Killeen needs roadwork. Roadwork costs money. Killeen doesn’t have enough.
Those three stark realities have provided the impetus for an engineering study on the feasibility of a street maintenance fee that would be added to monthly city water bills. The money raised from each customer would be earmarked for repairs in that specific part of town, ultimately benefitting the entire city.
The proposed fee would only be about $5 per water customer. But while an extra $5 would hardly be noticed by most residents, it would be somewhat of a hardship to others.
This is especially a problem in the northern portion of Killeen, where much of the road infrastructure problems are — and also where the residents tend to have lower incomes than in other parts of the city.
At last week’s City Council meeting, members watched a city PowerPoint presentation that explained how the amount of the fee would be determined by the type of property being charged and the estimated amount of daily car trips to and from that location.
Of course, that can only be an approximation. Lots of people in the downtown area walk, ride the bus, use bicycles or depend on others for transportation. So obviously, no fee plan can be foolproof.
As it’s currently envisioned, the transportation fee would also be applied to commercial properties.
Public Works Director David Olson said fees assessed to commercial businesses would vary by the size and type of business.
That’s fair. Obviously, a large grocery store or retail outlet would generate heavy traffic. Since those vehicles take a toll on the roads surrounding those stores, it makes sense to charge those businesses proportionately more than a smaller business with lower traffic counts.
However, coming up with a workable formula that generates enough revenue without discouraging retail development may be somewhat problematic.
If a business is assessed a fee partly based on its square footage, large warehouse-style businesses would see an outsized impact. If it’s too large, the fee might discourage businesses from expanding or adding workers.
Still, the fee has the potential to provide a steady revenue stream for city road maintenance, and that’s something Killeen is sorely lacking.
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 $1.7 million gap is still facing the city as the council heads into budget planning for fiscal year 2019. Obviously, something must be done before a serious infrastructure problem becomes a public safety crisis.
The street fee has been voted down twice by previous councils, but members apparently see the urgency in dealing with an estimated $40 million in deferred maintenance needs.
At this point, it looks as if the majority of the council is ready to move forward once the new engineering study is completed sometime next month.
But before the transportation fee issue comes up for a final vote, council members must carefully consider how it’s implemented. For example, will the city offer exemptions to low-income residents, disabled veterans or people over age 65?
If there is an income consideration, where will the cutoff be and who decides? If disabled veterans are given a break — as they are on property taxes — what level of disability will earn the exemption?
No doubt, what seems like a logical exemption to one group may be seen as arbitrary favoritism to another. And no matter how complex and scientific the formula used to calculate the fee, it will still be seen as unfair by some on the receiving end.
Though fairness will always be a problem, money — or lack thereof — may be the deciding factor.
That’s why some council members are entertaining the possibility of rescinding the airport parking fee exemption offered to at least 50-percent disabled veterans and certain medal recipients — an arrangement that has been in place since the airport opened in 2004 and codified into law in 2015.
A city staff report presented to the council last week showed Killeen lost about 43 percent of its potential airport parking revenue to exemptions in 2017 — an amount that topped $300,000 and was more than $50,000 higher than the previous year.
Still, with veterans comprising a significant portion of the city’s population and Killeen on the doorstep of the nation’s largest military installation, eliminating the free-parking perk would send the wrong message.
Veterans’ exemptions in and of themselves are not the problem.
Certainly, the city is struggling to offset the $5 million impact of state-mandated property tax exemptions to our disabled veterans, but as city officials readily acknowledge, the problem lies with the state’s inadequate compensation for this mandate, not with our deserving veterans.
By the same token, the city must look for other ways to compensate for the lost airport parking revenue.
How to do that?
Impact fees have been discussed. But these fees on permits for new construction can be applied only to infrastructure in the immediate area. Further, the city wouldn’t see revenue from the fees for about two years. As such, they wouldn’t address immediate road repair needs, especially in the older parts of town, where significant new construction is unlikely.
Raising the property tax is also a possibility, although Killeen’s rate of 74.98 cents per $100 valuation is already among the highest of area cities, behind only Copperas Cove.
As it is, Killeen residents are facing a likely 15-cent property tax hike this fall, as the Killeen Independent School District moves to fund its $426 million school construction bonds that voters approved in May.
Add to that a potential city bond issue to pay for roads to serve a new high school included in the Killeen ISD bond, and residents are looking at a significant hit to their pocketbooks.
Meanwhile, balancing Killeen’s municipal budget will continue to be a challenge, with the city looking at a projected $27 million deficit by 2037 if current revenue and spending patterns remain unchanged.
Ultimately, the city’s leadership must find workable, long-term solutions that will keep the city in the black while not placing a heavy burden on its residents.
As council members are no doubt aware, that’s easier said than done.