Sealy approves budget subject to amendments

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The Sealy City Council approved a budget and property tax rate following a lengthy meeting last week, determining to axe city funding for the Main Street program at the end of the year but declining to approve proposed utility rate hikes.

“When we did look at this budget the 13 percent increase was figured in there,” said Interim City Manager Warren Escovy, referring to proposals to increase solid waste, natural gas and water rates. “We’re at a critical point with this budget.”

The full budget document is posted at http://www.ci.sealy.tx.us/.

“We all have to make tough choices,” Escovy continued. “That means increases, and that means cuts as well.”

Mayor Janice Whitehead encouraged the council to find a way to raise revenues.

“If we’re not going to raise the revenues through supporting an increase and passing it on to the taxpayers, which I really don’t like, we do need to figure out what we are going to do to raise revenues.”

Councilman John Hinze had an answer: “Budget cuts.”

The most controversial of those cuts came late in the Sept. 26 meeting when the council determined to restructure the Main Street program to be a volunteer-based program effective Jan. 1, 2018.

Escovy explained that staff was proposing to fund Main Street through Dec. 31 to provide funding for downtown events and “to give staff and council time to basically have life after Main Street.”

“You still have Main Street regardless of whether you have a Main Street program,” Escovy said. “There are volunteers who have worked very hard. We’d really like to see us get this funded through the end of the year so we can work with the Main Street board to try and continue the work.”

Main Street Director Toni Franklin noted that the “program is doing everything it is designed to do.”

“The community worked very hard to get this program,” she said. “You have to determine how important revitalization and growth is to the largest city in Austin County.”

A few residents addressed the council on behalf of Main Street.

Councilwoman Dee Anne Lerma said the Texas Main Street program is one of the oldest and largest of its kind in the nation.

“Downtown Sealy is the heart of our community, and these businesses should be a high priority,” Lerma said. “Many of these owners have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own personal money, and their properties and their investments should not be ignored by this council.”

Councilman Chris Noack, who was elected last month, abstained from the vote, stating that he did not want to make a decision until he has seen a presentation on the Main Street program and specifically, the return on investment it provides the city.

“What are we getting for that $96K we’re spending per year?” he asked.

Noack added that, according to the Texas Historical Commission, a full-time, paid position such as the one held by Franklin, is only required for the first three years of a Main Street program in order to receive state funding. Sealy’s Main Street program is in its fourth year.

Escovy clarified for Councilwoman Jennifer Sullivan that there were some council members who wanted to halt funding at the beginning of the fiscal year Oct. 1, and the Sept. 26 agenda item – which stated “discussion and possible action regarding restructuring and funding of the Main Street Program” offered an alternative of extending the program through the end of the year. Funds were not allocated in the budget to continue the program in the 2018 calendar year.

“I would like to see it continue as a volunteer-based program,” Sullivan said. “A lot of our individuals that work on the Main Street Program are volunteers. I would like to see that happen with in-kind support from the city, from our different departments.”

She also suggested asking the current Economic Development Corporation director to focus more on downtown programs. The largest community events are Sealybration and Fantasy of Lights, which are organized by the volunteer-based Sealy Community Foundation and are successful, Sullivan added.

“I think a volunteer-based program can work very well,” she said. “If we continue this program for a whole year, it costs taxpayers almost $100,000 to run it, and we just don’t have that kind of money for non-essential programs. I think we need to focus on the essentials and move this toward a volunteer-based downtown association.”

Councilman Larry Koy agreed.

“We have to cut something,” he said.

Councilman John Hinze pointed out that 75 percent of the Main Street budget goes toward Franklin’s salary.

In other matters the council:

  • Tabled a proposal to increase solid waste rates 13 percent, directing staff to review a 10-year contract with Texas Disposal Systems that expires in 2022. Interim City Manager Escovy confirmed for Lerma that even if the rate is increased by 13 percent, a deficit of $93,411 still exists.
  • Declined to approve a motion made by Mayor Whitehead to increase natural gas rates by 13 percent. While Escovy maintained that the revenues were needed in order to balance the budget, council members expressed concerns about the hike since the gas utility rate was just increased in March.

“I don’t really think anyone is happy with this,” Whitehead said. “[But] what are we going to do to raise revenues?”

The council asked Escovy to bring back an ordinance proposing a 5 percent increase.

  • Asked for a comparison of water rates in similar-sized cities, tabling a vote on a proposed 13 percent increase.
  • Authorized the mayor to execute an amended letter agreement between the city and the Sealy Economic Development Corp. for funding of the installation of a new natural gas line to be placed along F.M. 3538.

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