It’s been very frustrating covering the Sealy City Council these last few weeks.
Not only do meetings online last an average of three hours – about twice as long as normal – but they have been going in circles with discussion about the budget. Last Thursday they met in person for a special meeting at the Hill Center and finally adopted the budget with amendments. Those amendments may make council members feel like they’ve done something good for the taxpayers, but the reality is it may hinder growth, hurt customer service, and damage morale of the city staff.
The council has been debating the budget since August. The key issue is salaries and benefits for 10 new positions throughout the city. When City Manager Lloyd Merrell submitted the proposed budget, it was balanced, lowered taxes and included the new positions. Councilmember Larry Koy estimated the cost of those positions at $881,000. He has been adamant that the city cannot afford to create any of the positions, largely because of the pandemic and the need to keep taxes low while people are struggling financially.
On the other end of the spectrum are councilmembers Dee Anne Lerma and Adam Burttschell who said the council needs to trust the opinions of the professionals they’ve hired and to keep the positions in the budget because they are necessary. Mayor Janice Whitehead has also leaned in that direction, noting she would prefer to have some say on a few of the hires before they happen.
Councilmembers Chris Noack, Jennifer Sullivan, and Sandra Vrablec have been in the middle, trying to find a compromise. They’ve presented, debated, and voted down several plans until the final vote Thursday evening.
What they voted to do was keep a handful of positions in the budget that have been deemed absolutely necessary and to put the money for the rest into the general funds for their respective departments. That way the money is there if they must make a hire or they can use it for other departmental needs if the positions do not get filled.
The bottom line is they did not save the taxpayers a single dime because the full budget was adopted. What they ended up doing is hamstringing the departments that are already short on personnel and increasing the workload on employees who are overloaded. What’s just as bad is they’ve sent a message loud and clear that they do not trust the professionals they’ve hired to do their jobs as they best know how. It’s micromanagement and it’s insulting to those who have made their careers in their chosen fields as civil servants.
It doesn’t take a genius to see what is happening now in Sealy. The city can no longer plan for growth; the growth is here and happening – rapidly. Anyone who has seen what has happened in places like Katy, Fulshear, and Sugar Land in the last 10-15 years should be able to recognize that is exactly what is happening now in Sealy.
The U.S. Census may be taking place this year, but before the final numbers are released Sealy’s count will be outdated. The city is growing very quickly and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Rather than being able to adequately handle that growth, the city staff will be overrun, mistakes will happen, and things will get sloppy. I predict that not only will the city be working from a disadvantage by being short-handed, the situation will get worse when good people leave their jobs with the city because they do not feel trusted and they’re not getting the support they need.
I understand and appreciate the perspective of the council members because they are the decision makers and are in charge of city operations and are beholden to the taxpayers. The fact remains that they are not experts in each of the various fields (police, utilities, economic development, etc.) and are dependent on the information and opinions of the department heads they’ve hired. In this case, they are ignoring professional advice and acting of their own accord.
In 2011 I had the chance to interview personal finance guru Dave Ramsey when he came out with his book “EntreLeadership.” I’ve been following his EntreLeadership program ever since. It’s a proven guide to running a successful business. One point Ramsey hammers over and over is for business owners to hire rock star performers and then get out of their way. They will innovate in ways you could never imagine and make your business thrive.
Sealy has hired several rock stars in their fields. But council insists in micromanaging them and hinders them from doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. I’m not saying council should be hands-off. They should provide direction and oversee each department but then step back and trust trained and educated professionals to do their jobs. That would eliminate a lot of stress felt by council and staff alike and allow the city to adequately manage the growth we are experiencing.