City of Killeen

Killeen City Council chambers at City Hall.

There are appropriate times and places for electioneering by city council candidates.

A public hearing on the municipal budget is not one of them.

At Tuesday’s Killeen City Council meeting, Mellisa Brown and Leo Gukeisen — who are both candidates for at-large council seats in the Nov. 3 election — went to the microphone to address what they termed a lack of transparency in the budget process and also questioned some of the choices made in crafting the FY 21 budget document.

Some of the language was pointed, with Gukeisen characterizing the budget process as “haphazard” and stating that most of the budget hearings were held behind closed doors. Brown questioned why changes to the budget were not put before the public and suggested that money allocated for a police K-9 unit was a poor spending choice.

Certainly, as Killeen residents, Brown and Gukeisen have a right to ask questions and express their concerns. That’s what the public comment period is designed for.

However, what took place Tuesday night at times sounded more like political rhetoric designed to win votes, rather than private citizens seeking answers. In questioning the budget process and those who were involved in it, the speakers disparaged the council members whose seats they were seeking this fall.

Some council members took exception to their comments, as well as their tone ­— and rightfully so.

Mayor Pro Tem Jim Kilpatrick defended the hard work of the council on the budget and said “In six years, six budgets, I’ve never seen candidates for this political body come before the council and berate a council for the job they’re doing and how they’re doing it.”

Councilman Juan Rivera strongly took issue with Brown’s contention that some aspects of the budget were “misleading” and asserted the council didn’t do closed-door meetings.

Councilwoman Debbie-King defended City Manager Kent Cagle for his fairness in developing the budget and noted that Brown and Gukeisen were the only two people who complained about the budget process.

Obviously, the issue here is one of perception — and obviously, that’s going to differ markedly between someone involved in the budget process and someone who is watching it from the outside.

And it’s easy to see how someone outside the process might question its workings.

Several changes were made to the budget this year, partly because of revenue shortfalls brought about by the business slowdown associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of those changes was the elimination of funding for arts programs, which had received $268,000 through the Killeen Arts Commission in the current budget. However, the drastic change was not publicized, and it required an 11th-hour appeal by local civic theater supporters to get council members to restore $85,000 in arts funding for FY 21.

Another late change was a request for council approval of an increase in city water rates — though revenue from the increase was already built into the proposed budget. When the council declined to move forward on the rate increase, it forced future council action to amend the Capital Improvement Project plan to reflect the lower revenue. For now, as Brown pointed out, the budget numbers don’t add up in that area.

Certainly, it could be argued that the total elimination of arts funding and inclusion of revenue based on yet-to-be-approved rate hikes were errors in judgment on Cagle’s part.

However, it would be unfair to characterize the budget process as “haphazard” or lacking in transparency.

Early in the process, Cagle held private meetings with small groups of council members to apprise them of his priorities, explain the challenges and gather their input. These informational sessions could hardly be labeled as “closed-door” meetings in the true sense of the term.

Moreover, this was the same procedure Cagle’s predecessor, Ron Olson, used during his three-year tenure.

On July 7, Cagle presented the city budget to the council and on the same day, the city posted the entire 435-page document on its website, complete with an explanation of spending choices, easily understood graphics and a glossary of terms.

On July 28, at the council’s request, Cagle conducted a public budget briefing in which he answered questions and highlighted the proposed budget’s key elements. The two-hour meeting drew about 20 people.

On Sept. 1, a week before Tuesday’s public hearing on the budget, Cagle and city staff posted on the city’s website “FY 2021 Proposed Budget in Brief,” a 14-page document that explains funding decisions, details expenditures, illustrates fund balances and spells out how revenue from taxpayers would be allocated for general-fund services.

No doubt, the city could have been more forthcoming about some of the changes that stood to affect residents the most — such as arts funding cuts and proposed water rate hikes.

But that’s more a matter of procedure than one of policy.

The same goes for the city manager’s decision to not have department heads present to make presentations on their respective areas of the proposed budget.

This was brought up by Gukeisen as being problematic, but if the city’s finance director and city manager are present, both should have sufficient knowledge of each departmental budget to answer questions authoritatively.

Certainly, the municipal budget process is long and difficult, as Brown acknowledged in her statement Tuesday. That doesn’t mean it cannot be improved upon — a fact that the city manager and council members would likely agree on.

Further, both Brown and Gukeisen had legitimate points in their remarks to the council — and those deserve to be both heard and considered.

But second-guessing city officials and tossing out allegations of secret meetings does nothing to achieve that goal — especially at this point in the process.

Brown and Gukeisen can maintain that they were speaking as private citizens in their addresses to the council — and indeed, neither one mentioned their candidacy during their remarks.

However, the council venue affords each with television air time on the city’s public access channel, and not just during the actual meeting. The city rebroadcasts each meeting throughout the week, effectively giving candidates who speak on camera significant exposure to potential voters.

Ultimately, this is a free-speech issue.

It would be inappropriate, and probably unconstitutional, for the city to restrict comments by office-seekers during council meetings.

On the other hand, those who do speak on camera gain an unfair advantage over candidates who choose not to address members of the council in open forum.

Perhaps it would be best if the council would develop a policy — with the city attorney’s help — that addresses the issue without impinging on free-speech guarantees.

One such possibility would be to have candidates submit their statements in writing — to be read aloud by the mayor during the meeting. That would limit the candidates’ exposure while still giving voice to their concerns.

No matter what actions are taken, something must be done to restore the respect between residents and our elected officials.

But no city policy is going to make that magically happen.

As in all matters of civility and respect, fixing this problem is on us.

dmiller@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7543

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(3) comments

Jennykat

I was there supporting the ARTS as Killeen has little left to offer those of us who enjoy them. We are forced to go to Waco and Austin to enjoy symphonies or anything that involves theater and the cultural aspects that enrich so many! Killeen should put MORE money intoThe arts imo and maybe we’d see a change in our economy and reputation among other places

Alvin

Copy: 'Councilwoman Debbie-King defended City Manager Kent Cagle for his fairness in developing the budget and noted that Brown and Gukeisen were the only two people who complained about the budget process.' End of copy.

Well I for one have been most ardent in complaining about how this council works, or better yet, does not work for the citizens of Killeen, Texas as they are not transparent as to the workings of the City Council, the Mayor, and the City Manager. I have been asking of all three members of these groups to open up as to the workings of, as an example, the Water Bond that was proposed during this last budgetary cycle, in 2020, the Proposed Elevated Water Storage Tank for $22 million dollars. This was a budgetary vote way back in 2013 and just now came to light. And come to find out it was not only for the Elevated Water Storage Tank that the money was allotted for but '5 other Capital Projects including one for the sewer'. And to top it all off, the elevated water storage tank is not even required as there are provisions in the Texas Water Code and also provisions as directed by the TCEQ that say that these provisions are not required if the installation of a UPS System is included, and one such installation is the use of in-line Low Head, High Volume pumps that can be used in lieu of the Elevated Water Storage Tank. I have been asking for an exclusion of this revision to the Bond issues but have not gotten very far as 'Nobody want to discuss with the the pertinent facts of the decision of this case. But I do. If you pull the water Bond, that would save the city of Killeen, Texas millions of dollars. Instead use capital money to replace the 5 different projects. Let's be proactive of reactive. Stop the new construction of home building and save the infrastructure, including sewer pipelines and potable water lines, and roadways and instead start rerouting our funds for existing structures. Let's rebuild our city instead of letting this fall down around our feet.

Copy: 'Early in the process, Cagle held private meetings with small groups of council members to apprise them of his priorities, explain the challenges and gather their input. These informational sessions could hardly be labeled as “closed-door” meetings in the true sense of the term.

Moreover, this was the same procedure Cagle’s predecessor, Ron Olson, used during his three-year tenure.' End of copy.

To me, being the same procedure as the one employed by Ron Olsen, well in my opinion, this is following the same path that Ron Olson gave to the citizens of Killeen, Texas when he said that 'The city did not own the streets and sewers and that was the reasoning behind the fee that is used for the sewers, but needless to say that, and it is shown on a drawing in that the the sidewalk is the boundary in which the city does own the street and everything under it including the potable water lines and the sewer lines. In fact, we need somebody that is familiar with aspects of engineering to keep this city straight. And to me that does constitute a 'secret meeting as in a room with the door closed, that is not publicized nor minutes taken'.

Copy: 'Mayor Pro Tem Jim Kilpatrick defended the hard work of the council on the budget and said “In six years, six budgets, I’ve never seen candidates for this political body come before the council and berate a council for the job they’re doing and how they’re doing it.” End of copy.

If I am not mistaken, the Mayor Pro Tem said, and I have to paraphrase here: 'I am not going to do the budget as that is not the job of a councilman'. Look at what he says now, this councilman defended the hard work of the council. My oh my how things get turned around.

Yes, it is the citizen who should behind the scenes and keep our council people for they get in over their heads sometimes. And as to people talking to the city management, I have not had much success in talking with city officials as they seem to be non communicative as I have yet to hear a response from the Mayor and City Manager about dealings with the WCID-1 and it's been a number of weeks now.

So to say that these two individuals talked about 'City Transparency', I too would like to talk to the City Management about this City and the transparency they instill, because it is not transparent at all as they try to hide behind the veil of secrecy when their should not be hiding things like the veil of secrecy for 7 years now and then try to cover it up with a Water Bond that is not as the name prescribes, the folding in of 5 capital projects under the name of another water bond issue that to me prescribes the scope of work entailed by the new water plant that is not finished as of yet and it's been 7 years now.

So yes, this city has a lot to own up on and it's high time that it is done.

Choosewisely

I am highly disappointed in the misquotes, misstatements, and misrepresentations in this opinion piece. While I understand it is just that, the opinion of the writer, that opinion in our local newspaper should be based on fact. I would encourage everyone to go to the city's website amd watch the interactions for themselves. Under the video, you can go to agenda items 9, 10, and 11 and make your own determination.

https://killeen.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=412

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