Crime, city budget and street fees were some talking points on March 9 at a Killeen City Council candidate forum held by the Killeen Daily Herald.

All 13 candidates — vying for the three at-large seats in the May 2 municipal election — were asked questions drafted by the Herald’s editorial staff.

More than 100 people attended the forum at the Killeen Civic and Conference Center. The candidates were given five questions ranging from their stance on impact fees to how to augment a new street fee that is issued through utility bills. Each candidate was also provided a one-minute opening and closing statement to make their pitches to voters.

When asked about top issues facing Killeen, all voiced their concern for better funding support of the city’s first responders and better retention of police department employees. Another issue echoed among the group was finding new revenue streams.

On impact fees, 12 candidates voiced full support of impact fees — which would be charged to developers to help pay for infrastructure leading to new developments.

Incumbent Butch Menking, who voted against the fees, said his reason behind his vote was that businesses were included in the proposed ordinance. The controversial discussion stems from a Dec. 17, 2019, vote of 4-3 against charging developers and builders a one-time rate to offset the cost of growth.

For more on how the candidates answered their stance on impact fees, visit bit.ly/KDHImpactFees.

Because of the large number of candidates, questions were asked in two sets during the forum. The groups were divided alphabetically. Group A was asked one question and Group B was asked a different question on the same topic.

The council candidates are Elizabeth Blackstone, Mellisa Brown, Nina Cobb, Carla Escalante, Rosalyn Finley, Leo Gukeisen, Tolly James Jr., Menking, Placidio Juan Rivera, Edward Skinner, Kenny Wells, Ken Wilkerson and Rickey Williams.

Blackstone, Brown, Cobb, Escalante, Finley, Gukeisen and James were placed in Group A. Rivera, Skinner, Wells, Wilkerson and Williams were in Group B.

CRIME

Group A

How would you propose to work with neighborhoods in order to curb crime citywide?

Blackstone: “Like some of us, and I have been here all my life; I’ve never been in any kind of fear. I think most of us are very safe in our community. There has been crime, but there isn’t a city in the country that doesn’t have some sort of crime. Someone already mentioned here that we have vacancies in our police department. We need to fill those vacancies by paying our policemen with a good wage so that people would want to come here and work for our department.”

Brown: “I will continue to do exactly what I am doing right now. I am a part of the 76541 (Community) Coalition. We’re an organization that is helping to reduce crime across the city. We decided to start the 76541 on the north side because that is where the majority of the crime is. We are taking a holistic approach to it and we have different committees doing different things including voter registration and citizen engagement.”

Cobb: “When we think about crime in Killeen; we think of programs that are already established. As a first responder, we need community persons to come in and join the programs that we have. Our police department has an excellent program for prevention. They have neighborhood watch, the citizens patrol training, sensitivity training … we also have to remember something that is very important; we are our brothers and sisters keepers. We got to know what’s going on in our community.”

Escalante: “Many mentioned that the youth doesn’t have a lot of things to do here and neither do our young adults. Are there enough trade schools? Are we offering enough programs that would train you for a job? We’re not. And so, if we address this part, nobody is going to get bored ... because some of these cars and petty thefts; I guarantee you, are out of boredom. You address the first issue, which is giving our youth and our young adults proper programs of prevention.”

Finley: “One thing is that people don’t do crime in well-lit areas. Two, I realize that ... we have the best training, as I’ve been told, as far as the police. However, people come here, obtain the training and then leave. So an increase in their wages could keep them. Other things … yes, if you see something, say something. We are our community. We can keep one another safe by speaking out and being available.”

Gukeisen: “One thing … is to increase on the neighborhood watch programs. Neighborhood Watch, when they first started, was a good thing. It’s still a good thing. We need to get more of our community involved with it. Having additional police on the road, yes it will help but that goes back to the other part of it — retaining them to stay in Killeen with their pay and benefits. But I also would like to see more of the old school community policing, where the police officers are out in the community more … talking to them. They need to know the residents; the residents get to know them and they build that bond of trust that is needed.”

James: “In reference to crime … I’ve been working with Councilman (Steve) Harris and Councilwoman (Shirley) Fleming on establishing a neighborhood watch and what it requires is for us to plug in and educate. And … it doesn’t cost as much as you think to keep the (street) lights on. We’ve got to do some practical things … If you want to keep your first responders, you are going to have to spend some money. That means you gotta make some hard decisions and make some cuts where there needs to be cuts and everything is not the same. We must have safety in the city and we have to make some hard decisions, and I am willing to do that.”

Group B

What are the crimes that impact your neighborhoods the most, and what steps would you propose to address them?

Menking: “I live in the Jasper Heights neighborhood, and the crime that impacts us the most is the petty stuff, the car break-ins and vandalism. I think one of things that I think people ought to pay attention to is because of Killeen’s geography, the distance that the police have to cover in order for law enforcement, makes it impossible to be everywhere at all times. What it is going to require is the citizens of Killeen … getting to know your neighbor across the street, behind you and either side of you … that is what is going to cut so much of what is going on.”

Rivera: “I live over off Bunny Trail and it’s a nice neighborhood. We moved in (the neighborhood) four years ago, and when we went out to dinner one night and the next house over from me; there was a murder. It doesn’t matter where you live; crime is everywhere. I would like to give a shout-out to KPD because I think they do a great job with the resources they have; but we need to be able to provide them more. It would be awesome to have a hands-on approach with these neighborhoods. We as citizens need to look at being proactive rather than reactive and the simple thing to do is our neighborhood watches … that’s probably the best thing you could do that could have an immediate impact.”

Skinner: “I live in what I consider to be a safe neighborhood … I feel that the best thing is for us as people, as individuals, to form a neighborhood watch, to be vigilant. To work with one another to make sure crime doesn’t come into our neighborhood. Prevention is the best cure. Let’s prevent crime, let’s work together, let’s form neighborhood watch. Do all what we can do so the police don’t have to.”

Wells: “Fortunately, I live in a neighborhood where there is very little crime and I attribute that to nosy neighbors. If a car pulls up to my house, there will be about three people that would call me in about five minutes. We all have to be vigilant … beyond that we have to address what causes crime. And I believe the drug epidemic we have in this country is behind a lot of that crime and until we address that we are going to have continuing crime. But in the front of preventing it, nosy neighbors is the best solution in my opinion.”

Wilkerson: “First off, I would like to thank KPD for doing such an extraordinary job as they have done so far. They are severely undersourced. I say one of the things that we could do, of course the neighborhood watch … we have to get away from that whole transient form of thought for the city of Killeen where we are just thinking about fixing one area where we plug one area in the dam … and then another breaks loose. We need strategic leadership to think beyond that. Like how do we fund our police force so they can be prepared 5, 10, 20 years into the future.”

Williams: “I’ve lived on Goodnight Ranch for 14 years. It is a very safe neighborhood. The only type of crime has been domestic violence. Unfortunately, about six months ago, there was a gentleman that was shot and killed in a domestic type of incident. KPD does a great job of keeping the area safe. For the city, yes, we need to have more patrols. But that comes down to funding, economics.”

BUDGET OVERSIGHT

Group A

What steps would you take to properly oversee the taxpayers’ money?

Blackstone: “I think it’s very important that we have fiscal responsibility. That starts by growing our tax base. We need to have more sources of revenue. We have a lot of houses but they don’t all produce revenue. We have a lot of people who are exempt from taxes because of benefits from the state and some of that is being reimbursed. There are lots of issues in our city with money; it’s very important to keep tabs on that.”

Brown: “We do have an issue with not having enough revenue, which is why it is crucial that a council pays attention to every penny that is being spent in the city. A big part of this is every month there is a report that comes out that tells what money is spent on the budget, what revenue that we brought in — that is easily accessible not only to councilmembers but to the general public. One other thing that I am already doing as a citizen, that I haven’t seen the city council do at all, is requesting a copy of all of the change orders.

Cobb: “In the State of the City address by our mayor, he stated that the city of Killeen was in good standing. I think it is our responsibility as we become part of the council … that we work with our city manager and our city staff. It’s already been stated that we are in good standing. In the Sept. 17, 2019, progress report by the Killeen Daily Herald, you also saw that point. We have make sure that our expenditures stay within our budget. And that way we can continue to be, as our mayor has stated, in good standing.”

Escalante: “When the 2019-2020 budget was available; I studied it for several nights because I like numbers. When I was in served in the Marine Corps, I was part of the Lean Six Sigma, where we ensured that the Navy and the Marine ships were ready to go, budget friendly and always ready. So if I can handle something of that multitude, little Sgt. Escalante, then Carla Escalante can handle this.

Finley:“How would we would fix it? Is to oversee all the funds and making sure they are being allocated properly. That they are being spent where they’re supposed to be spent. We have people being paid enourmous amounts of money for adminstrative jobs ... I’m not sure how we would exactly fix the budget in that aspect. For one, is to make sure that money is not stolen and people don’t get away with it anymore.”

Gukeisen: “We have to be responsible for the finances that the city spends. We received the taxes and everything but we have to be responsible of where to send it to. Two years ago, they passed (an ordinance) … it allowed the city manager to take care of things under $50,000. My belief is, if you are not an elected official, you should not have a say of where it (money) goes. The citizens elected the mayor, the city council to do that. And we need to be briefed on where our money is going.”

James: “The last two years running we’ve talked about the budget. One of things I’ve mentioned, and I talked a little about it before we got started, in everybody’s lives we have to make adjustments, tighten some belts. But governments … all they do is go out and get money, get some more money. When you get a budget … we must be more proactive and look at every choice of what we are spending. Just because you spend $15,000 in office supplies this year, does not mean you need $20,000 next year. I know that is trivial, but that is where we are at as a city.”

Group B

How would you communicate with your constituents when it comes to large or controversial city expenditures?

Menking: “Transparency in city finances … that is something that is really important. That is why so much is being put on the website about those types of things. Through emails (and) phone calls, there are all kinds of things that are available to citizens whenever there is an issue coming before city council. We meet with them and have dialogue with constituents about controversial issues … and usually it ends up being an issue of information and understanding.”

Rivera: “Simply put, the council is privy to various information that we are not as average citizens. Now we can find a lot of things by doing the research … and hopefully people have the time. But in reality most people don’t. So I would think that, and I know that I would push if I was on council … finding more ways of doing it (being transparent).”

Skinner: “I was raised on a ranch and there is a simple thing to us: If you can feed three horses, that’s fine; don’t buy a fourth. It doesn’t make sense. You have to keep your expenditures within your means. The overall question is ‘Can we afford to do it?’ If we cannot not afford to do it; let’s not do it.”

Wells: “I am fiscally responsible and I am transparent. We have a city council-city manager type government. The city council adopts the budget and the city manager administers it and we have to have a strong city manager to make that happen … after they adopt that budget, the city manager is in charge of it from that point on. And the only option we have to deal with the city manager is to dismiss him and that is something that we don’t want to do. We have to have a strong city manager to help solve these problems.

Wilkerson: “Transparency is the key to economic development. As far as the transparency for the budget … we can no longer go through a time where we spend money and we can’t account for it. I work for you as a city councilmember. I need to be able to tell you where your dollars are spent. Not only in my heart, but in my mind and my energy and my time have to be committed to doing just that … the dialogue that began 10 years ago talking to citizens, that has to continue. We can’t get elected as city councilmembers and turn our backs and not talk to the public.”

Williams: “As your elected officials, we’re responsible to you. When you vote to put one of us in that chair; you’re saying ‘Hey I want you to be my voice. I want you to be my eyes and ears.’ When it comes to your tax dollar, that you work hard for, we have to be able to give you all of the information; pro and con and let you choose. How do we do that? We do that by mail, we do by internet, by posting district meetings ... so that you are informed and want to make great decisions.”

STREET MAINTENANCE

Group A

What other ways would you propose to fund street repairs and maintenance in Killeen?

Blackstone: “I agree with the funding on the water bill. I think everybody shares in that equally. If you just drive around Killeen, you see how important the streets are and what bad shape some of them are in, especially on the northside. It’s really important that we fund and fix those streets. Now if you wait, it would only get worse. So it’s important to do it upfront and pay for it now.”

Brown: “Some of the same people that voted ‘no’ on impact fees, voted ‘yes’ on street maintenance fees. Why is that important? Because that means that they are saying that a citizen should be footing the bill for the entirety of streets … we need to better allocate the funds that we have so its better spending three-quarters of a million dollars a year on the chamber of commerce; you take that money and maintain the streets that we have within the city.”

Cobb: “Our council just passed the maintenance fee. We haven’t given it a chance to work yet. We got to get the stats and statistics on what maintenance fees are doing now. Once we get that general report, then we go from there and make those decisions. I can’t even tell you what to do until I know what is working. We’ve got to know what’s working. We need to give maintenance fees … a chance to work.”

Escalante: “I think one of the most important things to do is to model behavior that we want others to follow. So if we are modeling for our citizens to pay for a street maintenance fee in our water bill, then we should model that developers, housing developers, builders should pay part of that cost. Not only that, but hold whoever is bidding these (road) contracts accountable for a couple of years.”

Finley: “We are allowing contracts to be written with an open end. That leaves the taxpayers in debt. We are already in debt. These are things we’ve been already saying; the allocation of funds that we already have need to be used properly. Let’s make sure that they are utilizing our funds in a good manner.”

Gukeisen: “I was told many years ago that the lowest bid is not the best bid to take. We need to spend a little more upfront at the end of the deal. The issue with the impact fees, if we did have impact fees as stated, we could redistribute the money into a street maintenance fee area. With the maintenance fee itself, it’s a new thing that just came onboard. We do need to wait and see how it works out. Once we get the results back, we can adjust.”

James: “One thing that we do need to do in reference to the streets that we have to make them last longer … we have to look at our street standards … something that we could have done ideawise — the same way that we set up the capital improvements fund — by taking everything over 22% (saving reserves) and placing it into capital improvement; we could’ve just as well took 1%, did the same kind of legislation, and put that towards street maintenance. It’s all about our priorities.”

Group B

What streets would be your priority for repairs and why?

Menking: “That’s a tough question. One of the things that the city has got in place … is a street study. So we are going to see on a priority basis on road wear across the city and how prioritize it based on road age. So it’s gotta be done in a systematic, programming way. I would say it really needs to be the streets for sure that provide an economic engine which is the main transport around the city.”

Rivera: “As a general contractor, I always told my customers you’re gonna pay on the front end or you’re gonna pay on the back end. And the back end is always more expensive. I agree with Mr. Menking; you certainly need to look at the streets that are an economic engine flow.”

Skinner: “We do need to prioritize. We need to find out what streets are being abused the most and take care of those first. My street where I live is in very good shape. Some others apparently Bunny Trail isn’t. The other thing to look at … I don’t know if our streets are put down to handle 18-wheelers. And if not we need to stop that.”

Wells: “That’s a difficult question but just right off-hand it’s Watercrest and Stagecoach. And these are actually roads that the city actually built instead of developers. And unless things have changed when I last served on the council many years ago, the state regulated and required you to hire certain engineering firms regardless of what the city felt about them … that needs to be changed and that need to be addressed to the Legislature.”

Wilkerson: “I believe the roads that need to be repaired by Killeen ... we need to go by data … leadership just said that we need to bring in the data to find out what is invested in repair. We have to trust our city’s civil servants in order to go out. They have been trained, doing this for decades at a time. As leaders on the city council, we have to make the ultimate decision. But that data needs to be brought in first.”

Williams: “Every one of us wants our streets to be good. Every one of us wants sidewalks in our neighborhoods. However, we have to have data to look at to say these streets are the priority. That is the first thing we should be looking at … so we have to look at the data, look at the usage to determine what is the right place to start. So … what is the street? It’s every street because we are all citizens and we all deserve to have good streets in our neighborhoods.”

Monique Brand - Killeen Daily Herald

mbrand@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7567

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Monique 'Mo' Brand joined the Herald in May 2019. Before that, she covered border coverage and county government in Arizona. She also worked as a reporter in Kerrville, Los Angeles, and Norfolk Virginia. The U.S. Navy veteran grew up in Killeen.

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