Crafting a city budget can be a tricky process.

That reality presented itself Tuesday at the Killeen City Council meeting when council members voted against a water rate increase that was factored into the proposed FY 21 budget document.

During the same meeting, council members agreed to consider $85,000 in funding for local arts programs — though the proposed budget had no money allocated.

As a result of these actions, City Manager Kent Cagle must now find a way to rework the water and sewer fund budget as well as identify money in the general fund that can be provided for the theater before Tuesday’s meeting, at which a budget adoption vote is scheduled.

Though the amounts involved in the two budget adjustments differ greatly — the water rate increase would have generated nearly $2.5 million annually — the principle is the same: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

The proposed water and wastewater rate increase was a modest one. It called for a $1.46 monthly increase to residential customers for 2,000 gallons of water used. For 5,000 gallons used, the rate would have increased by $2.57.

According to Ricky Garrett, the director of Bell County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1 — which treats Killeen’s water — the average household in the city uses between 7,000 and 8,000 gallons monthly. Using that 7,000-gallon figure, the average home would see an increase in its monthly bill of just over $4.

That increase doesn’t seem like much, especially with a recent water study showing that Killeen has one of the lowest rates — both among area cities and among cities of similar size across the state.

Moreover, the city hasn’t raised its water rates since FY 2016, so an increase was due — especially since WCID-1 has increased the amount it charges the city over that span and plans another 2% hike in the coming fiscal year. That WCID-1 increase will cost the city an extra $357,383.

But timing is everything, especially in the midst of the current pandemic, and five council members voted last week against moving forward with the rate hike discussion after considering feedback from residents.

Input from constituents was also a determining factor in the council’s agreement to push for funding of the arts. Several local arts supporters, including the director of Vive Les Arts Theatre, showed up for Tuesday’s council workshop and spoke out against the proposed budget’s $0 line item for arts programs through the Killeen Arts Commission. The budgeted amount in this year’s budget was more than $268,000.

The reason for a reduction in funding was simple: With the Killeen Civic and Conference Center idled for several months because of the coronavirus outbreak and hotel occupancy down for the same reason, the city’s hotel occupancy tax revenue was far below budget projections. In fact, the fund is showing a $483,000 shortfall, forcing the city to siphon money from its reserves to make up the difference. That action puts the reserve fund at 9% — half the minimum level called for in the city’s financial policy.

Still, a VLA supporter had a point when she noted that the city budget contains a $90,000 allocation to the National Mounted Warfare Museum — which hasn’t even broken ground yet — while existing arts institutions like Vive Les Arts get nothing.

It should be noted that the new museum is receiving a contractual contribution, using the portion of the Bell County hotel occupancy tax that is passed back to Killeen. Still, throwing some city money in VLA’s direction would send a reassuring message.

The problem is, now Cagle must identify a potential funding source in an already-tight budget if the arts commission is to receive the $85,000 council members are considering.

And Cagle also must find a way to compensate for the $2 million-plus in increased water revenue the proposed budget had earmarked for more than $1 million in capital improvement projects and paying down $1.4 million in debt service on the bond issue for a water tower project in south Killeen.

No matter how the budget finally turns out, it’s hard to place blame regarding the proposed water rate hike.

Killeen’s city manager prioritized what he saw as the city’s urgent needs in building the water rate increases into the budget, but five of seven council members ultimately disagreed with that assessment.

The issue of arts funding is another matter, however. Trimming the funding for the Killeen Arts Commission in response to sharply reduced revenue is understandable. But eliminating it altogether is an overly harsh move, especially given the recent financial struggles of the city’s civic theater.

In unanimously recommending restoring some funding for arts programs, council members took a stand on behalf of the arts community.

Now Cagle will have to decide where that funding comes from.

Obviously, council members threw the city manager a couple of curve balls Tuesday, but that’s how city government works. It’s not always pretty.

In contrast to Tuesday’s vote in Killeen, the Copperas Cove City Council unanimously approved an amendment to the city’s fee schedule that increases water, sewer, drainage and solid waste fees, and also eliminates the senior discount the city had offered.

The Cove council took the action despite comments from several residents who called in during the meeting to argue against the proposed rate and fee changes.

However, it would be unfair to characterize either city council’s vote as right or wrong. Council members in each city simply took differing views on what was best for residents and what was in the best interest of the city as a whole.

On Tuesday, Killeen residents will have an opportunity to weigh in on the revised proposed budget during a public hearing prior to the council’s vote.

It’s a little late in the game to make any changes at this point, but the voices of a few residents made a difference last week. It could potentially happen again — in which case the final vote on the budget likely would be pushed back a week.

Certainly, the budget process can be complicated — especially in an unprecedented year like this when revenue and expenditure projections are inexact at best.

But it’s a process that ultimately works best when public input is involved.

After all, it’s our tax money that our cities are allocating.

We should all have a say in how it’s spent.

dmiller@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7543

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