Killeen residents are worried about the state of the city’s finances — and they have reason to be.
An overflow crowd packed Killeen City Council chambers last week for a public hearing on the tax rate, and most of them stayed for a workshop on the city budget.
During the course of the evening Tuesday, two things became abundantly clear: First, the public wants answers regarding the city’s financial health. Second, the council has made little headway toward resolving what is now a $5.86 million shortfall by the Sept. 20 budget adoption deadline.
That leaves just two weeks in which to decide where to cut spending and how much to cut.
The problem is, to date, the council has been unable to reach agreement on anything substantial in the way of spending reductions besides dissolving the city’s curbside recycling program.
Meanwhile, they’ve voted down two significant potential revenue sources for the coming budget cycle — a property tax rate increase and a transportation utility fee. While neither of those options would have been popular with the public, they would have gone a long way to addressing the shortfall.
So now the council’s biggest remaining option is the budget knife. But are they willing to use it? It’s time for council members to step up in this area — and for residents to demand they do.
First, the council must consider an across-the-board spending cut for all city departments. Councilman Jim Kilpatrick last week suggested a 2.5 percent cut, but at least a 5 percent cut should be considered if the council is serious about curbing expenditures.
Second, the council should eliminate all city positions that have not been filled in the last six months — with the exception of city manager, fire chief and city engineer.
Third, the council should move to eliminate overtime pay across all departments, except in pre-approved emergency situations.
Fourth, the council must review and eliminate all open-ended contracts in an effort to produce competitive bidding and lower costs to the city.
Finally, the council must reduce the city’s allocations to the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce and Killeen Economic Development Corporation by at least 50 percent, as discussed at last week’s workshop. With a proposed budget of more than $677,000 for the chamber and nearly $773,000 for KEDC, spending in these areas merits serious scrutiny. Though the allocations are based on contract language, the city must revise these agreements so that they are performance-based, rather than automatic.
Council members last week heard that interim City Manager Ann Farris and city staffers had “found” ways to reduce the shortfall by $1.3 million.
But it appears the latest budget estimations are based more on assumptions than reality. For instance, the city is banking on a much higher rate of EMS debt collection; officials are counting on a revised, higher estimate of sales tax revenue; and a proposal has been floated to save more than $980,000 by eliminating the discount offered residents for paying their property taxes early.
Not only does this appear to be largely smoke and mirrors, but it’s unclear if that last option is workable. Since the Bell County Tax Appraisal District sends out the property tax bills and collects the revenue, it’s debatable whether the city can change the rules so late in the game. The first discount payment date, Oct. 1, is less than a month away.
The city has another public hearing — this time to discuss the budget — at 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Last week’s participants were knowledgeable and focused — and they were not happy. It’s imperative that residents show up in large numbers once again and tell city officials how to proceed.
Killeen’s budget crisis is not just a temporary problem. If it’s not properly addressed, it threatens to cloud the city’s financial future for years to come.
The time for impassioned public input — and decisive action — is now.