meeting would not have been the best option for us as a city council moving forward with the budget process. We have had more than one runoff resulting in new members being elected. It is my opinion that the budget meetings that took place at that time, including after my election, would have gone more smoothly with the new folks having more experience in how meetings operate and in working with their fellow council members."

All very well and good but it comes across as mean, vindictive and petty. It all could have been handled in a far more dignified that way as well as in a way that would still have allowed Mitchell "to participate in his first meeting" only minutes, not weeks, later than is now planned.

It’s no secret that Diane Hervol, the incumbent Mitchell defeated in the runoff after the two candidates tied the first time around, is not that popular among her colleagues. Council member Damon Fogley came right out and endorsed Mitchell, which he has every right to do, and I’d be willing to bet every dollar I hope to receive the rest of my life that at least four of the remaining council members who voted in the runoff voted for Mitchell, which, of course, they also have every right to do. But that is the reason why the council is treating her in the way it is now comes across as so mean, vindictive and petty. It’s like the rest of the council is showing her the back door and telling her to get out and the sooner the better.

Here’s the way I think it would have been the best way to handle the transition. The council would take the following steps in order as outlined on the agenda:

  • With Hervol still a member of the Council, she would be recognized by the rest of the members for her service to the city, not only her six years on the Council, but her tenure on the Planning & Zoning Commission as well as the countless hours she devotes to participating in many civic functions here in Kyle. Hervol would then be given the opportunity to make a farewell address.
  • The June 11 vote would be canvassed.
  • Mitchell would be sworn in as the new Place 1 City Council member.
  • Hervol would ceremoniously relinquish her position on the dias to Mitchell.
  • Mitchell would then be given the opportunity to address the meeting during which, among other things, he could offer his thanks to Hervol for her service, congratulate her on the campaign, thank his supporters and briefly state what he hopes to accomplish on the Council.
  • Then the rest of the council meeting could proceed, beginning with the Public Comments section of the agenda, with Mitchell as an active member of the Council.

To be fair, I had a telephone conversation with Mayor Webster about my concerns on the possible public perception of how this transition is being handled and he assured me he was planning to place an item on Tuesday’s agenda recognizing Hervol’s service. (Hilsenbeck later confirmed such an item would appear on the agenda.) He told me the plaque that will be presented to her had already been ordered and was in the process of being engraved even as we spoke.

At least, there’s that.

He also told me it was unfair to blame the entire Council for how this is transpiring, that these decisions were his and his alone.

So there’s that as well. But there’s still the perception of how all this looks and my sincere belief that someone on the council could have spoken up to argue it could have been handled far more, shall I say, diplomatically.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Mitchell easily wins council runoff

Challenger Travis Mitchell soundly defeated incumbent Diane Hervol Saturday collecting 58.6 percent of the vote in a runoff in which more residents voted than cast ballots in the original May election, although, still, only 7 percent of Kyle’s registered voters turned out.

The May 7 election ended in a tie with each candidate receiving 510 votes. Hervol actually wound up with one less vote, 509, this time around. Mitchell was favored by 722 voters.

Hervol is a two-term council member, having won her seat for the first time in 2010. Mitchell, making his first foray into politics, is the owner of Mitchell Motorsports and touted his experience as a local small business owner as a reason voters should support his candidacy.

"I was really optimistic about how today’s vote would turn out," said Mitchell, who collected an astounding 65.4 percent of the votes cast today. He said the major difference between the runoff and the original election was "This time I worked harder. I focused much more on door knocking and engaging with the voters."

Mitchell said in the weeks between the May 7 election and today "I spent six days a week, four to six hours a day knocking on doors" and this time around, he acknowledged, he worked from a list of those with a history of voting in Kyle instead of just random visitations.

Mitchell said he plans on spending the first weeks on the Council "getting my feet wet and learning the intricacies of city government from the inside. But my focus has always been on finding ways to help small businesses in Kyle and I plan to devote a lot of my energies to doing just that."

In a statement posted on Facebook, Mitchell said:

"With a few exceptions, being elected to the Kyle City Council is one of the greatest honors of my life. So many people supported me going down the stretch, starting with my wife. I am grateful and humbled to be given this opportunity. I will do my best to serve our town with integrity, vision, and a strong ear to the citizens of our great city.

"I would like to thank Councilmember Hervol for her years of service to this community," Mitchell’s Facebook posting continued. "I know she will continue to be an advocate for the citizens and I wish her the best. And to the people who voted in their first local election this year — you are my heroes. You are the reason I decided to run and who I wanted to reach. You are the future of Kyle."

Mayor Todd Webster said he’s looking forward to working with Mitchell on the City Council.

"I’m sure he will bring a fresh, new perspective to our deliberations that will help us a lot," the Mayor said. "I am very comfortable with the notion that he will work very hard to be a successful council representative."

Hervol said she was "disappointed, but I congratulate Travis and wish him the best of luck. I hope he manages to represent all the citizens of Kyle."

Hervol did not rule out another run for a Council seat, saying "I’ll just have to wait and see what the future holds." But, she added, "It’s a different political world out there today than what it used to be, particularly with social media and Facebook playing such an important role in the process."

She said Mitchell had the financial resources to hire a consultant for the runoff which, along with a phone list she claimed Mitchell had and she didn’t, gave him an advantage.

"A whole lot of money was spent in this campaign," Hervol said. "It was phenomenal."

Hervol posted the following on Facebook:

"I would like to thank all of my supporters. It was my honor to serve the citizens of Kyle for the last six years. Even though the results were not what we anticipated, I am proud of the race we ran. I congratulate Travis Mitchell and I wish him all the best."

Mitchell holds substantial lead in early voting

Challenger Travis Mitchell collected 55 percent of the early voting totals, according to results of the Place 1 Kyle City Council runoff election announced tonight, and appears well on his way to unseating incumbent Diane Hervol.

Hervol would have to have seen a lot of her supporters wait until today to vote to pull out a victory and in the May election just the opposite occurred: She led after early voting totals were announced and Mitchell pulled into the tie that resulted in today’s runoff because of his election-day totals.

"I’m not willing to say the election is over right now," Mitchell said after the early voting results were announced. "Everyone knows what happened the last time (in May). I’m just thankful for all the voters who supported me."

Hervol said "she was a little surprised we’re so far behind" after the early totals were announced. However, she added "We worked pretty hard today" to get her supporters to the polls and she was not prepared to concede the election at this point. "I want to wait until the final results are in."

The early voting totals were 461 for Mitchell to 371 for Hervol.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Sac n Pac looks to construct mini-mall near downtown

Sac n Pac, the convenience store chain that began business in 1966 with one store on the corner of Hopkins and Moore streets in San Marcos and soon expanded to 17 other San Marcos outlets and 30 others in surrounding cities and counties before it was purchased two years ago by Susser Holding Corp,, the parent company of the Stripes convenience store chain, the 23rd largest such chain in the country, will go before Kyle’s Planning and Zoning Commission Tuesday seeking a conditional use permit to construct a 17,300-square-foot mall-type structure on the southbound service road of I-35 immediately across East Lockhart Street from the CVS Pharmacy at I-35 and Center Street.

Sac n Pac currently operates three stores in Kyle, one of which is under the Stripes banner and is located on the northbound I-35 service road just south of Kyle Parkway (20925 I-35). One Sac n Pac can be found a little further north at 19350 I-35. The third outlet is on Jack C. Hays Trail at Rebel Drive.

The traditional convenience store averages 2,800 square feet which means most of this property will be available for lease by other retailers. In fact, drawings accompanying the application indicate the building will house two sort-of anchor stores at either end (one of which I’m guessing will carry either the Sac N Sav or Stripes banner) and between three and six smaller outlets between them.

According to a staff presentation, the Planning and Zoning Commission is supposed to determine during their deliberations Tuesday if this mini-strip mall "will promote, preserve and enhance, and will not damage or detract from the distinctive character of the community; will preserve and protect property values and taxable values; will not be detrimental or inconsistent with neighboring uses and occupancies; will not be detrimental to the general interests of the citizens; and will not be detrimental to the public health, safety and welfare." If previous commissioners had no problem with the CVS in this regard, I can’t see how the current ones could argue against this mall. The commissioners, however, must also consider traffic flow, development density and neighboring historical designs.

The staff made no recommendation for or against approving the conditional use permit, but did list some issues it had with the proposal, although none of them were labeled "deal killers," by any stretch of the imagination. Those issues include:
  • "Four-sided landscape would be preferable to the three-sided solution presented;"
  • "A provision for onsite water quality/quantity management is preferable to the proposal for sheet flow as shown;"
  • "A proper list of material types and specific colors would be preferable to the marketing renderings submitted;"
  • "No lighting plan was submitted;"
  • "No interior sidewalks (except alongside the building) or pedestrian refuge spaces are provided."

The building would be within the I-35 Overlay District, for what that’s worth.

Sac n Pac was started when one Garland Warren and his wife Janelle, while visiting friends in San Marcos in 1965, hit the city’s only convenience store right around its closing time to purchase milk for their babies. While at the store they noticed the manager setting a mousetrap on the counter and when they got home they discovered the milk’s sell-by date had long since passed. They immediately saw there was a need for something better and they returned the following year to open that first Sac n Pac store. Warren sold the stores in 1998 to his three children, Blair, Blake and Cheryl. Following Warren’s death in 2010, Cheryl and Blair bought out Blake’s interest. In January 2014 Susser Holding paid Cheryl and Blair $88 million for the stores and as well as its companion fuel provider, Warren Fuels, Ltd., which supplied gasoline and diesel fuel to the Sac n Pacs and other convenience stores and also served as a distributor for Exxon, Shell and Valero.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016


Here’s something to think about (or not) the next time you’re in the shower. You are paying approximately eight-tenths of one cent for every gallon of water that comes out of that shower head which is a fantastic deal when you consider the average price of bottled water in the United States is $1.22 a gallon. That’s right, bottled water is slightly more than 154 times more expensive than tap water. But also think about this while you’re in the shower: that water you’re paying for is only with you for a fleeting second. It comes out of the shower head, where most of it hits your body, bounces off and immediately flows right down the drain. Not only that, you’re paying another four tenths of a cent for each gallon of water that goes down the drain. In fact, your water bill is based on the assumption that the water that comes out of your kitchen or bathroom faucets, into your dish or clothes washer, or is used to flush your toilet is only there momentarily. Check it out: the number of gallons you are charged with using each month on your water bill identically matches the number of gallons listed for your sewer use.

Hey, somebody has to think about these things.

Somebody also has to think about what happens when that water that flowed through your life with all the speed of a lightning strike leaves your domicile. It flows through

a portion of the City’s 199 miles of sewer pipes, eventually winding up at the wastewater treatment plant located at the end of New Ridge Drive in East Kyle. According to the City’s website, the plant treats about 3 million gallons of wastewater per day and part of that treatment includes separating the solids found in that wastewater from the liquid. Under normal conditions, 3 million gallons of wastewater will produce around 33,000 gallons of solids. I’m not saying that’s the amount of solids produced daily at Kyle’s plant. That’s a general industry average.

Normally those solids are then sent to a biosolids management facility where bacteria is introduced to the solids that kill most of the disease organisms found in those solids. That process usually takes up to 60 days. This further reduces the volume of the solids and then those solids are pressed again to remove whatever water is left. The product you are left with at the completion of all that is known as sludge.

Which brings me to Item No. 12 on tonight’s City Council agenda which is an item to "approve a contract with SHERIDAN ENVIRONMENTAL DBA SHERIDAN CLEARWATER, LLC, and the City of Kyle for wet handling and disposal of biosolids from the wastewater treatment plant at a cost of $76 per wet ton, estimated annual cost of $350,000."

I had a bunch of questions about this item and received answers to some of them from the city’s staff. I was hoping to get the answers to the rest of them at tonight’s City Council meeting.

One of the questions is the typical Butch Cassidy one: Who are these guys? I Googled Sheridan Clearwater LLC and that search produced a comparatively small company (1 truck, two drivers) located on FM 973 in East Austin between the toll road and the Colorado River just south of Long Park. One of the questions I had was if this was the same Sheridan Clearwater LLC referenced in the agenda item. City spokesperson Kim Hilsenbeck confirmed it was but also wrote me that "Our Division Manager (for) Water Operations, Jason Biemer, does not know the size of the organization or number of vehicles it operates," a revelation I found somewhat dismaying.

I also wondered whether the City’s biosolids management facility was located at the wastewater treatment facility or someplace else. I didn’t get an answer to that question or exactly what stage in the sludge evolutionary process the city’s biosolids are in when they are hauled away from the wastewater treatment plant.

I also know that this sludge, when combined with composting, can produce soil that can be sold at a nice profit. I wondered whether Sheridan Clearwater LLC had the ability to do this and whether that profit could be applied to the price we are paying for the hauling company’s services. I got a possible partial answer to that question (see full quote in the next paragraph) when Hilsenbeck referred to Sheridan Clearwater’s facility as a "composting site." I received the rest of the answer following the Council meeting when Council Member Shane Arabie told me the $76 per wet ton rate was arrived at after computing the Kyle’s contribution into what Sheridan Clearwater sells.

Then there was a story on the front page of Monday’s Austin-American Statesman, the lead (or first paragraph) of which said "Austin’s sewage sludge might soon be headed to ranchland 70 miles southeast of the city, near the Colorado River, in eastern Fayette County." I have also queried the City of Austin to obtain an official reaction to its desire to take its sludge way out of town while Kyle is planning to dump its sludge inside the Austin City limits less than 1,500 feet from the Colorado River. However, somewhat on that very subject Hilsenbeck wrote me "We believe the composting site is also located at the above mentioned office location, which is where the sludge would go. The sludge is going to their permitted and approved facility. The Texas Commission for Environmental Quality is responsible for permitting those disposal facilities as well overseeing the operators of such a facility with regular inspections of the site and its records, therefore the location and the controls at that facility was approved by the state before it could go into business."

I also wondered how many sludge trips emanate on a monthly basis from Kyle’s wastewater treatment plant. Hilsenbeck replied: "The number of trips can vary considerably from month to month and week to week. It all depends on the amount of solids in the water stream coming into the plant during that time. In May, there were 22 trips out from the plant." Using that industry average I mentioned above, that would come to 45,000 gallons per trip. There’s a formula for converting these gallons to tons, but in order to execute that formula I need to learn the total solids content of the sludge being hauled. I was also hoping to get that answer, perhaps even tonight.

The reason why the total solids content is important is this: Would it be worth it for the City in the long run to invest in more sophisticated equipment that would further reduce the amount of water in that sludge and thus reduce the number of trips, reducing the costs to the taxpayer for this type of contract. I think these are questions worth asking.

So, I marched off to tonight’s City Council meeting hoping to get some clarification on all of this. And here are some of the things I learned.

1. What Sheridan Clearwater is being hired to haul away is not sludge; it is, as the agenda item aptly describes, untreated "biosolids from the wastewater treatment plant." The City doesn’t have its own biosolids management facility. So all that introduction of the bacteria as well as the final pressing takes place at the Sheridan facility in Austin. The question thus becomes when does it become economically feasible for Kyle to construct its own biosolids management facility and no one seemed to have the answer to that question but both City Manager Scott Sellers and Council Member Arabie told me the City is awaiting the results of a water/wastewater management study that should address that issue. Watch this space.

2. Technically, the Sheridan Clearwater facility, although it has an Austin address, is not located within the City of Austin. It is located in Austin’s ETJ on land under the jurisdiction of Travis County. And Austin’s locator places it in a completely different place than Google maps. Austin’s locator map has it south of Highway 71 near the northeast corner of the Austin Bergstrom Airport. It also worth noting that the location identified by Google is also in Austin’s ETJ, although a lot closer to the Colorado River.

3. The City did not Choose Sheridan Clearwater as its partner in this endeavor as much as it inherited it, a realization that made me even more concerned about Hilsenbeck’s statement that "Our Division Manager (for) Water Operations, Jason Biemer, does not know the size of the organization or number of vehicles it operates." The City purchased the water treatment plant from a company called Aqua Texas last year and it was Aqua Texas that first established this relationship with Sheridan Clearwater. This is merely a continuation of that same relationship.

4. Public Works Director Harper Wilder said the company hauls away about 14 tons per load, but that of course is untreated biosolids, not sludge. At $76 per ton, that comes to $1,064 cost to taxpayers per trip. Although Wilder confirmed the number of trips in May was 22, he said usually the city averages a trip each day. Averaging 22 trips per month would mean the total yearly cost of the contract would be in the neighborhood of $281,000, significantly less than the $350,000 annual cost specified in the budget item. However, a trip a day comes to $388,000, a tad above the specified amount.

5. The aforementioned Jason Biemer told the Council all this talk about tonnage was not entirely accurate anyway because only sludge can be measured in tons. Because what is being dealt with here is primarily liquids, using gallons is more appropriate and he said the City sends off between 50,000 and 60,000 gallons of this liquid daily to Sheridan’s biosolids management facility. There’s an industry accepted formula that’s used to convert those gallons into tons but it’s impossible to apply that formula without knowing the solids content of the material. Biemer claimed that what is shipped out is 15 percent solids which I find impossible to believe because, according to a recent study from Iowa State University, "Typical solids concentrations in raw primary sludge from settling municipal wastewater are 6%-8%." So there’s that.

At any rate, the Council unanimously approved the item just as it unanimously approved every single action item on tonight’s agenda during what turned out to be the second straight historically short Council meeting, this one clocking in at one hour and 28 minutes and that included a phenomenally short 17-minute executive session (which, in reality, is the length these sessions should be). The other items approved included:

  • The appointment of Brandon Vasquez to the Library Board.
  • The second reading of an ordinance to install four stop signs in the Amberwood subdivision.
  • A service agreement to hire what I found to be a rather nondescript rock band called the Midnight River Choir to be the "headline" attraction at the Kyle Hogwash Festival Oct. 21-22. In my estimation, an old-time fiddler’s competition would have been more appropriate, but who am I to judge these things. You can have a listen to the Midnight River Choir yourself right here.
  • In what had to be the easiest slam dunk of the night, the Council authorized the City’s Finance Director Perwez Moheet to save taxpayers $1.1 million in interest costs by refunding three series of outstanding Certificates of Obligations. I would have personally demanded impeachment proceedings against any council member who voted against this item.
  • After debating who should own and maintain a public restroom (the Council decided it should be the Homeowners Association), it approved a development agreement for the development of a 126-acre subdivision on FM 150 that will be known as Cool Springs.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A not-all-that-wise Whisenant

There are times when statements from locally elected officials really knock me for a loop. For instance, there is one credited to Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Ray Whisenant that’s contained in a story in this week’s Hays Free Press in which reporter Samantha Smith quotes Whisenant talking about the proposed FM 150 realignment between Arroyo Ranch Road and the intersection of I-35 and Yarrington Road.

"The purpose of this project is to relieve traffic congestion on I-35," Smith quoted Whisenant as saying.

Now, perhaps Smith misquoted him, but something tells me that’s not the case. Something tells me this Whisenant fellow is simply clueless, unless, that is, he can explain how a new and improved road, designed to handle additional traffic, will relieve traffic congestion on the highway it feeds into.

Not only that, if everything goes according to plan, this FM 150 realignment will, in the long run, be part of a transportation redesign that will have the affect of greatly increasing traffic on I-35 through our city.

The short-term goal of the FM 150 realignment, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with relieving congestion in I-35 and everything to do with giving those motorists traveling from the Dripping Springs area, especially those who want to go south on I-35, an alternate to getting to the interstate via a two-lane road that goes through downtown Kyle and is often backed up by Southern Pacific freight trains. Once that realignment is complete, that stretch of 150 between Arroyo Ranch Road and I-35 that now goes through downtown Kyle will be re-branded as "Business FM 150," which I still think will be the preferred route for those wishing to go north on I-35 toward Austin.

The long-term goal of the realignment is to provide those motorists traveling east on U.S. 290 a faster route to Houston that completely bypasses Austin as well as all those bergs on 290 (or State Highway 71, my preferred route) because eventually another controlled access highway is going to be constructed on the east side of I-35 connecting the realigned FM 150 to Interstate 10.

And that’s what will result in the increased traffic between Austin and Kyle on I-35. That will be the preferred Austin-to-Houston route, especially for those living west of I-35. Incidentally, this was also the reason why developers wanted to put a truck stop right there at the corner of I-35 and Yarrington, to take advantage of all that increased traffic that will be exiting I-35 at that point to go east to Houston and points further east on I-10. That’s also the primary reason the City of Kyle was so anxious to complete its recent voluntary annexation so that it could take advantage of the commercial development that should naturally sprout up along the realigned FM 150, once it becomes part of the Houston bypass. With the annexation, the realigned FM 150 will be within Kyle’s city limits.

If this was Politifact, it would have labeled Whisenant’s statement "The purpose of this project is to relieve traffic congestion on I-35" as "Liar, liar, pants on fire." But this is not Politifact, so I’ll just say "Wise up, Whisenant."

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

City plans Parks Master Plan open house

The City will take another step in the development of its Parks Master Plan when it hosts an open house Monday, June 13, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at City Hall that’s designed to collect additional input on what features citizens would like to see in Kyle’s parks.

No formal presentations are planned at the open house and participants can arrive and depart at their leisure. According to an announcement posted on the City’s Web site, those attending the open house will have the opportunity to:
  • Review results of the public on-line survey that was conducted during April and May.
  • Vote on City park system goals and objectives.
  • Learn about, and comment on, suggested City park system needs and priorities.
  • Comment on preliminary recommendations regarding the development of City park properties and recreational programs.

In other words, if you think the City really should construct and operate a full-service recreational center somewhere in Kyle, or that the City should substitute water parks in place of municipal swimming pools, this is the place to make that known.

Incidentally, according to Parks Director Kelly Urbanowicz, the City received 1,006 responses from its on-line survey. That's not to say 1,006 persons responded, but if, for the sake of argument, 1,006 persons did respond, that would be only 14 fewer persons than voted in the recent Place 1 City Council election. Just sayin'.

But I digress. The Web site announcement concerning the Open House said "City staff and members of our consultant team will be on hand" to answer any questions.