The Kyle Report

The Kyle Report

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Council seeks to renew its authority to spend taxpayers’ funds unnecessarily

The City Council will consider amendments to its traffic control device ordinance Tuesday that will allow the council to continue to spend taxpayers’ dollars on items that official studies and analyses prove are unwarranted and unnecessary.

With the last year, the council has approved the installation of unwarranted and unnecessary stop signs in three different subdivisions at the request of individual council members. In an attempt to prevent political pressure being applied to council members, an ordinance has been devised to establish a process to follow for traffic control device requests from a citizen or group of citizens. According to the ordinance, the prescribed process is:

"An individual or group desiring a traffic control device … may file a report with Director of Public Works to request the traffic analysis for the installation of the traffic control device. The individual or group shall pay a deposit fee upfront to complete a Signal Warrant Analysis as established in the City’s Fee Ordinance. After the City conducts the necessary review, a determination will be made if a traffic control device is warranted (authorized) or unwarranted (unauthorized). If such a device is warranted, the deposit will be refunded by the City. If signage is unwarranted, the fee will not be reimbursed, but the City Council may still vote to install the traffic control device."

It’s that last phase, "but the City Council may still vote to install the traffic control device," that’s bothersome. What it says is that council members may still bend to political pressure and spend taxpayers’ money on an item deemed unnecessary simply to satisfy the whims of a few isolated citizens and protect the council member’s political turf. The deposit that’s required doesn’t pay for the installation and maintenance of the device, only a portion of the cost for conducting the Signal Warrant Analysis.

On the other hand, one can argue that the ordinance, as written, gives council members the opportunity to display real leadership, demonstrate some backbone, to prove that they can withstand the political pressure that says the needs of the many must be sacrificed in favor of the whims of the politically connected few.

However, recent council approvals of unnecessary stops signs prove I shouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

In my mind, the way to make the ordinance work for the benefit of all citizens is simply to strike that last phrase, "but the City Council may still vote to install the traffic control device."

One good addition to the ordinance is the requirement that the report that must be filed with the Director of Public Works requesting the analysis "shall contain signatures of support of at least 2/3 of the residential or commercial inhabitants located within a distance not less than 1000 feet along all roadways in all directions to and from the desired signage." I would have preferred it read "3/4 of the residential or commercial inhabitants," but 2/3 is an acceptable compromise if the council also agrees to strike that "but the City Council may still vote to install the traffic control device" phrase.

The ordinance does not specify a dollar amount for the deposit, preferring to wait for that decision until the council agrees on the overall fee schedule that will be a part of the FY 2016-17 city budget. The same is true for the fees connected to another ordinance to be voted on Tuesday, one governing the regulation and operation of alarm systems, specifically those systems that, when triggered, notify the police.

This alarm ordinance will require that all such alarm systems be registered and then have that registration renewed on an annual basis. It also prescribes penalties for an excessive number of false alarms. I have heard from some council members that they might push for a one-time registration, with a corresponding higher registration fee, in place of the annual system.

No public hearing is scheduled in connection with either the traffic signal or the alarm ordinance which means any citizen wishing to voice an opinion on either must do so during the Citizens Comments period at the beginning of the 7 p.m. meeting. A tip: If you do wish to speak, it’s better to complete a Citizen’s Comment form that’s available on the table that also contains copies of the agenda on your left as you enter the doors of the council chambers. Simply hand that form to the city secretary who usually can be found sitting at a table perpendicular to the council dais on the far side of the chambers from the entrance.

A public hearing is attached to another proposed ordinance, however, one designed "to prevent light trespass, reduce light pollution (also known as ‘sky glow’), reduce excessive glare, promote energy conservation, and improve safety and security," even though some public safety advocates argue darker streets and alleyways encourage criminal activity and thus don’t "improve safety and security."

But, as I’ve said before, it all comes down to council priorities.

The complete agenda packet for Tuesday’s city council meeting can be found here.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Council guarantees no property tax rate hike, but may consider higher-than-proposed stormwater fees; council also warns of major increases in water rates coming in next 10 years

The city council voted 5-0 (with two absences) today to guarantee the property tax will not increase any higher than the current $.5848 per $100 of taxable valuation while giving itself wiggle room to actually lower the rate by as much as a penny, a reduction proposed by the city manager, by the time they get around the passing the budget Sept. 6.

At the same time, no one on the council (during a discussion when all seven members were present) voiced any objection to the establishment of a stormwater utility and a few even suggested the city’s proposed fee $3-per-month fee to be paid by homeowners to fund the utility should be increased to as much as $5 a month.

And, the council warned, sometime during the next 10 years, the price of delivering water is going to drive up the water rates residents pay between $21 and $25 month.

Overall, however, council members seemed pleased with the city manager’s proposed budget suggesting, at least at today’s workshop, only minor alterations.

Mayor pro tem Damon Fogley and council member Daphne Tenorio had previously planned engagements and were forced to leave Saturday’s council workshop before the vote to set the maximum tax rate was taken.

City Manager Scott Sellers’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2016-17, which he made public a week ago yesterday and outlined to council members at today’s workshop, specifically called for a one cent decrease in the property tax rate. However, sometime within the last 24 hours, every council member received an e-mail from the Kyle Police Association asking the council to keep the tax rate at its current level and to use the $200,000 in revenue that rate would generate to align the department’s compensation package to a level that’s closer to what is offered to police officers in San Marcos. In effect, the council decided to delay an actual debate on that request until a later budget meeting but voted to set the maximum allowable tax rate at $.5848 simply to allow that later discussion to take place. Personally, my feeling is that when all is said and done, the actual tax rate for FY 2016-17 will be lower than the current rate by anywhere from one-half to one full cent.

In fact, council member Travis Mitchell initially wanted to set the maximum rate at a half-cent below the current rate today to send a signal to residents that tax rates would definitely be lowered and that the police association’s request could still be achieved by a combination of a half-cent increase over Sellers’s proposed rate combined with the elimination of certain positions. While some on the council, notably Shane Arabie, liked Mitchell’s idea, they also believed his aims could still be achieved by setting the maximum rate today at $.5848 with the option of then lowering it before the final budget is adopted.

Under Sellers’s proposed budget, residents would have $3 a month stormwater fee added to their utility bill (water, wastewater, trash pickup, etc) while commercial customers would pay an amount proportional to the amount of impervious surface their property contains. This would result in commercial customers being forced to pay almost two-thirds of the total stormwater fees, a proportion almost directly opposite to the commercial/residential ratio in property taxes.

For example, Stormwater Management Plan Administrator Kathy Roecker told the council today that while residents would pay $3 a month under Sellers’s proposal, Wal-Mart’s stormwater bill would be around $1,140 a month.

"The main reason why I think it’s important for us to do an adjustment factor for commercial is because something that is written into the stormwater plan is that we need to start trying to focus on incentivizing what they call lower-type development and green infrastructure," Roecker said. "If a developer is coming in and they actually can see if we implement some of these things it benefits the city because it reduces runoff. So if they put in a green roof, or a rain garden or use other emerging technologies, their rate is going to go down. So that is going to help us incentivize the developers to look at some of this. Right now, there is no incentive."

Roecker said the proposed fee structure would provide $1.08 million to the utility per year.

Tenorio questioned whether that was enough to really get the program up and running. "If you had your dream system," she asked Roecker. Then she paused and said "I want people to see what they are spending their money on and I want people to realize the money is being spent for their benefit. In order to make this a successful venture, I would like to see what you really need to get it done."

After noting San Marcos’s stormwater fee is $5.20, Sellers said "If we went to $5, we would generate $1.8 million. That is really a realistic number where we need to be."

Tenorio argued she would rather see the fee set at $5 now and "not have to come back next year and ask our citizens to pay $2 more. And I don’t want to reduce the tax rate one penny this year and then come back next year and say I need five more cents" to fund the stormwater utility.

Sellers admitted the number of employees on the stormwater staff will have to increase at some point "but we figured we would work ourselves into that over several years."

"I just think if we’re going to do something, I don’t want to do bare bones," Tenorio said. "You start with it ready to go. I don’t want to set you up to fail."

"I would say I would want to take a strong look at the $5 rate," Mitchell said. "But I don’t necessarily think the additional $2 should go to recurring labor costs. I would advocate for $5, keep the overhead where it is, allow those folks (new employees) to come in, so that over time we can make these big addressments and then hopefully reduce the amount of that fee down the road. Start with a high end, low overhead to make capital improvement expenditure and then see that rate come down over time."

Assistant City Manager James Earp told the council if the fee was increased to $5 "that would allow you to fully fund the mowing of the right-of-ways, the equipment purchases that are needed to get the work done the right way. If you only have two people mowing the entire city, it’s difficult to get a high level of service."

No one brought up the costs of NPDES permitting or whether the city as a whole or individual businesses (such as car washes) in Kyle are even required to obtain NPDES permits.

Sellers suggested some residents should be compensated for paying stormwater fees by having to pay lower Homeowner’s Association dues because the HOAs will no longer, under this plan, be financially obligated to maintain the stormwater facilities on their properties. He said he plans to have conversations with HOAs to address this subject.

City officials said that while water and wastewater rates will not be raised as part of this year’s budget, the city is going to be obligated to repay HCPUA for Kyle’s share of the debt HCPUA must assume to finance a 40-mile pipeline to transport groundwater from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer in eastern Caldwell County to the more populous areas of eastern Hays County. Because of this expenditure, Kyle water customers should expect rates to rise, on the average, between $21 and $25 per month between now and 2026. The question the council admitted it must decide at some point in the near future is whether to phase that increase over the 10-year period or wait until 2026 and then dump the entire increase on homeowners at one time.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Transparency, Part 2: “Truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

For almost 20 years, beginning in the early 1980s, I joined with two journalists from the electronic media to form a media consulting firm whose primary responsibility to help prepare spokespersons for potentially grueling media interviews. For example, we prepared representatives who appeared on 49 different 60 Minutes programs as well as too-many-to-count appearances on such TV staples of the time as Nightline, Dateline, Meet the Press, etc. Our clients included executives from major and small corporations, political leaders (including soon-to-be U.S. presidents), sports figures, entertainers. I even made several trips to Montana to work with the leader of a religious cult.

A lot of our work involved traveling to wherever our clients wanted us to teach a one-day course on how to handle a media interview.

As luck would have it, a couple of years after the company was founded, we managed to convince the hierarchy of Texas Instruments, whose media policy at the time was a very simple and direct "We don’t talk to the press" to take our course. One of the TI vice presidents who took it was the head of sales for the company who shortly thereafter came to us and said "I have thousands of employees in our sales force who will never have to deal with a reporter, but they have to deal with even tougher questions from potential customers. Could you modify your program to help them?"

Of course we did and as a result I had the opportunity to travel to TI locations all over the globe to conduct a program we called "A Successful Strategy for Answering Questions."

One of the points I stressed in this program was a person is not required to answer a question in the way the questioner wants it answered. I called those types of queries the "When did you stop beating your spouse?" question. My favorite example was this: I’ve asked a question. You’ve answered it. And I reply: "That’s interesting, because just three days ago I was talking to your boss and he told me just the opposite. Which one of you is lying?"

I was thinking about that today because it made me realize that I forgot to mention one major category of accusers in my essay about those who accuse municipal officials of "lack of transparency." And that’s those who hear answers that don’t jive with their preconceived notions of what they believe the correct answers should be. In fact, these types even form groups, one of the most prominent being The Flat Earth Society.

These are the close-minded, the prejudiced, the ones not open to ideas other than their own, people not willing to accept the notion that what they fervently believe to be true may, in fact, not be true after all, that all their assumptions are based on false premises.

So here’s some friendly advice: Pay absolutely no attention to anyone who claims "lack of transparency." They are simply advertising their own inadequacies. If you are really interested in the topic being discussed, conduct your own independent research. Seek the truth of the matter for yourself with a completely open, unprejudiced mind and be willing to accept the findings, whatever they may be.

Incidentally, for those who haven’t already figured it out, the honest answer to the "Which one of you is lying?" question is simply "I didn’t hear my boss say that, but here’s what I know to be the facts of the matter."

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Transparency: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”

I’ve been hearing a lot of cries of "lack of transparency" in connection with Kyle’s city government of late. Although faithful readers must admit I have been a severe critic of certain actions by our political leaders and municipal administrators, every time I hear "lack of transparency," I translate that as someone screaming "I’m not well informed, I don’t know enough about the facts of this situation, I’m stupid, but that’s not my fault so I’m going to blame someone else for that fact."

There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution, the Texas Constitution or Kyle’s City Charter that requires someone to be well informed. Becoming knowledgeable is not a right, it’s a choice. And it’s a choice that requires a certain amount of effort. Don’t expect someone else to bless you with information and knowledge. You must seek them out for yourselves, understand them and digest them.

I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if many of those individuals who have cried about "lack of transparency" even know what a CAFR is, let alone actually studied one. Simply put, it’s the most extreme example of complete transparency by any municipality. It’s available for anyone who wants to read it. In fact, I’ll make it easier for you, click right here to read Kyle’s CAFR. But you still must make the effort to read and understand it. And, if you choose not to make that effort, don't blame that on "lack of transparency."

When City Manager Scott Sellers e-mailed his proposed FY 2016-17 budget to city council members, that proposed budget was also posted on the city’s web site, available for anyone who wanted to become more informed, to read, study and learn from it. But anyone who wanted to become more informed about what was proposed for the City of Kyle for the next fiscal year had to make the effort to go to the web site. Just because the city’s doesn’t want to waste taxpayers’s money but printing and mailing a copy of that document to every citizen’s place of residence and business is not a sign of lack of transparency. It’s a recognition that the city is making wiser decisions about how to spend available resources. But, wait! I’ll make that easier for you as well, I have already provided links to the manager’s proposed budget in other posts, but here is another one. Read it. Take the effort to become more informed. (For those without access to a computer, a printed copy of the proposed budget is available during regular business hours at City Hall and the Kyle Public Library.)

Council member Travis Mitchell is apparently making the effort to share with the public the reasons why he votes on specific council agenda items. But citizens must make the effort to seek his positions out and read them. Here, I'll try to make that easier for you as well. But you will still need to click on the aforementioned link and then read Mitchell's comments for yourself. No one can compel or force you to do it.

Earlier this week Sellers gave what was billed as a "State of the City" speech to the Kyle Chamber of Commerce. In an effort to become more informed about what was happening in the community I’m proud to call home, I went on-line to the chamber’s website which provided an incredibly easy way for me to purchase a ticket to this luncheon and learn for myself what the city manager had to say. I chose to make that effort.

Now I’m hearing that this address by the city manager was another example of the city’s lack of transparency. No, it isn’t. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Don’t blame someone else because you chose not to pursue this information.

But, so the argument goes, if the city was really transparent, a citizen wouldn’t have to pay to attend this meeting. That argument is so patently ridiculous on so many levels it’s difficult to decide just where to begin. But let me start with the fact that the Chamber is a private entity, which relies for its income on dues-paying members and functions such as this luncheon. And having been a president of a Chamber of Commerce myself, I can assure you that, if lucky, these chamber luncheons are break-even affairs at best. Admittedly, this chamber does receive city funds, but those are for the chamber's economic development efforts, not for its citizen educational programs.

It should also be recognized that Sellers's address was not the revelations of encyclopedic knowledge, but one person's vision (albeit an well-informed vision) of Kyle, both today and for the future.

But more important than that, there is no law, no regulation, no charter provision, no ordinance that states the pursuit of knowledge is free. It isn’t and it never will be. That’s why more than 50 percent of your total tax bill goes to the local school district, whether or not you have someone residing with you who attends a local school. That’s why colleges charge tuition. That’s why you pay for books to learn from.

Any citizen who wishes to become more informed about what’s going on in their community must make the effort. That’s the reason for the expression "the pursuit of knowledge." No one, however, is going to force you to pursue knowledge, to make yourself more informed. We don’t live in some Orwellian, Kubrickian society where we strap our citizens to chairs, attach wires to their brains and force-feed them information. But if a citizen chooses not to pursue information, decides not to seek knowledge and, as a result, is uninformed and ignorant about what is happening around them, don’t blame someone else. Don’t cry "lack of transparency" because you chose not to learn.

This nation's protections of freedom of speech allow anyone to scream "Lack of transparency," but the fact is such screams are more of an admission than an accusation.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

P&Z OKs strip center, lighting ordinance

After stumbling over a consent agenda on which they approved items they didn’t mean to approve (and will undoubtedly appear on the final record as not being approved), the five commissioners who attended tonight’s Planning & Zoning Commission granted a conditional use permit for a strip center adjacent to downtown and recommended the City Council adopt a lighting ordinance modified to reduce restrictions on non-existent parks and residential street lights.

For the third meeting in a row, the commissioners also decided not enough members were present to elect a vice-chair so that decision was put off until its Aug. 9 meeting when, presumably, it is hoped that at least one more commissioner will attend. Commissioners Lori Huey and Irene Melendez missed tonight’s meeting.

The consent agenda contained five items, one of which was pulled so that a response could be made to a citizen who had commented on it and P&Z operates under the same mistaken interpretation of meeting rules as the city council believing, incorrectly, commissioners can’t legally respond to comments made by citizens during Citizens Comments period.

Of the remaining items on the consent agenda, the city’s staff recommended the disapproval of two of them and the approval of the remaining two. Instead of making the motion to follow staff’s recommendations in regards to the items on the consent agenda, commissioner Timothy Kay moved to approve all four of the items. That motion, mysteriously enough, was seconded and approved unanimously. So, legally speaking, the commissioners approved the final plat for the Brookside Subdivision Phase 3 and the Dacy Village Subdivision Lot 5, Block B, although something tells me when the final script is writ, it will be recorded those two items were statutorily disapproved, because that’s what staff really wanted to the commissioners to do. Funny how those things work out.

The strip center that received the conditional use permit is the same 17,300-square-foot structure located between the southbound I-35 service road and old Highway 81, a block north of Center Street, that the commissioners ordered sent back to the drawing boards back on June 14 because the rear of the building looked too much like the rear of a building.

This time around Jaime Hernandez, the building’s architect and its project manager, offered an alternative that looked like a more decorative and additionally landscaped rear of a building. The commissioners thanked Hernandez for adhering to their whimsy and granted the permit.

"In an effort to provide more of an aesthetic feel on the rear of the building, we added some awnings to the rear," Hernandez told the commissioners. "We added sidewalk as well, all the way around to make that pedestrian connection, to make it friendlier. We also made the adjustment to have landscaping on all four sides of the building."

"I think that looks a whole lot better than it did the first time," chairman Michael Rubsam told Hernandez

The rest of the commissioners agreed, voting 5-0 to approve the permit.

Rubsam was the only commissioner ro raise concerns about the lighting ordinance, although the rest of the commissioners easily deferred to those concerns. The ordinance recognized five distinct lighting "zones," ranging from what was tabbed an LZ-0 zone that permitted no ambient lighting whatsoever to LZ-4, in which "high ambient lighting" was permitted.

It was that first zone that bugged Rubsam. It said this zone applied to "wilderness and protected wildlife areas, parks and preserves and undeveloped rural areas." Rubsam did not like in the inclusion of parks inside the cit limits because he felt completely darkened parks pose a risk to law enforcement types who must investigate all those shenanigans everyone knows takes place in these parks after the sun goes down. The problem is, however, Kyle doesn’t have any of these parks. As Planning Director Howard J. Koontz tried to explain, there will not be a single spot in Kyle that will be designated as an LZ-0 zone so the rule doesn’t apply. He said the only reason the LZ-0 zone is even mentioned is because "some day we might have a development agreement with someone where the city and the developer choose together to utilize that standard for a portion of or all of their site."

The other part of the ordinance Rubsam had a problem with was a section that read "Street lighting, other than at the intersection of roadways, shall utilize half-night photo cells or timers to turn off lights halfway between dusk and dawn." Rubsam didn’t like the notion of turning these lights off completely. He was OK with them being reduced by 70 percent, but not completely off.

Rubsam maintained that bad guys "love the dark. Anytime you start turning off streetlights, you invite crime. Another thing is some of our more elderly residents don’t see all that well at night, When they pull into a residential neighborhood, the streetlights are very helpful for navigation for these people."

Rubsam said 50 percent lighting would be perfectly acceptable for him. "When you’re talking about crime deterrent, any light is helpful in deterring crime." That’s why he could go as low as 30 percent, but "I’m not crazy about turning them off."

As a result, the commissioners voted unanimously to go along with Rubsam’s motion to recommend the city council pass a lighting ordinance as presented with the exception of "Page 9 where we would remove the word ‘parks’ from the LZ-0 no ambient lighting section and also on the street lighting section on Page 18 where we change the sentence to read ‘street lighting other than at the intersection of roadways, shall utilize half-night photo cells or timers to reduce light output by up to 70 percent halfway between dusk and dawn’."

Koontz seemed to have some specific "targets" in mind when he presented the proposed ordinance.

"This makes an expectation of lowering the required light when you have spaces that are not being used after dark," Koontz told the commissioners. "So you’ll notice there’s recommendations in there for light to be cut by 50 percent output after a certain time in the evening. There’s really no reason that the Target sign needs to be putting out 1,500 lumens at 2:38 on a Tuesday morning. There’s nobody shopping at Target at 2:38 on a Tuesday morning. You can dim that down a little bit until such time as you get more traffic which is right around daybreak."

Later he said he was really OK with the lighting at the Target center. In fact, he appeared to cite it as an example of the right way to handle municipal lighting.

"In centers like that where they already have a package consisting of plans, site work, materials suppliers and vendors, that’s probably to make sure that’s compliant with wherever they go," Koontz said. "They replicate the same sites everywhere. If you’re interested in seeing what it looks like, set your alarm for about 3 or 3:20 and then drive up to Target and see what it looks like up there."

At one point Koontz also maintained that "single family residential is exempted from this ordinance entirely so you can do just about what you choose as long as it doesn’t become an issue for neighbors." That statement, however, seems at odds with the fact that the ordinance says the default zone for the LZ-1 zone requiring "low ambient lighting" is "rural and low density residential areas, including residential single or two family." And later in that same description is says the areas for low ambient lighting "typically include single and two family residential communities." The one caveat is that it applies to those areas "that desire low ambient lighting areas," but it does not describe how to ascertain whether an area really does have such a desire. In addition, Koontz interpreted this section to apply to churches and such that might be found in areas zoned R-1, but not the individual residences themselves. Of course, the way it is worded, a successor to Koontz could have a completely different interpretation.

City Manager predicts methodical population growth of almost 150,000 within 40 years

In what accurately could be described as an objective look at the present as well as an optimistic peak into the future of Kyle, City Manager Scott Sellers painted a picture today of a steadily growing regional community whose population growth will fuel many of the amenities residents are longing for, most particularly dining-in restaurants instead of just drive throughs.

Speaking at a luncheon sponsored by the Kyle Chamber of Commerce, Sellers’s message to assembled business leaders essentially was "more customers are coming your way."

Sellers also provided a brief overview of the city’s budget he is proposing for FY 2016-17 and clearly laid out the rationale for seeking a storm water utility and a fee to pay for that utility.

Sellers said his proposed budget reflected the excitement he felt about what was happening in Kyle "and how privileged we are to be a member of this community. The prospects looking ahead continue to be very bright for our city. Together we continue to move Kyle forward in really unprecedented ways.

"It’s really an exciting time to be working on all these projects," Sellers told the luncheon audience. "And we continue to look forward to you growing with us."

Earlier, after saying statistics estimate 3.5 persons per residence in Kyle and that the city has approximately 14,000 such residences today, "all signs point to stable, steady population influx," that will lead to growth in population of 77,000 within the next 15 years.

"All things considered," he went on, "right now, on paper, there are about 42,000, give or take developable residential units in the total area." Using Sellers’s formula of 3.5 persons per unit, that comes to a population growth of 147,000 during what he said will be "the next 30 to 40 years."

In outlining his budget, Sellers stressed that half of it is dedicated to capital improvement projects: "road projects, water, sewer, drainage. So half of the budget will be visible, tangible ways the city is progressing."

Sellers said his budget calls for a one-cent reduction in the property tax. "Now the city council may want to increase that three or four cents," he said, half jokingly. "That’s their prerogative," But he also said he didn’t think any council member — five of whom attended the luncheon — would seriously consider such a move.

"Over the last year and a half, if you’ve lived anywhere in Central Texas — especially Kyle, or San Marcos or Wimberley — you have experienced the devastating effects of some sort of rain event," Sellers said, launching into his reasoning behind the creation of a storm water utility. "Some were effected in severe ways with hundreds of homes being damaged or destroyed.

"We have many miles of storm drainage infrastructure through the city of Kyle," he continued. "Right now, the onus of the maintenance of that storm drainage is on the individual underlying property owners." He said it is the responsibility of the owner of any property that backs up to a storm drainage culvert to maintain that culvert. That, he argued, is a somewhat myopic approach to storm water management so, instead, he wants Kyle to follow the lead of most of other cities in creating "a storm drainage and flood mitigation utility" with a fee "smaller than that in our neighboring communities that will be used for cleaning out these drains.

"In return, (the city) takes over this responsibility so it’s no longer the responsibility of the underlying property owners."

He said the utility will also assume control of the drainage basins currently maintained by Homeowners Associations.

"This is what we believe is required to mitigate the risks of flooding to our homeowners," Sellers told the luncheon audience.

Sellers referenced the recent annexations undertaken by the city that increased its footprint by 50 percent, from 20 to 30 square miles, but even with these additions "the population density of the city of Kyle is not large enough yet to justify" the type of restaurants and other retail establishments found in Austin and San Marcos. He said the city has sought to determine "what that magic number looks like to get you to consider us."

"The number they tell us is a city population of 50,000," Sellers said (Kyle’s most recent population count was 31,760.) "When you get to 50,000 your city takes on the next tier of development like more sit-down restaurants.

"For the destination retailer or for the destination dining that needs a destination retailer, it’s around 250,000 population" (for the region being served) Sellers said. "We are not there. As a region, we are not there, but we are getting very close" when you combine the populations of Kyle with Buda and San Marcos.

Because of that, Sellers said, "We are asking our housing developers to put in the densities, to put in the standards and the long-term maintenance requirements for having a top-tier home development in the city of Kyle,"

He said the reason for the various MUDs (Municipal Utility Districts) and PIDs (Public Improvement Districts) attached to these developments is to guarantee "the development is the highest and best use."

Sunday, July 24, 2016

“One man’s meat …”

Until two years ago, I lived for more than a dozen years in a subdivision with a very active (I could even use the word "domineering," even "dictatorial") homeowners association. It had its rules and anyone who disobeyed them not only faced the prospect of steep fines but even legal action.

Some of its rules were patently illegal (for instance a prohibition against installing Direct-TV-type mini-satellite dishes), and some I found excessive (a requirement to install, at the homeowners expense, expensive lighting fixtures in alleyways when I believed a less costly alternative would have accomplished the same result).

This latter lighting requirement was designed to promote public safety, according to the homeowners association and, indeed, the requirement was supported by the city’s police department, the theory being prowlers are less likely to prey on well-lit areas than on darkened ones.

In addition, the homeowners association had its own citizens’ patrol outfit that cruised the subdivision after sundown specifically looking for suspicious types wandering around, especially in the alleys that provided the entrances to our garages and from where our garbage and recycling were picked up. The better lit the alleyways after dark, the easier it was to spot potential trouble.

I find it interesting that the precise light that my former homeowners association required all residents to install in the fixture right above their garage entrances is exactly the same one pictured on page 13 of a proposed :dark skies ordinance to be considered the Kyle Planning & Zoning Commission at its meeting Tuesday that’s labeled a "prohibited fixture."

So I guess it comes down to what is the local priority: "curtail light pollution, reduce sky glow and improve nighttime environment for astronomy," which is listed as one of the goals of this ordinance, or public safety, specifically crime prevention.

As the saying goes, "One man’s meat is another man’s poison."

Here is the complete agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.

Found dem dang vehicles

I can try to come up with all kinds of excuses for this horrible oversight on my part: old man’s eyes, the small print on page 148 of City Manager Scott Sellers’s proposed FY 2016-17 budget, the fact that my computer monitor is anything but hi-def and even general overall weariness by the time I reached page 148 of the budget.

Be that as it may, I was in error when I wrote yesterday "nary a penny is proposed for heavy or light equipment for Public Works" in the city manager’s proposed budget because the truth is Sellers is seeking a whole lot of pennies — 32,400,000 of them, to be exact — to purchase such items for public works as a bucket truck, an F-150, two f-350 trucks for the construction crew, and a 4x4 backhoe with an extended boom. There’s also funds for such other equipment for public works as an "Okada hoe ram," which, I think, is something along the lines of this; a concrete planer and striping removal system; an emergency generator; and a portable light tower.

That may seem like a lot for $324,000 but it appears Sellers is budgeting some of this in installments to correspond a little more closely to their depreciation, with only one-third of their total costs being applied to upcoming year’s budget.

In the same vicinity where I finally found these items, I also ran across on page 149 a listing of all the equipment proposed from the Utility Fund for wastewater operations, including $125,000 for the first of three payments to purchase a Vactor truck. It also appears Sellers has niftily crafted the budget so that the cost for this truck as well as the cost of an F350 hydraulic truck will be shared with the Water Operations.

Discovering these items makes me feel even better about Sellers’s proposed budget because, unlike adding personnel, these expenditures are, for the most part, one-off items. What I mean by that is that these budgeted items are on the books for this year only. However, anytime you add personnel, that FTE must be fully funded every year thereafter, whether someone occupies the position or not, for as long as the city believes these positions are needed. For example, last year the city council created a number of new positions for police officers and set aside the funds necessary to pay those salaries. However, most of those positions went unfilled, yet that dedicated money must sit there untouched, unusable for providing any other city service. What’s more, that same money must be set aside for those positions in this year’s budget as well as for every budget hereafter for as long as the council believes those positions are necessary. It’s those kind of budget necessities that drive up the tax rate.

By placing the emphasis on equipment purchases rather than additional personnel, Sellers’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, in my opinion, accurately reflects and deals with the city’s pressing needs without unnecessarily and unfairly obligating future city councils. This approach also protects and cushions the city in the event of a recessionary period anytime in the near future.

Having worked in city government for many years in a position that placed me in close proximity to the budget preparation process, I’m willing to bet (although I have absolutely no inside knowledge to prove this) that Sellers had to withstand a lot of pressure from those on the city payroll who were seeking far larger expenditures. Trust me when I say this: It takes a lot of backbone to withstand the type of pressure that can be applied during the preparation of a municipal budget. I was the director of a city department during that time the country when into a recessionary period immediately after 9/11. The city’s sales tax revenues plummeted drastically and the mandate to all departments was "cut, cut, cut expenses." For me to meet my number required me to lay off one-third of my staff. Believe me I fought on behalf of my employees, but I was facing a strong city manager, like Sellers, who looked at the overall "big picture" and made the tough decisions she believed fit the times we were living through.

My only hope now is that the City Council refrains from placing too much additional pressure to change what comes across to me as exactly the right kind of budget for Kyle at this particular moment in time. I don’t mind the council making substitutions to the budget (I use the word "substitutions" because, to keep the budget balanced, for every dollar in expenses added, a dollar from the current budget must be subtracted) that fit both the economic situation and the city’s goals for the future. What I don’t want to see are council members using the budget as a political weapon.

Finally, I would just like to thank that concerned Kyle citizen, who shall remain anonymous, who suggested I examine the budget a little more closely to find dem dang vehicles, the discovery of which allowed me to correct what I erroneously reported yesterday.

Although I know this wish crosses the utopian border, I hope many of Kyle’s citizen taxpayers will also study this proposed budget and then make their concerns and wishes about it known during the citizens comment that will open next Saturday’s city council budget workshop, scheduled to begin at 8 a.m., in the council chambers at city hall.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The bottom line for Kyle homeowners

A number of individuals, myself included, will claim "fee" is just another word for "tax." So with that in mind, I tried to devise a simple way of determining whether the average homeowner comes out ahead or behind under the city manager’s proposed budget for FY 2016-17.

According to this, the median price for a home in Kyle is $142,100. Using that figure, then, the owner of a median priced home in Kyle will save $14.21 in property taxes because of the city manager’s proposed 1-cent decrease.. Stormwater fees will come to $36 per year and the increased garbage collection fees will amount to $9.96 more per year. So overall, someone living in a home valued at $142,100 will owe the City of Kyle $31.75 more than that same person had to pay this fiscal year. To come out even on the deal would require a property owner with a home valuation of at least $460,000.

That, to me, is the bottom line.

This is one more example of why I am such a proponent of budgeting for outcomes. How you feel about this bottom line is directly related to how you evaluate the city services you are receiving and I don't think a "ledger-ized" city budget reveals with any clarity those city services.

For example, instead of just saying the city will spend $75,000 from HOT funds for "City Beautification," I would like the city budget to say by the end of the fiscal year it will create a community garden, install gateway signage on I-35 and whatever else the city hopes to accomplish under the heading of city beautification and then under each of those accomplishments tell me what it's going to cost to make those results happen.

Instead of saying it is spending x, y and z on street maintenance, I would like to see the city plans to upgrade x number of lane miles by resurfacing these particular streets and then tell me what all the costs, in personnel and equipment, required in accomplishing that task.

That not only provides clarity, but it also provides a report card citizens (as well as council members) can use to more accurately grade the performance of the staff, i.e., did staff accomplish the task it said it would -- did it provide the services promised to its citizens it promised -- when the money was approved for this task.

Now switching to budgeting for outcomes doesn't come as easily as flipping a light switch. The first thing that has to happen is that the city council must establish its priorities for the city -- the areas it believes the city should key in on. The five most common key focus areas I've seen cities create are (1) public safety, (2) economic vibrancy, (3) a clean, healthy environment, (4) culture, arts, recreation and education, and (5) efficient, effective and economic government. I can't conceive of anything that Kyle city government would need to spend money on that couldn't be listed under one of those five topics.

Then, instead of simply listing budget items by departments (although such a listing could be provided as a budget appendix) each desired outcome is listed under one of the key focus areas; i.e., each outcome (budget item) must relate to a priority created by the council.

That creates a budget that's working to achieve something instead of a budget that's just working.

City manager’s proposed budget seeks stormwater fee, increase in garbage collection rates

City Manager Scott Sellers’s proposed budget for FY 2016-17 calls for the creation of a much-needed storm water management department, which Sellers is calling the Drainage Utility Fund, as well as a fee to pay for it.

Under Sellers’s proposal, approximately two thirds (actually 63.5 percent) of the total stormwater fees collected will be paid for by commercial customers and the remaining 36.5 percent will come from residential ones. Homeowners would pay a flat $3 per month fee with commercial customers being charged a minimum of $3 a month or $.00126 per square foot of impervious cover ("rooftops, driveways, parking lots, walkways and patios").

Under Sellers’s plan, the department will essentially be an enterprise fund with a projected income of $1,084,474 in stormwater fees and total expenses of $1,080,508.

He is also seeking an 81-cent monthly increase in the garbage collection fee for the months of October through March of the upcoming fiscal year and then an additional 4-cent increase for April through September to help pay for the projected 7.74 percent ($184,400) increase in the city’s solid waste services contract with TDS.

As I mentioned last night, the budget, Sellers maintains, can be balanced with a 1 cent reduction in the city’s property tax rate.

Here are some other casual observations of Sellers’s proposed budget for the fiscal year which begins Oct. 1:

Sales tax projections are far more conservative this time around than they were in Sellers’s proposed budget for the current fiscal year, a 10.37 percent increase for FY 2016-17 vs. the robust 18.55 percent forecast for this year and which the city will not meet.

The budget forecasts city leaders will have 7.25 percent more money to spend on general operating expenses for the city (the budget’s General Fund) than it did last year.

The biggest increase in income, percentage wise, will come as a result of the opening of at least two new hotels in Kyle during the year. The budget is forecasting a whopping 178.99 percent increase in the amount of Hotel Occupancy Taxes it expects to collect. These HOT funds cannot, however, be used for the same kind of expenditures as the General Fund.

Sellers’s budget calls for a leaner administration, proposing an 11.52 percent reduction in expenditures for the Office of City Manager (the biggest reductions coming in cuts for merit increases; subscriptions and books; election services [possibly because there will not be a council election during the upcoming fiscal year]; and a rather large 22.59 percent reduction in the amount paid for legal services) and a comparatively large 33.48 percent reduction for the Office of Chief of Staff (most of that coming from a $62,792 reduction in full time wages and a corresponding drop in FICA, pension and health insurance costs. In the budget, Sellers asks to eliminate the position of grants administrator within the of Chief of Staff’s office, but it is not clear whether that accounts for the total reduction.)

On the other hand, it appears Sellers hopes to add a position (a planner) in the office of community development, proposing a $48,034 increase regular full time wages there.

The Police Department’s budget is being slightly reduced, by a scant 1.54 percent, but any reduction to a municipal police department’s budget is newsworthy. The biggest reduction here, however, is the $225,000 that won’t be needed for motor vehicles although police officers are not going to be all that thrilled about a proposed $53,844 reduction in full time wages. To me, that’s not all that surprising since the department has had problems filling all the new FTEs created for them in this year’s budget, but it also means the cops aren’t going to be getting that pay increase they have been seeking.

The largest proposed increase, 72.87 percent, comes under the heading of Information Technology, possibly because the cost of providing internet service in the various departments is increasing.

Expenditures for books and subscriptions for the library remain flat next year over this year, although the budget calls for an $1,000 (20 percent) increase on the amount the library spends on movies and books on CDs. I’m somewhat surprised the library doesn’t have more vocal support from the community for increases in the amounts spent on library materials.

I find it somewhat puzzling that Sellers is seeking a 70.04 per cent reduction ($46,755) in street repairs and maintenance and what appears to be the complete elimination of expenses for the City-Wide Beautification Plan. It appears the reasoning in the latter is that the money for that program ($75,000) will come from HOT funds during the next fiscal year, not the General Fund and the theory behind the former is $785,000 in the Street Maintenance & Improvement Fund can be used for such projects as the construction on Kyle Crossing from Kohlers.

Sellers is proposing spending significantly more ($212,333) for motor vehicles and other heavy and light equipment for Street Maintenance. This is just one example why I prefer budgeting for outcomes because I would like the city manager to elucidate exactly what he hopes to accomplish with these proposals in the budget manual instead of just numbers on a spread sheet.

Sellers is proposing a 42.34 percent reduction (393,266) in personnel costs within the Public Works Department even though he is seeking three additional FTEs for that department — an assistant director (at a salary of $117,757), an inspector ($64,442) and a pump & motor electrician ($56,447). The way Sellers makes this work is that only 31.2 percent of the amount in new salaries comes from the General Fund. The rest comes from the Water and Wastewater funds.

In addition, nary a penny is proposed for heavy or light equipment for Public Works, although Sellers is seeking $17,500 for motor vehicles for that department, a new expense request. I harken back to my interview with council member Shane Arabie when he was running for re-election earlier this year, particularly when I asked him what he hoped to accomplish in the next budget. One of the things he told me then was "For this budget cycle, I’m looking to get equipment for Public Works."

Sellers will be asking, however, for $217,000 to be spent for heavy equipment for the water department, a new expense. I’m assuming a lot, if not all, of that is for equipment needed in connection with operating the wastewater treatment plant (especially since there’s an identical entry of $217,000 listed for heavy equipment under the heading of "wastewater operations.’) But, then, that’s another reason why I would like to see the city switch to a Budgeting for Outcomes system, which would not only make the city more accountable for these expenditures but also, at a minimum, clarify them. As this article articulates, budgeting for outcomes forces budget writers to approach its annual document from the positive, not the negative. "Instead of How can we cut projected spending to meet revenues?,’ ask What’s the best way to produce the most value with the dollars we have?’"

Arabie also told me during that interview I referred to earlier "There’s a massive deficit in personnel. We talked about that a couple of weeks ago for the utility billing. Little things like that." Doesn’t look like that "massive deficit" is going to get any better because Sellers is seeking a 40 percent reduction ($160,383) in personnel costs for utility billing. In fact, Sellers’s budget calls for an overall 43.95 percent reduction in spending ($299,108) for that department.

Of the Capital Improvement Project expenditures, the largest, of course, is the $2.4 million for wastewater with $1.75 million of that dedicated to the expansion of the wastewater treatment plant, even though that is just a fraction of what is being proposed to be spent on that (a total of $15.1 million) in the next two years. The "total wastewater impact" on this year’s CIP budget, according to Sellers, is expected to be $10,483,900 when the costs for all the interceptors and other improvements are included.

The city manager is proposing fee increases for Parks and Recreation services, including the rental of Historic City Hall, community rooms and the gazebo at City Park Square. He’s also seeking the amount paid for those Kyle residents between the ages of 18 and 54 who want to use the city’s swimming pool to be raised from $3 to $3.50 and the season pass price increased from $78 to $91.Season passes for non-Kyle residents would go from $104 to $130 under Sellers’s proposal.

He has not called for a change in the fees charged for excessive false alarms or unwarranted stop signs, but it is interesting he highlighted those sections in bright yellow, I’m guessing as a signal to council members what any increases they proposed were fine with him. He is, however, proposing a $320 payment for anyone requesting a TUMTCD warrant request for a possibly unnecessary stop sign as well as a new $850 "Development Review Fee" that would be payable at the time of the request.

The public will have its first crack at giving its view on the budget next Saturday at the beginning of the scheduled 8 a.m. city council budget workshop to be held in the city hall's council chambers.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Sellers seeks 1 cent reduction in property tax

City Manager Scott Sellers e-mailed the city council the rough draft of his proposed FY 2016-17 budget this evening and in it he is recommending a 1 cent reduction in the city’s property tax rate as well as a much needed stormwater fund.

I plan to look at the budget a little more closely beginning tomorrow morning, but here, in Sellers’s own words, are what he considers the highlights of his second proposed city budget:
  • "The budget includes a 1 cent decrease in the property tax.
  • "There is no proposed fee increase in the Water/Wastewater Utility fund.
  • "There is the creation of a Stormwater Drainage and Flood Risk Mitigation Fund.
  • "There is no anticipated debt issuance."

On the face of it, all that sounds like good news, Council members and citizens will have an opportunity to study Sellers’s proposed budget for a little more than a week prior to the council’s budget workshop which begins at 8 a.m., Saturday, July 30 in council chambers.

Size of roundabout needed for FM1626

As I have written many times, I have nothing against roundabouts, per se. In fact, I think they are kind of cool in the right place. My problem is, I am still not convinced a road with a 55-60 mile-an-hour posted speed limit is the right place.

I know roundabout champion and Kyle Assistant City Manager James Earp has produced all kinds of charts and graphs proving how safe roundabouts are, but none of his charts and graphs indicate if or when a study has been conducted on a roundabout placed on a four-lane divided highway such as FM 1626 where the speed limit is between 55 and 60 mph (and actual driving speeds are closer to 65). His charts show quite conclusively that roundabouts require motorists to reduce their speeds to negotiate the curvature, but he has produced nothing to show how many feet is required to slow the speed to the safe limit when the motorist is driving as fast as they do on FM 1626.

My limited research provided me with only one roundabout that has ever been constructed on a highway with a speed limit of 60 miles an hour and that highway is the 23-mile-long A612 which originates in England’s central Nottingham and ends in Averham. However, the speed limit on that part of the A612 where the roundabout is located is only 40 miles an hour and, at that point, the A612 is a two-lane road.

Then I ran across this interesting document prepared by the U.S. Department of Transportation, no less, which indicates that a roundabout on a road like FM 1626 would be required to have a radius (not a diameter, but a radius) of 250 feet. That seems to me to be a fairly large structure However, if the speed limit on 1626 between Kohlers and Marketplace was reduced to, say, 45 miles an hour, the required radius would be only around 150 feet, a significant size reduction.

This study also mentioned something else about roundabouts on four-lane roads such as 1626. As Mayor Pro Tem Damon Fogley correctly pointed out, they would reduce the number of collisions in which one vehicles smashes into another at a 90-degree angle. "However," the Department of Transportation study says, "at multilane roundabouts, increasing vehicle path curvature creates greater side friction between adjacent traffic streams and can result in more vehicles cutting across lanes and higher potential for sideswipe crashes."

So instead of the type of car crashes you’re likely to see while watching a Grade B cops-and-robbers movie, you’re more likely to see FM 1626 becoming a miniature NASCAR track with those types of accidents.

Pick your poison.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Random thoughts on stop signs and roundabouts

I spent time this morning, perhaps too much time, mulling over a couple of the issues discussed at last night’s city council meeting. OK, I know what you’re thinking: "Pete, you need to get a life." But that’s just the way I choose to roll.

The discussion over stop signs came about because it’s quickly becoming an epidemic around Kyle or perhaps it’s an invasion of the body snatchers, but it seems like every Tom, Dick and Harriet wants a stop sign on their corner. And, as it stands right now, the city doesn’t have a policy regulating how or even if to approve requests for stop signs.

There is an accepted formula for determining whether a stop sign or even a yield sign is necessary at any given location. And no one, absolutely no one, opposes the installation of such a traffic control devices at any location at which the formula determines such a device is warranted. The trouble is, last week, the council voted to approve the installation of signs at two different Plum Creek locations where the formula determined those signs were not warranted. About a month before that, it was the installation of unwarranted signs at four different intersections in Amberwood.

Police Chief Jeff Barnett outlined the normal routine his department follows whenever any citizen or group of citizens approaches his department seeking the installation of a stop or yield sign. First, he said, police officials study accident reports to discover whether an unusually high number of traffic mishaps have occurred at the said location and they will also install monitors for 72 hours beginning on a Friday evening to count the number of motor vehicles who pass through the given intersection. If the results of both of these efforts point in the direction of installing a sign, then he will summon the engineers to launch a pre-established "Warrant Study" (the formula I referred to earlier) that will result in definitely determining whether the installation of the requested device is warranted.

Neighborhood groups have found a way to bypass this process, however. They simply ask a friendly council member to have his or her colleagues approve the installation of unnecessary signs.

The proposal discussed last night — a proposal that was indefinitely tabled — would require that homeowners wishing to have a device installed that is deemed unnecessary, based on the preliminary study of accident reports and traffic counts, place a deposit ($500 was the one figure mentioned) to pay for a Warrant Study anyway. If the study found such a device was necessary, the deposit would be refunded. If not, tough luck.

Seems to make sense to me. I don’t think all the taxpayers in Kyle should be forced to pay for the process that leads to the expenditure of city funds for unnecessary stop signs that benefit only a small percentage of the city’s total population. But, then, I’m an idealist.

The debate on the topic revolved around two issues. The first raised by council member Daphne Tenorio and supported by council member Travis Mitchell was that it would be easier for subdivisions with homeowners associations to come up with the required deposit and, thus, those without such associations should not be required to pay it. Instead, Mitchell recommended, signatures could be collected on a petition.

Here’s my first problem with that: It seems to me, on its face, to be discriminatory. Such a policy would formally create two separate classes of residents that would be treated differently. The concept of "separate but equal" was deemed unconstitutional in this country more than 60 years ago.

Here’s my second problem with the idea: If you’re going to go to the trouble to circulate through the neighborhood collecting signatures why not instead circulate through the neighborhood collecting contributions to pay for the Warrant Study deposit? The residents could finance it with the money they save by not having to pay homeowners association dues.

The second issue was what to do about devices that were deemed unnecessary via the Warrant Study. On this issue, I go on the record as wholeheartedly supporting City Manager Scott Sellers and Mayor Todd Webster’s stance. "It is staff’s recommendation that …any sign that doesn’t meet warrant is not erected," Sellers said. "That is our position. It will always be our position." Can’t be more clear than that. After the meeting was over Mayor Webster confirmed to me what I thought I heard him say during the meeting, i.e., he would support an ordinance that prohibits the installation of unwarranted traffic control devices.

But what happens if the majority of the council would not support such an ordinance, an outcome Mayor Webster told me was more likely? No one really had a satisfactory answer for that question and I’m guessing that was one, if not the, main reason, the item was tabled.

But here is what I find particularly strange in all of this: Those council members who support, in some fashion, the installation of unnecessary traffic signs seem to also be the ones who complain the loudest about the fact that "Kyle has the highest property tax rate in Hays County." It’s an economic given: One sure way of reducing the tax rate, or at least holding it steady, is to reduce spending. And one sure target of any spending reduction effort should be to eliminate spending tax money on items recognized, and accepted studies prove are unnecessary.

The other item I spent time thinking about was the idea of TxDOT installing a roundabout at the spot where Dorman Road intersects FM 1626. I am particularly sensitive to this because said roundabout would somewhat less than a half mile from where I live. For those not familiar with that area, a left turn from northbound FM 1626 or a right turn from southbound FM 1626 would put you on the comparatively short, in length, Dorman Road, past a popular pre-school, which dead ends at a traffic circle at Cromwell Drive. Taking southbound Cromwell quickly leads to another traffic circle which, if followed to the right, will put you on Sampson which takes you into the heart of the Plum Creek subdivision. The argument for the roundabout is because of the difficulty drivers have of negotiating a left turn from Dorman onto northbound 1626, a turn I make quite frequently because I take 1626 to where I usually need to go in Austin as well as take it to Kohlers Crossing and an easier access to northbound I-35 than I have if I take 1626 southbound.

That left turn to northbound 1626 used to be far more difficult than it is today. It has become immeasurably easier since the installation of the traffic signal at Kohlers Crossing and 1626 which can act as a temporary barricade to southbound traffic and freeing up much more opportunities to negotiate that turn.

I must admit I also have a problem with a roundabout on a four-lane widely divided highway where the posted speed limit is 60 miles an hour (which means motorists travel at least 65) that is intersecting with a narrowly divided two-lane street on which the desired speed limit is 25 miles an hour but the legal speed limit is 30. I especially worry about southbound 1626 traffic careening onto Dorman right there where that pre-school is located.

Now engineers will try to convince that roundabouts are designed in such a way as to force motorists to slow down to speeds of around 13 miles an hour. Frankly, I don’t believe that. Intelligence and common sense, two attributes sorely lacking in the average Texas motorist, tell him or her to slow down around a roundabout. And why in heaven’s name would you want to slow traffic to 13 miles an hour on a road where the posted speed limit is 60 anyway?

Personally, I would be far more supportive of this entire roundabout idea if, along with it, TxDOT would establish a 45-mile-an-hour speed limit on 1626 between Kohlers and Marketplace. It seems like a common sense approach and it would be a move to additionally maximize safety (if "safety" is really the driving motivation in this project), all the while recognizing the reality of that intelligence and common sense that is lacking in Texas drivers would result in massive amounts of motorists drastically exceeding that limit. However, a few well-placed Kyle Police Department patrol cars armed with radar devices could help alleviate that on a regular basis as well.

City Council ponders road bond project delays, alarms, innovative gateway signage, stop signs and, yes, another roundabout idea for FM 1626

(Updated Friday 9:30 a.m.)

While thankfully lacking in the melodramatics that have unfortunately plagued some Kyle City Council meetings of late, Tuesday’s final July agenda meeting was not wanting for substance with discussions on whether to and how to allow unnecessary stop signs, a fascinating design concept for "Welcome to Kyle" signs at either end of I-35, a possible two-month delay in the remaining road bond projects, the creation of a community garden, requiring every homeowner and business with an alarm system to register those alarms and be subject to a fine for excessive false alarms, and the possibility of finally installing a much-debated roundabout on FM 1626, this one to be located at a point about midway between Marketplace and Kohler’s Crossing, where Dorman Road intersects the parkway.

Whew! Where to begin.

I think I’ll start toward the end of the meeting and work my way to the beginning.

The council voted 5-1 (council member Becky Selberra missed last night’s meeting due to illness and council member Daphne Tenorio voted against) to let TxDOT know the city supports a TxDOT plan to install a roundabout at the main entry point to the Plum Creek neighborhood from FM 1626 (Kyle Parkway). As many might remember, a huge debate ensued a little more than a year ago over the idea of building a roundabout at FM 1626 and Kohler’s Crossing. That debate, however, involved the use of city funds for the construction of the amenity and finally TxDOT simply stepped in and said, in effect, "Stop your endless arguing. We’re just going to put a traffic light there." And, of course, that’s exactly what TxDOT did.

This time, however, it appears (although it’s not absolutely guaranteed) that TxDOT will foot the entire bill for the cost of installing a roundabout at this three-way interchange. And let me be clear about one thing: Although there are plenty of traffic circles in Kyle, including one recently installed where Marketplace dead ends into Burleson Road, as far as I know there is nothing in the city that could actually be properly classified as a roundabout. This will give you some idea of the difference, although Kyle’s traffic circles are much smaller than your average traffic circles.

Council member Tenorio felt more citizen input was needed before the council went on record as telling TxDOT the city was fine with the idea of roundabout there, but the other council members decided it was OK just to tell TxDOT to proceed. No one mentioned a timetable on when construction might begin on this project and, frankly I didn’t think to ask City Manager Scott Sellers about a construction time line after last night’s meeting. I have, however, sent an email to the city’s spokesperson requesting that information. (Update: The city's spokesperson forwarded an e-mail to me Friday morning in which Sellers told her "I didn't discuss this [with TxDOT], but will try to verify the next time I speak with them.")

The entire council wrapped their collective arms around the notion of the city requiring the registration with the city of all alarms installed in homes and businesses after Police Chief Jeff Barnett revealed that out of 1,500 alarms police responded to last year, 1,495 or an astounding 99.67 percent, were false alarms. The national average for false alarms is much higher than I would have imagined, somewhere between 94 and 98 percent, but 99.67 percent is simply outrageous.

The amendment to the city’s current alarm ordinance approved by the council last night, would, in the words of Chief Barnett, require anyone with an alarm system in their home or business to "come to the police department to obtain a permit and pay a permit fee and then your permit would be good for 12 months." (The amount of the fee will most likely be established when the council reviews the entire fee schedule during its upcoming budget deliberations.)

Barnett said it takes a police officer between 15 and 20 minutes per alarm call "to make their way to that call, to check the facility out, make contact with the owner if they’re not on the site and then clear that call." Translated, that means close to 500 police man hours were wasted last year responding to false alarms.

"The goal of this amendment is to get false alarms down to zero and keep our officers out on the street," Barnett told the council.

Zero false alarms is, of course, an impossible goal. From experiences I’ve had on this issue working with the police in Dallas, most false alarms are caused by things like a household cat triggering a motion detector that sets off an alarm in a residence. How, other than cruelly keeping pets caged when their owners are not at home, is a homeowner going to prevent those kinds of incidences?

Those exempt from having to obtain an alarm permit from the police, Barnett said, included "financial institutions as identified in the Bank Protection Act of 1968," governmental users such as schools and local, state and federal agencies and those over the age of 65 would still need to register their alarms but would be exempt from the fee requirement.

Barnett said the ordinance allows for three false alarms per permit, but the fourth and fifth one in any calendar year would result in a $50 fine, numbers six and seven cost $75 and anything above that costs $100 per false alarm. Anyone with more than 15 false alarms in a calendar year could have their permits revoked.

"Our goal as a police department is not to discourage alarms," Barnett said. "We encourage people to put in burglar alarms, panic alarms, medical alarms and fire alarms. But we want them to own and operate them in a very responsible manner so we don;’t have as many false alarms."

There was some concern among council members, mainly expressed by council member Travis Mitchell, about getting the word out to those Kyle residents and business owners that they will soon be required to have their alarms registered, but, as I said earlier, in the end the council voted unanimously to endorse the chief’s plan,.

Mitchell also raised some concerns about a proposed policy governing unnecessary stop signs. Under the proposed ordinance, which eventually was tabled, any group of residents who wished to have a stop sign or other traffic controlling device installed in their neighborhood where a preliminary city study indicated such a device was unnecessary would have to pay a deposit ($500 was the amount bandied about although nothing was set in stone) to fund a full-fledged traffic warrant study. Mitchell’s concern was that neighborhoods without homeowners’ associations would be at a disadvantage when it came to coming up with that $500.

However, others, including City Manager Scott Sellers and Mayor Todd Webster came right out and said the city should simply prohibit unwarranted traffic control devices.

"It is staff’s recommendation that we look at internally all requests for signs, and any sign that doesn’t meet warrant is not erected," Sellers said flatly. And to add some emphasis, he said "That is our position. It will always be our position."

And after the meeting was over Mayor Webster confirmed he would not oppose an ordinance that prohibited the installation of unwarranted, unnecessary traffic control devices, but he doubts the rest of council would go along with him. At the very least, he said, he would like to see any ordinance that might permit unwarranted devices also explain the possible hazards such devices might cause.

The gateway signage concept has to be seen to really be appreciated. Having said that, however, I, along with everyone else attending last night’s meeting, saw a representation of the sign and I’m still not sure I completely "got" it. I’m not going to even try to put it in words so I will just relate how Sellers described it to the council:

"It’s two sheets of aluminum or some sheet metal, the first sheet being cut out so what you see there is (a map of the state of Texas), the word ‘Kyle’ and the water tower — those are cut out of the first sheet. Behind is a solid sheet and in between those two sheets is a row of LED lights that shine up on that back sheet to provide an illumination that, especially in the evening, provides a very sharp 3-D effect back through the cutout."

See!! I told you that you really had to see it for yourself, that words can’t do it justice.

"It really embraces modernism," Sellers said. "It embraces the demographic that represents the majority of Kyle citizens (whatever that means -- my words, not his). It embraces the brick on the pedestal. So it really tries to encompass what we currently today stand for.

"Now the great thing about this sign is, it’s inexpensive, compared to the other large, monument signs," Sellers continued. "Sometimes, not to be too critical, I see gateway signs along the interstate and they look like large tombstones. We definitely did not want to commemorate our death to people driving by the city. We wanted to show we’re vibrant, we’re alive."

Personally, as much as I loved Seller’s tombstone line, I did think the comparatively low cost was not actually "the great thing about this sign." What I thought was the great thing was what Sellers said next:

"As we continue to grow and redefine who we are, that front sheet can easily be replaced. So maybe the water tower isn’t the image that we want in a few years. We can pull down the front sheet and replace it with one that has a different cut-out."

Now that’s cool. That’s different. That’s unique. A gateway sign with an interchangeable message.

Moments before Sellers talked about the signs, another one of the city’s interns from Texas State, Zohaib Qadri, outlined plans for an adopt-a-street program that would go along way to enhancing beautification efforts as well as a concept for a Community Garden on what is currently vacant land behind Seton Medical Center.

In the evening’s very first presentation, City Engineer Leon Barba told council members something they didn’t really relish hearing:

"The fact is Goforth from I-35 to Bunton Creek Road is 23.3 percent complete. As you know we had a significant bout with bad weather. Utilities, as I’ve mentioned before, have always been a problem and we’re still having problems with utilities. We were promised those utilities would be cleared and guess what? We’re still finding utilities in the road. Right now the focus is getting the section of road between Brent and just south of Steeplechase open before school starts. School starts Aug. 22. But the teachers come in a week earlier so we really have to figure out a way they can get into the school while we’re doing that construction. So the focus right now is at least getting that section done."

Mayor Webster asked Barba how this delay would delay the start of work on the Bunton project.

"We’re thinking two to three months," Barba replied.

"And the Goforth extension as well?" the mayor asked.

"Yes," Barba said. "Same contractor."

"That’s not good," the mayor replied.

For what it’s worth, Barba said what had been referred to as the Goforth Extension (or the free road project because it was inserted without effecting the bond package) from Bunton Creek Road to Kyle Parkway is now officially designated as Philomena Drive.

In other action last night, the council:
  • Tearing a page from the late Spiro T, Agnew’s Catalog of Jingoism passed a resolution declaring everyone wearing a police uniform is a paragon of virtue and expressing its sorrow over the deaths of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, It also ordered copies of the resolution be sent to those aforementioned cities but, thankfully, not to the family of Rodney King.
  • Postponed a presentation on the Kyle Vista Park Public Private Partnership Proposal, which is somewhat of a shame because I, like probably so many others, have absolutely no idea what that partnership proposal is all about.
  • Certified the appointments of Aaron Townsend and Cindy Lawson to the Civil Service Commission.
  • Adopted a whole host of national and international codes.
  • Approved a Memorandum of Understanding between Hayes Caldwell Public Utility Agency and the cities of Kyle, Buda and San Marcos for the exchange of water.
  • Adopted the rules that will govern council meetings until the next council election.
  • Learned the city manager will unveil a draft of his proposed FY 2016-17 budget on Friday. Sellers assured me after the meeting a copy of that proposed budget will be available to the public on the city’s website by the end of the day Friday as well.
  • For the first time in memory, did not conduct an executive session.