The Sealy City Council’s second public hearing on the proposed budget and tax rate Sept. 20 turned somewhat acrimonious as elected officials quarreled over how to conduct the meeting and heard from several residents who made an impassioned plea to keep the city’s Main Street program.
The budget, according to a 129-page document posted on Sealy’s website, “will raise more total property taxes than last year’s budget by $90,165, or 3.2 percent, and of that amount $44,929 is tax revenue to be raised from new property added to the tax roll this year.”
Council members Jennifer Sullivan and John Hinze suggested that the panel should engage in dialogue or provide answers to residents who spoke during last week’s public hearing, but Mayor Janice Whitehead declined to do so, saying the meeting was posted as only a public hearing and the meeting was not posted as a discussion item. City Attorney Lora Lensch was not present.
Whitehead later said she intended to make individual phone calls to those who presented questions at the meeting.
At press time, the council was slated to adopt the budget and tax rate at its Sept. 26 meeting. Check The Sealy News website and Facebook page for the latest updates.
Sealy resident Brian Murphy said he was concerned that his house payment recently went up.
“I went through the process of refinancing,” he said. “I don’t want to see my property taxes go up anymore. If they are [increasing], I would like to know why. Where is the money going?”
Jamie Guidry, a resident of Quail Meadows, said the budget numbers appear to be “taken off the cuff then handed out.”
“Who’s watching these costs during the year?” she said. “We have an interim city manager and I fully understand that he’s only been in the position for a few months. He needs help. We have large costs in the finance department. We submitted this without detail; why?”
Guidry suggested that even though the fiscal year begins Oct. 1, city officials should “review these numbers and rework the budget.”
“If cuts need to be made, they need to be made to bring it under control,” she said.
Interim City Manager Warren Escovy pointed out that there was a deficit of approximately $714,000 during the 2016-17 fiscal year. When staff first began crunching the numbers for the 2017-18 budget, the deficit was in the range of $950,000.
“We basically have worked the budget the best we could as council and staff. What you have today in front of you represents the budget deficit of the general fund of $563,671,” Escovy said. “When you look at all the funds included it’s actually only $472,000 of deficit, which sounds like a lot, and it is, but compared to the year before, a lot was done to achieve this.”
In order to close the gap, city staff is proposing a 13 percent increase in water, sewer, gas and solid waste utilities. An additional $110,000 will be saved because the city does not intend to fund the position of an assistant police chief. Employee salary increases also are proposed. The budget deficit was narrowed to about $415,000.
“That is a substantial improvement,” Escovy said. “It’s not perfect but a $300,000 improvement over last year’s budget.”
Sealy Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Peggy Spradley, Chamber board president Lisa Caton and Main Street board member Virginia Gilbert spoke on behalf of the Main Street program.
“We do this because it’s worth it, and we believe in the program,” Caton said. “The Main Street program is providing something positive that we can all be proud of.”
Former city council candidate Debra Luckett shared a personal story of a recent job layoff and noted that the city’s budget decisions affect individual households; sacrifices must be made. Luckett’s opponent Chris Noack, who handily won the Sept. 9 election, was not present at the Sept. 20 meeting.
“I do see a trend of spending more than what is brought in and acquiring more debt to get by,” Luckett said of the city budget. “On top of that [you’re] passing along that burden of this deficit to the community by raising utility taxes … Your own personal preferences should not override the will of the people.”
At the close of the meeting, Mayor Whitehead drew attention to recent social media posts by council members, which are subject to the Public Information Act and Records Retention Act. She cautioned those in attendance to be careful about posting personal email addresses and other personal information. Council member Jennifer Sullivan attempted to stifle the comments but Whitehead proceeded, saying she received permission from the city attorney to do so.
“This is very serious,” she said. “Please be careful what we post on any social media site.”