After weeks of debating the need to hire as many as 10 new city employees in the coming year, the Sealy City Council voted to approve a $19.79 million budget that keeps four and a half of the positions.
The remaining five positions were eliminated, but the money for salaries and benefits for the positions were placed into their respective department funds just in case the hires need to happen later on in the year. If the positions are not needed, the money is available for other projects or needs.
The overall tax rate dropped more than 12 cents from $.39807 to $.26994 per $100 of property valuation, due to a shift in the debt fund. Debt originally issued for water, sewer, and gas projects is now being repaid from revenues generated by the utility funds instead of property taxes. That dropped the debt service fund from $.200497 to $.07525. Even though the general fund saw a slight increase of $.00159 per $100 of valuation, the decrease in the debt fund allowed the overall tax rate to go down.
The vote was taken during an in-person meeting Thursday at the Hill Center. Pandemic precautions were taken with everyone either wearing masks or face shields and temperatures being taken upon entry. The unanimous votes on both the budget and the tax rates followed several weeks of debates in online meetings.
Just the night before the council took three votes on the budget which all failed. One by Councilmember Larry Koy called for all 10 positions to be removed and the money moved to other funds. Councilmember Jennifer Sullivan proposed a motion that saved some of the positions and moved the remaining money to their respective department general funds for future consideration. The third vote to fail was a straight up vote on the proposed budget.
At Thursday’s meeting, Councilmember Chris Noack made a motion very similar to Sullivan’s the night before. It passed.
“I move to approve the ordinance adopting the budget for fiscal year 2020-2021with the following conditions: Keep two police officer positions budgeted, keep one street utility worker position budgeted, keep one water/sewer utility worker position budgeted, change the assistant public works director budgeted amount to a six-month budgeted amount instead of its current 12-month budgeted amount, remove all other new positions from their specified budgeted line items. Under the fund balance addition line items, under the correct funds, add the sum budgeted amount for the positions that were removed from that fund so that these monies can be used later for new positions or projects at council’s discretion,” he said.
The positions eliminated include a city planner, warrant officer, a street utility worker, a deputy executive director for the Sealy EDC, and a customer service technician.
Prior to Thursday’s special meeting the city council held a workshop to discuss four topics. The first item was tree preservation and landscaping. City Attorney Tim Kirwin said the council adopted a tree ordinance in 2015, however, the state Legislature nullified it with legislation passed in 2017. He said the legislature is likely to revisit the law when it meets in 2021. He said he could revise the city’s ordinance now or wait and see what the legislature does. The council opted to wait.
The second item was drainage. Councilmember Larry Koy asked for revisions to the drainage ordinance that would remove the option to purchase machinery, equipment, furniture, and facilities from the fund that is funded by the drainage fees assessed to property owners. Several council members said they have no problem removing furniture from the list of things that can be purchased and there was discussion over the other items.
Public Works Director Mark Pulos recommended the council not remove the items because it would prevent his department from purchasing things they need. Koy argued that the fund has been a go-to pot of money that has been raided over the years for things needed by other departments and he wants to limit it to drainage specific projects.
“Once you have machinery in there you just as well tear this ordinance up,” he said.
Lawrence Siska, Director of Streets, Parks, and Drainage, took umbridge to the accusation that money has been spent unnecessarily from the fund for equipment.
“As long as I’m in charge if this department I’m not just going to go out and buy anything. I guarantee that if I’m going to go out and make a big purchases I’m going to bring it to council,” Siska said.
“I think taking out machinery would be a huge mistake,” he added.
City Manager Lloyd Merrell said the city had budgeted $118,000 for a skid-steer loader in this year’s budget but it was never purchased because Koy told him not to.
“So one council member told you it wasn’t necessary so we didn’t do it?” asked Councilmember Dee Anne Lerma.
Merrell said that money in the fund had been spent on engineering fees and didn’t leave enough for the purchase, so it wasn’t done.
Mayor Janice Whitehead suggested taking furniture out of the ordinance but leaving everything else in.
“Our guys can’t do their job without equipment,” she said.
No action was taken and the revised ordinance should come up at a future council meeting.
On the third item, Councilmember Chris Noack initiated discussion on raising the drainage fee assessed to property owners. It is currently $2 a month and has not been increased since the fee was established in 2004. A survey of other cities in the area found everything from cities that do not charge a drainage fee to several that charge around $3.50 to $4. He suggested the city consider an increase of about 50 to 75 cents. Councilmember Adam Burttschell suggested 25 cents. Council instructed Merrell to come up with tables showing how much money would be raised with various amounts of increases.
The final item was a discussion about parking on Main Street. Council members said they have been getting complains from citizens who have been ticketed for parking in the middle spots that are designated for compact cars only. Main Street was repaved and new signs were installed this summer. The police department went a couple months issuing warning tickets and only recently started issuing parking tickets.
The council decided they wanted to give the revised parking ordinance more time for people to adjust to before making any more changes.