The Killeen City Council narrowly rejected a measure last week that would have funded a matching grant with Bell County to enable the Boys & Girls Club’s of Central Texas to move forward with its second phase of development at a downtown facility.

The proposed grant of $750,000 would have been matched with another $750,000 from Bell County, as well as another $500,000 in pledged private funding — a total project of $2 million.

“This is an unprecedented time,” Vice President of Resource Development for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Texas Daniel Hall said on Tuesday. “We have a rare opportunity to complete our project.”

The council tentatively voted down the measure in a 4-3 vote.

The American Rescue Plan and Capital Improvement Projects

The money was made possible through the American Rescue Plan Act — a national debt-relief fund passed by Congress in March. Killeen received a total of $29 million in funds for use on anything COVID-19 related — that includes rent relief, salary relief including overtime and community development.

Prior to the Tuesday meeting, the council had allocated $2.7 million of its $29.1 million for the Hotel Occupancy Fund, which helps with community development and grants to the arts. This left about $26 million for capital improvement projects.

Capital improvement projects are large, multi-year projects that have a strong impact on the city. This year — thanks to the $29 million in federal coronavirus funding — Killeen City Manager Kent Cagle offered a total package of 36 programs, including four projects that were brought to the council for preliminary approval at Tuesday’s council meeting.

According to Executive Director of Finance Jon Locke, the four programs presented Tuesday were of a “time-sensitive nature,” and included $11 million for a new Emergency Operations and Training Center for the fire department, a $2 premium pay and 4% cost of living adjustment increase for public safety officers, a $500,000 grant to work with Habitat for Humanity to create small modular homes for those afflicted by homelessness, and $750,000 to create a matching grant with Bell County to fund phase 2 of the Killeen Boys & Girls Club’s expansion.

Councilwoman Mellisa Brown, who along with Mayor Pro Tem Debbie Nash King and Councilwoman Jessica Gonzalez voted to match the 750,000 grant for the club, said in an email exchange Friday that the new project fits the tight criteria of the American Rescue Plan because it would help to mitigate violence as a community violence intervention program, and by providing solutions to address negative effects of the pandemic in disproportionately impacted populations.

“The combination of activities for low income youth and family counseling are two areas that the City Council has identified as priorities for reducing crime, especially among the youth,” Brown said.

According to Hall, the proposed facility would include a full gymnasium, a college and career center for teens, and a Community Counseling and Family Therapy Center that would be operated by Texas A&M University-Central Texas faculty and students completing practicum hours.

“Upon completion of this facility, Boys & Girls Clubs will be in a position to serve teens in North Killeen for the first time in over two decades. This is a major strategic goal for our organization as there are over 500 teens that reside within a 1 square mile radius of this location,” Hall said.

Phase one saw the renovation of the First Texas Bank at 703 N. 8th Street, which was acquired by the club in July of 2020.

The club’s location is in downtown, which has been deteriorating for decades and the revitalization of which has been the central tenet of multiple city councils.

Currently, Boys & Girls Clubs serves approximately 8,000 teens per month in the Killeen-Fort Hood area, according to Hall. At the downtown location, the clubs gets about 450 to 500 “unique youth” per year, Hall said.

The downtown center provides after school care, a form of reduced lunch and even amateur cooking classes. According to Hall, the center averaged a 150 kids a day during peak summer days, and they are expecting about 120 kids per day once the school year starts.

“We try to encourage kids to eat healthy and give them something to do,” Hall said during a tour of the facility Friday.

According to Hall, the new facility, which would be built adjacent to the current building, would enable the club to reach an additional 500 children a month through the increased facility space. Proponents of the measure have cited family relief, community development and a safer, reinvigorated downtown.

Priorities and constraints

The matter isn’t quite so simple, however, according to critics. The budgeting process is always a challenging ordeal, at all levels of government, as every program is vital to the one who proposed it. Every year, there are tough, impactful program packages presented that often include aspects that council members ran on. This year, the council has leeway — $29 million of it — but that freedom comes at a cost.

Council members Ken Wilkerson, Nina Cobb, Michael Boyd and Rickey Williams voted against the measure to fund the Boys & Girls club expansion.

When asked if the rejection of the funds for the club’s project was a missed opportunity, Wilkerson said that there was still the possibility of funding the program.

“Everything on that list is an opportunity,” Wilkerson said.

In the sixth hour of the Tuesday workshop meeting that ended at midnight, the council began to feel a sense of urgency — and an overwhelming feeling that they were being forced to a decision, according to Wilkerson.

“Yours is a very palatable program,” Wilkerson said during the workshop. “But one issue that I have with this is that I don’t particularly like being backed into a corner by the county.”

Mounting pressure

The clock is ticking, however, as Bell County officially begins its budget process Monday , and must adopt its budget by Aug. 16.

That deadline has added pressure to the council’s action on the possible $750,000 matching grant.

“If the grant match does not occur from the city, that’s a condition of the grant,” said Bell County Judge David Blackburn.

If Killeen does not give firm commitment soon that it will match the $750,000, Bell County’s portion of the funding would likely go into an “unallocated” fund, Blackburn said Friday. But it’s also possible the funds could be allocated elsewhere.

In other words, Bell County’s offer of a $750,000 matching grant could still be alive after Aug. 16. “But I can’t guarantee it,” Blackburn said.

In an exchange with the Herald on Saturday, Wilkerson further explained his position regarding Bell County’s proposition.

“If you’re going to fund someone, fund them. Don’t make it dependent on what we do. If you feel like it’s a good program, then fund it,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson also acknowledged the potential advantages of the program and the work that the club does in the community, but he also explained that he was concerned by the short timeline and funding priorities.

“The Boys & Girls Club does a lot for the community and fills in the gap that we as the city can’t cover, like child care,” Wilkerson said Saturday. “But we also have other priorities that we’ve been promising to address for years. We paid $170,000 for our parks master plan and we have an opportunity to bring it to fruition.”

One of the final complicating factors behind the council’s decision appeared to be the change in estimated costs for the fire department’s Emergency Operations Center. The center, which had been estimated to cost around $7.5 million, had an abrupt cost increase of roughly $5 million, as well as about $2 million revaluation for the public safety pay measure. This put a severe dent in the city’s plans for use of the COVID-19 funds, and forced the council to cut $7 million in programs if it approved the operations center. That left $11 million in funding.

“It’s time to sharpen our pencils and make some tough decisions,” Williams said Tuesday.

And with a council now desperate to fund their programs, the decision to support such a large organization can become a difficult one.

“There are 50, maybe even 100 different organizations that try to serve the youth,” Wilkerson said. “They don’t have the recognition that (Boys and Girls Club’s of America) does.”

Wilkerson pointed out that smaller organizations are forced to make do with limited resources and even more limited space.

“Every year we see these organizations pop up and pop right back down,” Wilkerson said. He did not provide any immediate examples.

Councilwoman Cobb was of a similar opinion.

“We have a lot of little places with big responsibility,” Cobb said at the meeting. “You have a nationally recognized organization. You are already great.”

Councilman Boyd offered a compromise as he moved to allocate $250,000 toward the club, and $500,000 toward a mental health program.

According to Hall, however, the local Boys and Girls Club only receives 4% of its total operational costs from the national organization. The majority of the club’s funding comes from grants and local partnerships like the one presented. For Hall, this is an opportunity that comes just once in a lifetime.

“We have a unique opportunity before us, to do something with the community, to do something great,” Hall said.

Denied, but not rejected

And for proponents of the measure, the battle is far from over. Strictly speaking, the motion made at the council workshop Tuesday was simply a motion of direction — a general resolution from the council to do something.

According to Brown, there is a stipulation that says city council may not create and vote on the same resolution more than once every six months at a city council meeting. However, because the motion was made at a workshop, the council could bring the item to motion any number of times, so long as no successful motion is made to reject funding.

“My outlook on the Boys & Girls Club is not that it is rejected. We have several more meetings in which we will be discussing ARPA funding and sort our way through to come up with the most beneficial way to allocate the funding. I’m fairly certain that we will revisit the Boys & Girls Club’s request in the future as we continue to refine our list of priorities,” Williams said in an email exchange Friday.

Hall, too, remains optimistic, as does Wilkerson.

“As the Council works (the budget) process together over the coming days and weeks, we remain optimistic that they will find a way to prioritize their resources and strategic priorities in a manner that will lead to a supportive outcome for our project,” Hall said.

“I think that we’ll find the maximum bang for our buck,” Wilkerson said. “We can fund different things to a degree and maybe we’ll find way to make it happen.”

Additional comments from council members

Mayor Pro Tem Nash King:

“Since I have served on the city council, I have been in full support of creating new youth programs and activities for all youth throughout the city but especially the disadvantage youth in our area. The Boys and Girls Club have served our youth in the community for more than 50 years and it is needed more now than ever because of the significant increase in youth crimes in our city. I am in full support of the Boys & Girls Club receiving $750.000.00 matching ARPA funds because it gives the city the opportunity to partner with the organization to utilize the new facility and gym for other events.

The city could possibly use the space for sports events, senior activities, mentorship classes, exercise classes, meeting rooms and free counseling sessions for the entire community but, especially for residents living on the Northside because some of these services are currently not available in that area.”

Added Nash-King: “However, I do understand that there are other good youth programs in the city that are available to assist our youth but, the cost of some of these programs are too expensive for low-income families. The cost to join the Boys & Girls Club is only $20.00 a year and it is free for teens ages 12 through 18 years old. It is also free to the active-duty service members and Veterans’ family members to join the program.”

Councilwoman Nina Cobb:

“I commend them in their Extraordinary success with Youth in Killeen and America ... I will always support their efforts by voting yes for monetary support and now knowing that the county will match that funding it allows us to spread the wealth to smaller agencies in our community and allowing a smaller amount to their club. I have seen my children and others enjoy the benefits of this organization, I have supported through team support, paying their membership in the past and attending sporting events,” Cobb said. “On any given Saturday morning our street corners, store fronts or inter-sections are filled with youth asking for donations to their AAU teams, no matter the sport. We now have a chance whether it’s a once in a lifetime or if it helps for years to help our community who have chosen an alternative way of ‘Building Great Lives!’”

jdowling@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7552

jdowling@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7552

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