It took seven weeks, but Killeen City Council members finally reached agreement on some significant cuts to the municipal budget Tuesday.
If the council formally votes to approve the $4.87 million in reductions this week, it will still find itself with a funding shortfall of $1 million for the 2017 budget. Still, it’s a far cry from the $7.2 million interim City Manager Ann Farris said they needed to find when she presented her proposed budget on July 19.
That was nearly two months ago. With the Sept. 20 deadline to adopt a budget looming large, the question is, what took them so long?
One reason is the process itself; another factor is the politics involved in making tough choices.
The budget Farris initially proposed not only called for no cuts in spending; it actually projected a nearly 10 percent increase. The strategy proposed for meeting the $7.2 million funding deficit was to draw down the city’s reserves by 40 percent — a step that would cloud the city’s financial future.
But instead of looking at potential spending cuts, Farris proceeded to give the council presentations on potential revenue sources, including a tax increase and new fees.
All but a few council members balked at those options, and then the body sat through several weeks of detailed presentations on each city department before taking up the subject of cutbacks.
Council meetings dragged on well into the night, with several sessions lasting more than six hours each. As the budget deadline approached, weary council members were suffering from information overload.
But the council members’ indecision can’t be blamed solely on too many charts and graphs.
It became apparent over the course of the last few weeks that political considerations often outweighed common sense — especially in discussing a possible increase in the city’s property tax rate. By refusing to raise the preliminary rate, the council locked the city into a rate no higher than the current tax rate, cutting off a much-needed revenue source.
The same held true with the vote on transportation utility fees, which would have increased residents’ monthly water bills by $5.83, while adding nearly $5 million to the city’s coffers annually.
When cutbacks were proposed, several council members initially drew lines in the sand, though it was obvious significant spending cuts would be required in order to make ends meet.
At Tuesday’s meeting, it was apparent that most council members finally recognized the urgency of coming to a consensus on spending reductions, including a 2.5 percent funding cut across all departments, potentially saving the city about $2.39 million.
Council members Richard “Dick” Young, Shirley Fleming, Jim Kilpatrick and Gregory Johnson are to be commended for taking the lead on pushing for the spending reductions, as they are sorely needed. In fact, Johnson called for a 5 percent, across-the-board spending cut early in the budget process — a step that could have gone a long way toward addressing the shortfall.
However, even if the council adopts the proposed cuts Tuesday and the 2017 budget is brought into balance, it’s only a one-year fix.
Farris’ projections show that unless the city creates other revenue streams moving forward, the city will be forced to dip into its fund balance in progressively larger amounts through 2020.
Clearly, dealing with Killeen’s budget is going to be a multiyear challenge that will require significant changes in the way the city does business if it is to achieve financial solvency.
Certainly, a new city manager and a forensic audit will go a long way toward addressing deficiencies in the city’s financial management.
But Killeen also must have council members who are willing to ask the hard questions and make the difficult decisions required to keep spending in check — and do so all year long.
The city and its residents deserve no less.