Killeen residents who oppose a proposed street maintenance fee have reason to be skeptical about the plan.

If the city is to adopt a fee, the ordinance must be extremely specific on how the money can be used. However, the proposed city charter article presented last week contained some vague language that raises legitimate concerns.

For example, the 11-page document includes rights-of-way and bridges as part of the transportation system that would benefit from the fee. Including these structures would strain the fee’s revenue beyond its intended purpose.

In concept, the fee would be a great boon to the city. If approved, it would bring in $1.6 million per year for the city’s aging road infrastructure while adding only $1.70 per month to the water bill of a single-family home and a formula-based monthly fee to commercial properties.

That sounds like a win-win, and those who see it that way are understandably outspoken in their support of the ordinance, which is scheduled to come up for a city council vote Tuesday.

But for many residents who oppose the plan, it’s not a question of the amount of the fee, but whether the city will use the revenue for its stated purpose: the maintenance and repair of the city’s roadways.

The city has allocated $330,000 for street maintenance in the current budget — far short of the $1.7 million annually recommended by a 2012 transportation study. If the city can bring in $1.6 million through the street maintenance fee, it can come close to hitting the study’s target number without relying on a separate yearly budget allotment — leaving more money for other spending priorities.

And the fee is not a bad investment for Killeen ratepayers, either.

The city’s current $330,000 allocation for street maintenance averages out to about $2.35 per year per resident, using a population figure of 140,000. With a street fee, the city’s allocation for maintenance would nearly quintuple, while costing an average of just $11.40 per resident yearly.

Still, whether this is a sound investment can only be measured by results — and that’s something that needs to be guaranteed before the street fee becomes law.

Mayor Jose Segarra told the council recently that he had asked residents if they would support adding $1.70 to their monthly water bill to fix the city’s streets. Several told him they might, but that they just didn’t trust the city with the money.

City Councilwoman Shirley Fleming said she had heard similar statements from her constituents. Fleming said Saturday she wants to see the ordinance language tightened up to ensure that the revenue is used only for repairing roads — not on bridges, rights-of-way, or possibly sidewalks and hike-and-bike trails.

She also said residents deserve more transparency and accountability regarding the fee, calling for a regularly updated road repair priority list, a city audit of the program every six months with a report to the council and a running fund balance shared with the public via the city website.

In short, Fleming favors implementation of the fee, as long as it’s done with transparency and acccountabilty. Still, she acknowledged that council approval of the fee is important — even if the ordinance needs to be amended after the fact.

Fleming is correct in her assessment. This isn’t just a money issue; crumbling road infrastructure is a safety issue and a quality-of-life issue, and one the city’s elected leaders can’t afford to put off any longer.

If the ordinance passes, council should work to ensure priority is given to projects in older parts of town, which have been largely neglected as the city has grown to the south and west. Residents in these areas have been subsidizing the roads and streets of newer areas with their tax money, while seeing little benefit in their own neighborhoods.

Former City Councilman Dick Young noted last week that some older streets have been repaved so many times that the road surface is higher than the curb, causing drainage issues as well.

Finally, city policy must specify that the revenue not be commingled with general street department fund money, where it could be used for miscellaneous administrative expenses and employee raises.

The modest $1.70 residential fee proposed is far below a of $6-per-month rate that had been offered as an option by city staff. The higher rate would have brought in nearly five times as much revenue, but it would have had impacted some residents severely.

Still, some residents — and indeed, some council members — seem to be somewhat unclear about the rates to be charged or exactly how the fee would work. At a recent town hall on the subject, Councilmen Gregory Johnson and Jim Kilpatrick offered conflicting information on the plan’s details.

In addition, several business owners have expressed frustration about how their properties would be classified and charged under the 77-category rate structure contained in the proposed street maintenance fee plan — especially those whose businesses have multiple facets of operation.

Certainly, these are areas that must be addressed and clarified before the city starts charging its water customers next year.

If the fee is approved Tuesday, it will go into effect the following day, but there will be a six-month “implementation period” before it shows up on residents’ water bills.

The city will need that time to work out the bugs — and to reassure residents that the fee will be a good investment in the city’s future.

For most residents, the proposed fee is relatively small, but the matter of trust is certainly not.

And that trust — as much as better, safer city streets — is riding on the efficient and transparent implementation of this plan. | 254-501-7543

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