With the whirlwind of budget season over, the quiet work of planning for the future has settled over Killeen City Hall.
A scathing report from the city’s management audit in August and residents’ continued frustration with the growth and aesthetics of the city’s neighborhoods are the backdrop.
Residents’ quality of life, such as walkability, neighborhood composition, access to transportation, are at stake.
The city is in the beginning stages of updating its comprehensive plan, a 20-year document that governs the city’s growth pattern and provides resident input on quality-of-life concerns.
Killeen City Manager Ron Olson has also announced a series of sweeping reforms of city policy over the next few months, including a reworking of the city’s financial controls and policy, a tweaking of the council’s meeting protocol and decision making process, and — most importantly — the creation of a long-term budget strategy that will help combat the short-sighted thinking that hamstrung previous city administrations.
With so much on the docket, and so little time before the next year’s budget season begins, the city and council are working to balance the needs of the present with coming financial pitfalls.
The most complicated item in Olson’s policy initiative is the creation of a new Killeen comprehensive plan — which Olson said Tuesday is in the preliminary stages.
During the creation of the current plan in 2009, the city interviewed residents in the planning process, with residents at the time expressing concerns that continue.
It could address residents’ concerns such as:
• A real estate market catered primarily to Fort Hood soldiers
• A lack of landscaping in residential neighborhoods
• Few neighborhood amenities and limited walkability
• Overreliance on “patchwork” residential developments
• A lack of north-south transportation corridors
• Unsustainable growth and little green technology
While the city has addressed some of those concerns, its inability to address building standards for homes has continued to keep home values low and limit the city’s ability to fill its coffers with property tax revenue.
With a new comprehensive plan, the city would have the ability to address many residents’ concerns about the quantity and quality of housing as well as reconsider other quality of life initiatives like hike-and-bike-trails and increased amenities.
The city adopted its first comprehensive plan in 2010 following a rapid growth spurt in the mid-2000s that left the city scrambling to balance a booming residential population and retail sector.
But aspects of the comprehensive plan have been under fire for years as the city’s growth peaked and slowed, leaving residents and some council members looking for a more sustainable and considered growth strategy.
Last week, residents in the hundreds told the Herald they wanted increased street light coverage throughout neighborhoods, highlighting the city’s hands-off approach to neighborhood aesthetics and safety.
The council has also criticized aspects of the current plan.
In August, Councilman Steve Harris called for a moratorium on new home construction until the city performed an expedited review of its comprehensive plan to rein in what he saw as uncontrolled residential growth.
“My intention is to get this city growing the right way,” Harris said. “If council members want that, they’ll support this.”
The council killed the item by consensus vote Aug. 15.
Olson was mum this week on where the city currently sits in its policy creation process but did offer a rough schedule for what will be coming before the council beginning this month.
Following the completion of the city’s long-awaited management audit in August, Olson said the city administration would work to fold a slew of recommendations into a financial policy package for council consideration.
The goal of the new financial package is to better safeguard taxpayer funds and prevent loopholes for malfeasance in the future.
Houston-based McConnell & Jones’ report said auditors found:
• Failure to maintain some documents and data according to state records retention policy
• Failure to document discussions with bond counsel on guidance obtained
• The Aviation Department, Killeen Civic and Conference Center, Volunteer Services, Senior Center and Cemetery maintained accounts on QuickBooks outside the city’s SunGard financial system
• Finance officials frequently added new accounts to record transactions because they were not able to understand how former staff established and used certain accounts, leading to “convoluted recordkeeping and an unwieldy chart of accounts.”
• Elevated risk of financial transactions manipulation, which could go undetected
At least one of those findings — the use of Quickbooks outside of the city’s central record-keeping system — was immediately addressed when it was identified, Olson said in August.
While the council won’t be involved with policy creation at the granular level, Olson has said the council will set the city’s highest priorities for financial direction and consider ordinances governing policy, if necessary.
According to Olson, the council’s workshop session planned for mid-November is expected to look similar to the process Olson led the council through during the budget season beginning in April, when council members identified and reached a consensus on budget “values” and priorities.
One number jumped out to the council and residents during the 2018 budget discussions over the summer: $27 million — the projected shortfall in the city’s operational fund by 2037 if drastic measures are not taken.
To combat that apocalyptic figure, Olson has engaged the council with the process of “managing the gap,” or taking intermediary steps each year to pass a balanced budget that limits the projected shortfall in the following year.
The task is made more difficult following a city budget crisis in 2016, when a preliminary budget with an $8 million shortfall was taken before the council. Over the course of the following two months, the council scrambled to slice millions in expenses off the city’s proposed spending plan, eventually balancing the 2017 budget nearly five months later in January.
In the coming years, managing the shortfall gap will get increasingly difficult.
The city is currently losing around $4.5 million in property tax revenue due to the state-mandated disabled veteran property tax exemption that could grow larger if the Texas Legislature approves a separate property exemption for Purple Heart recipients.
In September, feeling the pinch from limited tax revenue, the council passed a 2018 budget that sliced away a number of community activities and vacant police positions while still meeting the city’s essential mission, Olson said.
To prevent the council from making short-sighted budget cuts each fiscal year, Olson has proposed revisiting the city’s budget priorities with the council with the intent of revisiting general guidelines such as the city’s 20 percent to 25 percent reserve fund goal.
The city would also be able to review its major capital improvement priorities, including increased street maintenance funding, as part of the process.