The Killeen City Council apparently has some big plans.
Unfortunately, members don’t seem to have a good grasp on where they might lead.
On Tuesday, council members pitched some significant proposals — including stripping funding from the city’s chamber of commerce, reworking financing of Killeen’s economic development corporation and considering a plan to pick up the tab for sewer line repairs currently assessed to homeowners.
Adoption of these plans has the potential to fundamentally change the way the city does business — and to do so at a substantial cost in some cases.
But to what end?
Council members know they want to change the rules, but they’re not quite sure what the end goal is.
And that’s a problem.
For example, the plan to pay for sewer line repairs when a break occurs in the public right of way between the street and a residence is a laudable attempt to spare homeowners the cost of a potentially bank-breaking repair job — up to $25,000 in some cases, council members were told Tuesday.
But in proposing to put the repair costs on the city’s tab, the council could be placing Killeen on the hook for millions of dollars in repairs annually, at a time when the city simply does not have the money. And if the council codifies the policy into law, it will perpetuate the city’s obligation to finance the repairs for as long as the law is on the books.
Given the state of Killeen’s aging water and sewer infrastructure in the northern sections of town, such a policy has the potential to sink the city’s already leaky financial boat.
On Tuesday, the council reached a consensus to use the water-sewer fund’s $100,000 contingency fund and $300,000 in capital improvement funds to create an account to help affected homeowners, should members subsequently decide to put the new repair policy in place.
But if council goes that route, water-sewer ratepayers technically would be responsible for subsidizing the repairs for residents impacted by a sewer line break. And if the cost to the city exceeds the amount in the city’s repair fund, it’s possible water and sewer rates would have to be increased to cover the shortfall. In other words, everyone would have to pay.
The council has other issues to consider as well. For example, should the city provide preventive maintenance to avoid costly repairs? Should the city cover the cost of repairs in all areas of the city, or just focus on areas with older infrastructure?
As City Manager Ron Olson warned the council, changing the policy has the potential for problems, both short- and long-term. State law allows cities to charge homeowners for repairs — which Killeen has done to this point. If the city takes on the legal obligation to pay for such repairs without clearly and narrowly defined terms of coverage, the results could be disastrous.
The consequences of changing the funding agreements with the city’s chamber of commerce and economic development corporation are less clear, but council members nevertheless reached a consensus to move forward on a “transition plan.”
The question is what the city would be transitioning toward.
Two years ago, the council voted to trim the budgets for the chamber and EDC by half, reducing their combined funding from $1.5 million annually to about $750,000. That total carried over into the current fiscal year as part of a two-year agreement between the two entities and the city.
On Tuesday, however, council members talked about defunding the chamber of commerce — which would force the nonprofit organization to come up with the $338,000 the city currently provides annually.
The chamber also would have to find money for salaries, as the proposed arrangement would end the sharing of staff between the chamber and EDC.
Certainly, it’s not unusual for cities the size of Killeen to have chambers of commerce that are self-supporting. Killeen’s funding of the chamber goes back to a 1987 agreement, and it’s hard to argue that the city’s dynamics are the same as they were 30 years ago. But will defunding the chamber make it function better?
Some council members floated the possibility of diverting the chamber funding to the EDC, which would essentially restore that entity’s budget from two years ago.
The council also discussed the possibility of changing the EDC’s funding source to sales tax revenue, instead of the current setup that dedicates water-sewer fund money and property tax revenue.
There’s a problem with both options, however.
Giving the chamber’s funding to the EDC accomplishes little, unless the city puts some qualifiers and benchmarks in place. That means establishing clearly defined performance standards.
Killeen’s EDC has long been a target of critics who claim the entity doesn’t create enough jobs or that the businesses the EDC brings to the city don’t pay well.
The EDC blunted some of that criticism in the last 18 months by securing a Japanese-owned chemical plant for the city’s business park, as well as luring 180 new jobs with Solix, a governmental services company with a call center downtown.
However, the lack of transparency surrounding the chemical plant acquisition and the subsequent questions regarding the plant’s environmental risks raised questions about how the EDC conducts business.
Killeen currently has two council members and the mayor serving on the EDC’s board of directors, as called for in the contract between the EDC and the city. But if the city were to change the EDC’s funding source to sales tax revenue — a complicated process that would require voter approval — the city would lose its representation on the corporation’s board, and thus any direct oversight it now has.
As with the sewer line repair issue, council members must take a look down the road and consider the consequences of any changes they choose to make.
Changing budget levels and funding arrangements may seem like a good idea today, but how will those changes make the chamber and EDC perform more efficiently, increase transparency and benefit the city’s taxpayers in the long term?
Until the council develops a comprehensive plan to address those questions, members would be better off leaving things alone.
Change for change’s sake is simply not a good strategy.