The Killeen City Council is running out of options.
After voting down a preliminary two-cent raise in the city’s tax rate last week, council members effectively took their biggest potential revenue option off the table.
That’s a problem, since the council needs to balance a budget that’s potentially about $12 million in the hole.
It makes Tuesday’s council vote on establishing a transportation utility fee more crucial, since few significant revenue options remain.
Imposing the fee would cost each resident $5.83 each month, to be included on the city water bill. The revenue — projected at about $5 million annually — would fund transportation infrastructure needs.
The concept has met council resistance, as some members have expressed concern that lower-income residents would be adversely affected.
But with less than a month remaining before the council must adopt a budget that’s seriously out of balance, it’s becoming apparent that adopting the fee could be a make-or-break proposition.
The seriousness of the situation became even more obvious late last week with the acknowledgement by several council members that Police Chief Dennis Baldwin talked to them individually to pitch the transportation utility fee, with Interim City Manager Ann Farris’ consent.
One member said Baldwin explained that Farris proposes creation of a fund using money from the Killeen Economic Development Corporation budget to offset the transportation fee for economically disadvantaged residents.
That’s all well and good, but is it the job of the council and interim city manager to pick winners and losers when it comes to fee payments?
One council member also said Farris offered funding for a forensic audit — again to come from the KEDC’s budget — as a way to sweeten the pot on the fee issue.
As several council members had expressed reservations about authorizing a forensic audit in the current budget cycle, Farris’ proposal is significant. Still, it is not her job to authorize or find funding for a forensic audit. That should be left up to the council.
It’s not likely the chief’s talks with council members constituted a breach of open meetings law — unless he solicited votes and shared council members’ responses with other members. Still, it’s not the way the city should be conducting business.
Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation, said Farris could have offered her proposal in more transparent ways, including holding a public briefing; sending out a printed briefing and posting it publicly; or having an online discussion with the council in which the public could take part.
Obviously, a lot is riding on Tuesday’s vote. If the fee is voted down, the council will be left with some undesirable options: making substantial cuts in city programs, services or positions; drawing down the city’s reserves to dangerously low levels; a combination of cuts and using reserves; or passing an unbalanced budget.
Still, even if the fee is approved, it is technically a tax — one that would be assessed on some residents who don’t use the city’s roads much or even at all. That’s certainly a consideration.
With the clock ticking, Farris finds herself in an uncomfortable situation. If the council opts not to make any changes to the budget she proposed last month, it will go into effect Oct. 1. That means taking $7.2 million from the city’s reserves to cover a projected shortfall. However, that shortfall is even larger now, after council members recently rejected certificates of obligation that would have reimbursed the city with $4.1 million — money already factored into the budget.
Now, city officials are forced to engage in 11th-hour maneuvering to push for a revenue-producing tool to pull the budget out of the ditch.
Council members must act quickly and decisively to right the city’s budget ship. Whether that means approving fees, making substantial cuts or both, it’s time to make the difficult decisions they were elected to make.
The city’s options —and the time to exercise them — are running short.