Killeen City Council members are to be commended for taking an important step toward addressing the city’s crumbling road infrastructure.

That step — the establishment of a street maintenance fee — was approved in a 4-2 consensus vote by the council Tuesday.

Unfortunately, Councilman Gregory Johnson, who is opposed to the fee, has taken to social media to chastise those who voted for it — even vowing to work against the re-election of those whose terms are up in May.

As an elected official, Johnson is certainly entitled to his opinion on the subject. Since his election to the council, he has been consistent in his opposition to new taxes and fees — and his position on the street maintenance fee reflects that.

But Johnson — who was out of town on business during Tuesday’s council vote —  is not affording the members who supported the fee the same courtesy.

Those who voted for the fee felt strongly that the council had to take action to address the city’s urgent street maintenance needs — and the proposed street fee does just that.

As Councilman Butch Menking put it, “The continual, ‘let’s not decide now’ is what pushed us to where we are now.”

Menking is correct in his assessment. The street maintenance fee has been voted down twice by previous councils.

For the current fiscal year, the council allocated just $300,000 in funding for street maintenance — far short of the $2 million  recommended in a 2013 road infrastructure study from Transmap.

That leaves a $1.7 million gap for the current fiscal year, and overall, a $40 million deficit in deferred maintenance costs.

The new fee would require homes, businesses, schools and churches to pay for their proportionate impact on the city’s roadways. As currently structured, the fee would add about $1.71 to residents’ monthly water bills. Commercial businesses’ fees would be based on a formula that incorporates business category, square footage and estimated traffic generated. For example, a supermarket would pay a higher fee than a professional office plaza.

The fee would generate about $1.6 million annually to be used toward maintenance of existing city streets — which would take care of the city’s yearly needs but not make much of a dent in the deferred maintenance total.

Council members could have chosen the highest proposed fee — about $6 per month for residential water customers — which would produce more than $6.2 million annually.

But in the end, the council went with the lowest proposed rate, despite considerable pressure from the public about enacting the fee in any form.

Two council members who voted for the fee — Jim Kilpatrick and Juan Rivera — responded angrily to threatening emails they had received, with Rivera saying, “If they want to vote against me for doing the right thing, then vote against me. I’ll be here.”

Obviously, the council had to do something to address the lack of street maintenance funding. Council members who bit the bullet on the street fee recognized that hard fact.

Still, the two dissenting council voters are looking for other options — and it is their right to do so.

Councilman Steve Harris urged other means of funding the road maintenance, such as increasing the city’s property tax rate or possibly rededicating the city’s funding of the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce — which amounts to $338,000.

Councilwoman Debbie Nash-King had asked that the decision be delayed for an undetermined period, citing residents’ objections to the fee.

City Manager Ron Olson acknowledged there is no good time to propose the road fee, but believes it must be done.

He also said there is very little discretionary spending left in the city budget that can be cut in order to find the money for road repairs.

With this is mind, it’s important that all council members either get on board with the fee or come up with a plan to fund the road maintenance from other sources.

Just saying “no” or “not now” isn’t an option at this point.

Over the next month, the city staff will be drafting an ordinance codifying the fee. Once it’s completed, the council will have the option of strengthening it, weakening it or rejecting it altogether.

If Councilman Johnson wants to oppose the fee, that’s fine. But instead of disparaging those who support it and threatening to work toward their election defeat, he should work with his fellow council members to devise another plan.

Standing firm on principle is laudable, but to win re-election, it’s more important to have a record of accomplishments while in office.

Establishing an equitable, dependable method of funding urgently needed street repairs would certainly qualify as a significant achievement.

On Friday, Johnson announced a Tuesday evening town hall meeting on the subject of street maintenance fees. This presents an excellent opportunity to clarify the process and help to clear up any misinformation residents may have.

However, Johnson should not view the meeting as an opportunity to rally residents against the proposed fee that his fellow council members have already signed off on.

Those residents who live in areas with crumbling streets no doubt understand the urgency for finding the money necessary to repair and maintain these roads.

For those who live in newer areas, this is about doing what’s right for the city as a whole — and for ensuring that future generations of Killeenites don’t face an even more critical problem with the city’s roadways.

Now is the time for our city’s elected officials to put aside their differences and commit to finding a workable solution to Killeen’s infrastructure crisis — whether that involves the street fee or an alternate funding source.

In working together to address this urgent need, council members can restore each others’ trust — as well as that of those who put them in office.

And that’s a road our community desperately needs to repair. | 254-501-7543

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