It’s time for Killeen City Council members and city administrators to stop posturing and start acting.
KEY RECOMMENDATIONS ...
- Quickly authorize a forensic audit
- Remove Ann Farris as interim city manager
- Bring in a qualified, temporary city manager
- Freeze all hiring of nonessential personnel
- Remove all unfilled city positions
- Postpone any wage increases
- Cap overtime pay
- Halt all discretionary spending
- Hold all nonessential capital improvements
- Postpone the purchase of 39 police vehicles
Nearly six weeks into the budget process, the council has reached no agreement on how to address the city’s $8 million funding shortfall in the upcoming budget.
Enough is enough.
The situation is urgent. The council must act.
Council members have a sworn duty to make decisions on behalf of the city’s residents, but to date, they have failed to do so in this crucial area.
Several council members have been adamant about what they would not do to make ends meet — such as raise taxes, impose new fees or cut services. But none of the members have proposed any realistic solutions to the funding crisis.
What is not realistic is drawing the city’s reserves down by $7.2 million as interim City Manager Ann Farris irresponsibly calls for in her proposed budget.
It is nothing short of stunning that several council members are leaning that direction. This city and its taxpayers cannot afford the consequences such action would bring.
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Gutting the city’s reserves by 40 percent, as proposed, would leave Killeen with only six weeks of operating expenses.
By contrast, Copperas Cove’s budget provides four months of reserves and Harker Heights’ budget calls for 5½ months’ worth.
Killeen can’t just burn through its cash to patch a hole for this year, then hope the money is not needed for emergencies — and it’s irresponsible of council members to consider such action.
The proposed 2017 budget — which contains several accounting errors — calls for spending increases of 35 percent in the city manager’s budget, and increases of between 21 and 30 percent each for the fire department, finance department and Support Services. Meanwhile, four other departments — including the library and airport — are showing a projected deficit.
Farris claims that there are no new full-time positions in the budget she proposed. Yet, the police and fire department budget is projected to jump by $5 million over 2016.
Overall, Farris’ budget plan calls for almost a 10 percent increase in expenditures — a shortsighted strategy in light of the city’s current fiscal crisis.
It’s time for council members to put aside their personal agendas and political considerations and govern as they were elected to do. The council must get serious about cutting spending — and do it now.
We call on the council to do the following:
Freeze all hiring of nonessential personnel, giving selective approval to police and fire positions.
Remove all city positions that have not been filled in the last six months.
Postpone any increases in wages, benefits and compensation for city employees.
Put a cap on overtime pay, and stick to it.
Put a halt to all discretionary spending.
Put a hold on all nonessential capital improvement projects.
Postpone purchasing the 39 police vehicles called for in the proposed budget. That’s $1.2 million the city doesn’t have right now.
The city’s budget problem wasn’t created recently. It happened over a period of several years, as Farris acknowledged early in the process.
As such, former city officials also must be called into account.
Former City Manager Glenn Morrison, former Mayor Scott Cosper and Farris, who has overseen the finance department for three years, should be held responsible for allowing the city to get into the current financial mess — and for refusing to acknowledge it publicly.
Granted, council members voted for many of the expenditures that have drawn down the city’s fund balance. But because administrators kept important contextual information from the council, members often voted in a vacuum, without adequate knowledge of the true financial impact. We commend some members, such as Jonathan Okray, for continuing to ask questions about municipal spending issues during the past three years.
Still, council members who raised their hands and simply said “We trust you” to the city manager whenever an expenditure was requested should be held accountable. That group includes Juan Rivera, Jim Kilpatrick and current Mayor Jose Segarra — all of whom said they didn’t believe in micromanaging the city manager or second-guessing city staff.
For her part, Farris has dragged out the current budget process far too long, and her motivations for doing so are somewhat questionable.
Her initial plan, presented three weeks ago, provided the council with no guidance, and offered no options other than digging deep into the city’s reserves.
Two weeks later, Farris suggested two hybrid plans that combine tax increases and cost cutting — proposals that should have been offered to the council in the first place.
Yet some of her options — including eliminating a public library, a city pool and cutting seniors’ transportation funding — were the kind of political nonstarters that served to derail the budget discussion. Indeed, two council members went scurrying back to the original plan to raid the city’s reserves.
More importantly, council members learned Tuesday the proposed budget is counting on “reimbursement” revenue from certificates of obligation the council hasn’t even voted on yet — a highly questionable and presumptuous budgeting strategy.
When Farris added a discussion of her job description and evaluation to last week’s council agenda in the midst of the hectic budget process, it was another sign that she doesn’t appreciate the urgency of the situation.
We call on the council to move Farris back to her old position as assistant city manager — but without oversight of the finance department. Over the past three years, she has failed to live up to her fiduciary responsibility.
In the meantime, the council needs to go outside the city and bring in a qualified temporary city manager who can straighten out the city’s finances until a permanent top administrator can be found.
As Farris wasn’t aware of the city’s budget problems during her three years overseeing the finance department, how is she supposed to fix them as city manager?
Ultimately, the city must have a forensic audit, and we call on the council to authorize one quickly.
A top-to-bottom audit of the city’s finances is necessary to alleviate taxpayers’ concerns, as well as set the stage for a new city manager to take office with a clean slate.
Most importantly, we call on the council to govern — and govern responsibly.
No matter what actions are taken to address this budget, their repercussions will be felt for years to come.
We can’t afford to mortgage the city’s future in order to achieve a short-term fix.
Drawing down the city’s reserves will damage the city’s ability to borrow money for future projects and restrict its ability to respond to a natural disaster, infrastructure crisis or other emergency.
Council members must reach a consensus on how to act to pass a fiscally responsible budget. It’s the job taxpayers elected them to do.
That means making necessary cuts, identifying potential savings and revenue sources, and, if necessary, raising the tax rate by a modest amount.
However, it doesn’t mean making hasty decisions to get the budget process over with before the scheduled adoption date of Sept. 13.
If they can’t get the answers they need in a timely manner, council members must vote to reject the current budget proposal and freeze the 2016 document in place.
Having done that, after the conclusion of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, the council should ask city staff for actual year-end numbers to get a true picture of where the budget stands.
Only then should the council take the major steps necessary to put the city’s finances back on the right path.
Our council members must fully understand that adopting a workable budget means not just doing what you want to do; it means doing what you have to do — despite the short-term fallout.
City council and staff, it’s time to step up.
The city’s financial future depends on it.