How do you want the city to spend your tax money?
Should public safety be a top priority? What about programs and services? Where does roadwork and water and sewer infrastructure fall on the “wish list?”
Killeen residents have an opportunity to weigh in on these spending priorities when the City Council holds a public hearing on the proposed budget Tuesday.
The hearing will start at 5 p.m. in City Council Chambers, on the lower level of Killeen City Hall.
Residents should be gratified that the current budget proposal bears little resemblance to last year’s preliminary budget — which called for a 10 percent spending hike in the face of a projected $8 million shortfall.
By contrast, this year’s budget is balanced and calls for no new taxes or fees.
That’s the good news.
On the downside, the proposed budget calls for the elimination of 25 positions from the Killeen Police Department, a freeze on most street projects and cutbacks in several city recreation activities — including eliminating all morning activities at the Killeen Community Center.
With limited funding available, and with the city taking a $4 million hit from state-mandated tax exemptions for disabled veterans, it was inevitable that City Manager Ron Olson would have to identify some significant cost savings in order to balance the budget.
But funding priorities are largely subjective — and not everyone may agree on where the cutbacks should take place, or how large they should be.
That’s where Tuesday’s hearing comes in.
Should the city’s crime rate make police protection the top priority in the budget? Should the elimination of 22 vacant police positions and cuts to police and fire overtime be cause for concern?
Several residents said as much at Thursday’s KPD Community Forum, and indicated they would attend Tuesday’s budget hearing, especially after Chief Margaret Young noted that nine vacant patrol officer positions and one police captain slot will be cut as part of a department restructuring.
At the forum, Young cited figures showing that violent crime is up 19 percent from this time last year, and property crimes are up more than 10 percent during the same period.
Given these statistics, residents have reason to question whether trimming the police budget is the best way to achieve savings.
On the other hand, public safety expenditures have been a major draw on the city budget, accounting for 65 percent of the general fund expenditures in the 2016-2017 budget.
Olson’s proposed cuts have reduced this bite to 60 percent of budget expenditures.
Still, even with the reductions, the city faces a $600,000 increase in police and fire salaries because Olson has committed to fund the 8 percent public safety “step” increases.
It could be argued that the 8 percent step increase, first authorized by the council in 2015 — when the money was not readily available — is what threw the city’s budget into a tailspin in the first place.
It’s also debatable how effective that annual raise has been in helping the city to retain police, fire and EMS personnel.
Nevertheless, it’s important that residents who agree with the proposed cuts and salaries — and those who don’t — voice their opinions at Tuesday’s meeting.
Of course, residents are likely to air their concerns about more issues than just public safety — and well they should.
Already getting a buzz are the proposed cutbacks to recreational activities, such as the elimination of lap-swim hours at the Lions Club Park Family Aquatic Center, as well as the continued closure of Pershing Park Pool and the elimination of half of the free classes offered to members at the Lions Club Park Family Recreation Center.
The city also needs about $40 million in road and street repairs, but funding is simply not there, and much of the work must be deferred.
The bottom line is that in order to balance the budget, money has to be found somewhere, and not everyone is going to be happy with the cutbacks chosen.
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Kilpatrick noted at Thursday’s KPD forum that fewer than 30 people showed up for the last three workshops at which the council reviewed the proposed budget.
That’s unfortunate, but those workshops didn’t afford residents a public comment period.
Still the low turnout is a sharp contrast from last year’s city budget and tax rate hearings, which drew standing-room-only crowds.
Last summer, residents were up in arms over the $8 million shortfall, as well as some of the proposals advanced to bridge the funding gap — including closing a library branch and cutting employee pay.
Neither of those options was chosen, as council members found other ways to bring expenditures and revenue into line — including across-the-board department cuts and slashing contributions to the city’s economic development corporation.
This year, residents may be under the impression that everything is fine and there is no urgency associated with the budget process.
This simply isn’t so. Just because the proposed budget is technically balanced doesn’t mean the city has a handle on expenses — especially looking down the road.
The city staff’s budget projections envision a $27.8 million deficit by 2037 if the current revenue and expenditure trends continue.
One-time developer impact fees and transportation utility fees — charged to the city’s utility ratepayers — are two potential revenue streams that have been discussed, but both have met with opposition, as have property tax increases.
Obviously, what cutbacks are identified and what new revenue sources are selected will be crucial to making ends meet.
As taxpayers stand to be impacted by these choices, it’s crucial that residents let city officials know how they want to proceed.
Tuesday’s meeting is an excellent starting point for that discussion. A second public hearing on the budget is scheduled for Sept. 12.
No doubt, residents are looking to the council and city manager to “fix the problem.” After all, that’s what they were elected, and hired, to do.
But residents also must recognize that they are a necessary part of the solution.
An important first step in that process begins this week.