Council discusses HOT funds disbursement, grills EDC on proposed budget
By LYNETTE SOWELL
A public hearing for the proposed city budget for the 2015-2016 fiscal year took place Tuesday evening and was over within a few minutes after the mayor and city council waited for anyone who wished to come forward and speak, whether for or against the budget.
After closing the hearing, the council held a special meeting during which they heard from several groups making requests for funding from the city's hotel occupancy tax, or HOT, fund. Those groups included the Copperas Cove Chamber of Commerce, the Copperas Cove Boys & Girls Club, the Copperas Cove Leader-Press and the Rabbit Fest Pageant. The Rabbit Fest Pageant's application was received after the Aug. 6 deadline, but their request was permitted on the meeting agenda.
The pageant's director, Wendy Sledd, brought a request for $20,000 for the pageant to purchase a float for use as the pageant winners represent the pageant and the city throughout Texas. The $20,000 was a hard sell with some of the council, and after 30 minutes or so of discussing whether the request fell within the hotel occupancy tax guidelines, the council voted 5-1 to approve the request, with councilman Mark Peterson voting against the request.
The council unanimously approved giving the Copperas Cove Chamber of Commerce $117,000 of hotel occupancy tax funds and also gave a nod to the Boys & Girls Club for $5,000, which will be used to bring larger bands and some bigger names to the annual Music At the Gap. They declined giving the Copperas Cove Leader-Press $15,000 in funding toward the production and distribution costs of their semi-annual magazine, which is now in TxDOT welcome centers throughout the state of Texas. Councilman George Duncan cast the sole yes vote for that request. After earmarking the above funds to these groups, the city's HOT fund will have $53,013 in it toward next year, once the city's overall budget is approved September 1.
After the HOT fund requests on the agenda were discussed and voted upon, Polo Enriquez presented the Copperas Cove Economic Development Corporation's annual budget, during which presentation the council grilled Enriquez on a number of budget items, to include out-of-state travel for hunting down companies to come to Copperas Cove, whether or not the EDC's membership in the Heart of Texas Defense Alliance was providing any benefits to the city of Copperas Cove, along with expenses such as a nearly 10 percent increase in EDC staff salaries, the digital sign, and why the chamber of commerce waives the EDC's $500 membership fee yet charges the city annually for membership.
Enriquez told the council that with the proposed budget, the EDC would have almost $540,000 in funds to start the next budget year. Also, the EDC projects to bring in $1.5 million in sales tax revenue during the upcoming fiscal year, something Enriquez said was a first.
Councilman Matthew Russell proposed that when the EDC representatives travel to make their sales pitches to companies looking to relocate to Texas, that the EDC take a 'wholistic' approach and take other community leaders with them, and that should be part of the budget.
He also named what he called “redundant” budget items, like the membership in the Heart of Texas Defense Alliance and that would save the EDC $50,000 this year alone. The EDC has paid $250,000 to HOTDA over the past five years.
“What have we gained from HOTDA over the years? (The garrison commander’s) job is to keep the regional area up to date with what the Army is doing, keep us informed on what Capitol Hill is doing, the Pentagon is doing.”
He also recommended doing away with the EDC in its current form.
“I'm looking at $200,000 that I could trim off on redundant things that, if you really look at how you're spending it. Us arguing 20, 30 minutes on scraping pennies together for children of this city. To me, a recommendation I’d like to give the citizens of Copperas cove is not to continue the EDC in its current form, and that we need to take it to the voters to decide how we want the future on the EDC. Because they're going to vote...Maybe it's time we need to move on. I've had a lot of folks come talk to the city, to the council, that's what other cities have done, moved away from the EDC. It's a dinosaur. Move to an MDD. You can control your resources and provide those things to the children of the city, instead of tying it up.”
City manager Andrea Gardner took issue with the budget, first with the fact that the EDC paid no fee for membership in exchange for services it had exchanged with the chamber, such as the Lunch and Learn, yet the chamber uses city facilities and has made “who knows how much” money while using those facilities.
The clincher came when looking at the pay raises given to the EDC staff, which Enriquez said was in line with values of similar positions. Russell asked Gardner when the city staff had last had a raise.
“They haven’t had a raise since 2006,” Gardner replied. “Most of our city employees haven’t received a merit increase since 2009. Some years they didn’t get a COLA (cost of living allowance) or a merit.”
She said some employees have taken on other job responsibilities, and some city positions have remained unfunded.
Councilman Mark Peterson recommended that when the EDC's bylaws are next reviewed, they tie the EDC staff pay in with the city employees' merit and COLA.
Gardner added her own input to the EDC budget proposal, becoming choked up at one point, saying she is not an emotional person, but it just wasn't fair.
“I'd like to see this council seriously consider putting a halt to the pay increases I heard about tonight. The city staff in this city have suffered while others have gained. We have dedicated ourselves to this city to the nth degree. I have asked these employees to do without, to do without, to do without., and tonight I hear about 8 and 9 percent pay raises to other employees and other entities. I'm sorry, but I have a problem with that.”
The council decided at the end of the lengthy, impassioned discussion of the proposed EDC budget, to meet again and discuss the budget further at a special meeting on Tuesday next week, after the council holds the second public hearing for the city's annual budget.