Everyone has been talking about the $24 million project to widen Chaparral Road to accommodate a new high school in south Killeen.
Improving 13.2 miles of the winding two-lane road is necessary. It’s also going to be expensive.
But the road project is just the latest manifestation of a bigger issue: growth — and who is going to pay for it.
Killeen is operating on a tight budget. Yet, Tuesday night, the City Council approved contributing $4 million in cash and in-kind services toward the project.
Bell County will pay another $3 million, the Killeen Independent School District will pay $1.7 million to upgrade the area immediately surrounding the school, and Harker Heights will contribute $275,000.
That still leaves about $13.8 million, which has been requested through the Killeen-Temple Metropolitan Planning Organization. However, that funding has not yet been approved, and there is no guarantee it will be authorized in time for the school’s opening in fall 2022 — if at all.
Killeen officials are hanging their hopes on a potential contribution of $4.1 million from the Bell County Municipal Utility District No. 2, or MUD — a 3,700-home development that is being built in the vicinity of the new school.
But the timing of funding, or potential funding, remains iffy — and the prospect of opening a new high school served by a narrow, twisting road has raised safety concerns from all entities involved.
Still, the school project is moving forward, with the groundbreaking having taken place on Oct. 24.
Area growth was the driving factor behind the push for the new high school, and school district officials are adamant that the school is needed sooner, rather than later.
Student enrollment growth and reducing overcrowding were the main selling points for a two-part, $426 million bond issue pushed by the school district last year, and ultimately approved by voters. The bond financed the construction of five new schools, extensive remodeling of 55-year-old Killeen High School and security upgrades across the district.
Through the building of new facilities, the bond issue also was expected to eliminate portable classrooms at the middle school and high school levels.
However, the problem of portables at several of the district’s elementary campuses was not fully addressed — so now the district is looking to a second bond issue next year.
The focus keeps coming back to who is paying for all this.
Ultimately, it’s the taxpayer who foots the bill — and the price continues to rise.
Already, KISD taxpayers are seeing an increase of 15 cents per $100 valuation on their property taxes to repay the current bond. That amount will rise further to support any subsequent bond issue, should voters approve it.
Killeen residents are paying an additional $1.70 a month on their water bills to help fund maintenance on the city’s 560-plus miles of existing roads, some of which are badly in need of repairs.
However, as long as Killeen keeps growing to the south, the city is obligated to provide roads and other infrastructure to the new developments — potentially at the expense of older areas. Consequently, taxpayers in established areas of town are funding the new construction with their tax money, while also paying for street maintenance in their older neighborhoods through their monthly utility bills.
Many school district taxpayers are in the same boat. They may live in neighborhoods served by older schools with fewer upgrades, but they are paying for the new high school and other school construction projects with their property taxes — and may pay for even more.
Sustained growth is a goal of most communities, but it often comes at a cost.
Growth is necessary to provide tax revenue needed to fund city programs and services. But at some point, providing those services to a booming population causes a drag on the city budget.
New census figures list Killeen’s population at close to 150,000. Just 20 years ago, it was just shy of 87,000. That’s a growth rate of 72 percent over the past two decades, or an average of 3.6 percent per year.
That kind of increase grows the economy, but it taxes area resources and city services.
For example, with city growth comes a need for additional police and fire personnel. If hiring of first responders fails to keep pace with the growth, residents see fewer patrols and slower response times as departments are stretched. Consequently, cities are required to hire more responders, finance new emergency vehicles and build additional fire stations.
It all comes down to the question of who should bear the financial burdens of growth.
And taxpayers only have so much to give.
With this in mind, Killeen has turned to the concept of an impact fee, through which builders and developers would share in the cost of providing road and water infrastructure to new developments.
The problem is, to date the City Council hasn’t been able to agree on a framework for implementing these fees in a manner that would reduce the burden of infrastructure costs without discouraging developers and stunting future growth.
Yet without these fees, the entire cost of infrastructure will continue to be borne by the city’s taxpayers — at least indirectly.
That fact is further complicated by Texas’ disabled veterans property tax exemption, which last year reduced the city’s revenue by about $5 million, because of inadequate reimbursement by the state. With the number of qualifying veterans continuing to increase, the impact on the city is expected to rise accordingly — unless state lawmakers act to increase compensation significantly in the next legislative session.
Also facing the city are the challenges of uneven growth. Areas in the fast-growing areas of Killeen are seeing the addition of restaurants, retail outlets and grocery stores. Meanwhile, older areas are witnessing the departures of businesses and closing of grocery stores — with two shutting their doors in the last three months.
These growth-related shifts also come at a cost to residents in the declining areas, who must drive farther, take the bus or pay for a cab in order to do their regular food shopping.
Moving forward, the best outcomes will be found when local taxing entities work together to coordinate projects beforehand — rather than after the fact, as was the case with the high school-Chaparral Road venture.
Planned, orderly growth that maximizes resources, minimizes taxpayer obligation and fits into a long-term vision for the community should always be the goal.
In the end, we all stand to benefit when growth is handled wisely and responsibly.
Progress has a price, but it should never be too steep.