When the Killeen City Council held its second and final public hearing on the proposed city budget last week, seven residents stepped forward to speak.
And that was more than triple the number of residents who offered comments at the first hearing this year.
Given the fact that the city is on the cusp of approving the expenditure of more than $180 million in tax money for fiscal year 2017-2018, the low turnout at these hearings is more than unfortunate — it’s inexcusable.
The budget being proposed by City Manager Ron Olson is balanced and doesn’t include a property tax increase or increases in fees.
That may be one of the reasons residents haven’t flocked to the budget hearings, as they did last year, when the proposed budget initially projected an $8 million shortfall — a figure that raised public concern. Many residents may believe that the city has its financial house in order, so it’s best to just let the council handle the details.
However, that’s a simplistic view that overlooks the fact that the proposed budget calls for some difficult cutbacks in positions, programs and services.
Indeed, it is one of those proposed cuts — the elimination of two vacant positions in the city’s Animal Services division, along with a $30,000 reduction in supplies — that drew the seven speakers to Tuesday’s budget hearing. They argued that the cuts would would endanger the lives of animals in the Killeen Animal Shelter and compromise the stated 80 percent live release rate goal.
The residents’ passion was evident, and their comments were met with sympathetic responses from both Olson and Mayor Jose Segarra. However, in order to balance the budget, some cuts must be made — and some of those cuts are bound to be unpopular.
Still, with the exception of the outcry over the animal control cuts, little was heard from residents during the two hearings — despite a proposed budget that calls for cuts in several key areas.
The document that will go before the council for approval Tuesday 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 and doing away with lap-swim times at the city’s aquatics center.
Considering the city just recorded its 14th homicide of the year last week, the proposed cutbacks to the police department would seem to send mixed messages about the city’s commitment to public safety.
Given all these proposed cutbacks, residents should have been out in force to voice their opinions at the city’s public hearings.
But it didn’t happen.
There are a few possible explanations for the abysmal turnout at these hearings.
Perhaps residents are satisfied with the way city officials are setting spending priorities, or maybe they aren’t aware of what’s in the proposed budget. On the other hand, it’s possible that many residents simply don’t care to get involved, and others may feel their input wouldn’t make a difference.
Sadly, some of these same narratives may explain why voter turnout hasn’t topped 5 percent in the city’s last two municipal elections.
But on the heels of a $400,000 management audit that found significant deficiencies in the way the city handled its finances over a 12-year period, residents should be even more involved the city’s budget process — not less so.
Ideally, that involvement should start on the front end of the process. That means becoming familiar with the proposed budget as the process progresses, and speaking up if certain cuts or expenditures are deemed objectionable.
That’s what happened last year when the council considered closing one of the city’s libraries to save money — a discussion that drew a huge crowd of concerned residents. Ultimately, the council rejected the proposed closure, in part because of the public outcry.
But aside from seven residents’ concerns about the animal services budget, where was that public involvement this year?
Ideally, public participation in the budget process should be active and long-term.
Two Killeen residents — Bob Blair and Jack Ralston — stand out as examples of residents who see it as their responsibilty to get involved in the city’s governmental activities.
Ralston can be found at almost all council meetings, observing the discussion on each issue and taking notes. Both he and Blair are members of the city’s standing audit committee and are committed to keeping an eye on the city’s financial dealings.
The city needs more active residents as the budget waters get more treacherous in the future.
Olson is projecting significant deficits in coming years, including a $27.6 million revenue shortfall by 2037, given the city’s current spending and revenue trajectory. A lack of new revenue streams, combined with the city’s future infrastructure obligations threaten to put the city in a serious hole — and that’s something that will affect all residents.
Given that reality, budget cuts will take on even greater significance moving forward. More and more, the question won’t be whether cuts are necessary, but how many and how large.
How much can the city staff be trimmed and still function effectively?
How long can the city continue to pay managers and department heads six-figure salaries while reducing the size of the staffs they oversee?
How long can the city subsidize its airport without increasing ridership or identifying new funding sources?
Which road projects will be pushed to the back burner as competition for available funds grows?
At what point does outsourcing of trash pickup and ambulance service become a necessity rather than just an option?
These are all questions that may enter into future budget discussions — and they all impact residents at some level.
For this reason, Killeen residents owe it to themselves to get involved in the dialogue.
If we don’t speak up in budget meetings or at the ballot box, we lose our opportunity to shape the decisions that mold the future of our city.
It’s not too late to get involved, but we need to start now.