Council to rescind decision on selling property
By LYNETTE SOWELL
The fate of the city property off Boys Ranch Road, leased by the Cove Saddle Club, took yet another direction after Tuesday night’s Copperas Cove city council meeting.
At its first meeting of the month of April, the council rejected all offers to purchase the property with a vote of 5-2, with councilmen Dan Yancey and Jay Manning voting against taking the property off the sales block.
On Tuesday evening during citizens’ forum, Anton Pospisil, along with Debbie and Gary Vaughn, addressed the council and asked them to reconsider putting the property up for sale. Pospisil and the Vaughns submitted two of the five bids for the property prior to the council’s decision on April 4.
They were also joined by three city employees, Fire Chief Michael Neujahr, Public Works Director Michael Cleghorn, as well as Silvia Rhoads, the city’s Recycling Coordinator. A number of fire department personnel and other city employees were also present, with standing room only in the meeting room.
Neujahr was the first employee to urge the council to sell the property.
“I can tell you for myself and my crew, we’re here to support council’s decision they made several months ago, to get out of the property management business,” Neujahr said. He also pointed out the work the city employees do, including his department, which literally saves lives.
“With the impending doom of Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 2356, that’s going to be really hard to do. Before you, you have an opportunity to raise this year’s revenue by tens of thousands of dollars if you sell that property. Whether you sell it to the adjacent owners or sell it to the Saddle Club, sell that property, gentlemen.”
Senate Bill 2 as well as House Bill 2356 currently before the Texas legislature, could have severe impacts on the city’s future budget, an impact of several hundred thousand dollars on the low side, to as much as a $1 million revenue shortfall.
Cleghorn agreed with councilman Jay Manning, who had voted against the council’s decision to take the property off the market, calling that decision “dishonorable.”
“I think it boils down to a definition of integrity. My definition of integrity is I’ll do what I say, and say what I do,” Cleghorn said. “In the past, we’ve espoused the fact that we’re not in the property rental business. I encourage council to do the right thing, sell the property.”
Rhoads asked the council to consider what the city could do with the funds brought in from the property sale.
“I’m a property taxpayer residing in the city limits and I’m also a dedicated city employee. I’m here with my fellow city employees to speak in favor of selling the property on Boys Ranch Road. While I certainly sympathize with and understand the passion of the Cove Saddle Club, there is another side to this issue that need to be considered. We believe in order for you to make the most informed decision possible, it’s important to look at all sides.”
Ann Wyatt with the Cove Saddle Club spoke, talking about what the club does for the community.
“We bring in a lot of people from out of town. In my understanding, that’s the goal, to bring people to this city and to bring events to the city and bring money to the city, and that’s what we do. We’re already planning events for June,” she said.
Ray Mainville, one of the club founders, addressed the council, saying he “opened this can of worms.” Mainville said the club originally asked to buy the property when it first moved to the site of the former landfill more than 20 years ago. He also thought the club should have had the first chance to purchase the property this time around.
“You never came and asked us, will you make an offer for the land? Then it was opened up for bids and everybody jumped in.”
Discussion later turned to a subject of concern during the city council’s planning session on April 6—a 1 percent cost of living allowance for city employees, and its certainty, or uncertainty. The COLA, estimated to be a budget increase of $121,000 for next year’s city budget, was deemed one of the priorities by the council at that planning meeting.
Councilman Kirby Lack expressed his concern that employees had been told they weren’t getting the COLA.
“I thought that the COLA was already taken care of,” he said. He didn’t think that funding the COLA hinged on selling city property. “What do we sell next year, garbage trucks? I don’t think we’re in that bad of shape. I don’t know who’s saying that you’re not getting a raise, that we’re not going to give it to you. That’s incorrect.”
City manager Andrea Gardner responded to Lack’s concern.
“The employees were not told they were not getting a raise. That is not what was relayed. I think the point that the city employees that spoke were trying to make is you have an opportunity to ensure that the money is there to give the raise,” Gardner said.
Councilman Matt Russell, also against putting the property back on the market, said there could be other ways to fund the COLA for city employees.
He said he didn’t like to be “ambushed by my own city.”
“I thought we had already secured funding for that 1 percent COLA. Am I right or am I wrong?” Russell asked. “I went forward without the proper information.”
Gardner said Russell wasn’t the only one who was under that impression.
“We discussed council’s desire to include a COLA in that budget. However, the budget hasn’t even been presented to the council,” she said. “At that same planning session, staff revealed that we have some pending legislation at the state level that Chief Neujahr spoke about, two pieces of legislation that have potential to do tremendous financial harm to this city.”
Councilmen David Morris and James Pierce Jr. reconsidered their decision to take the property off the market and stated their intention for the council to return to its original decision—that of selling the property.
“I grew up in Fort Worth Texas and I grew up rodeo-ing,” Pierce said. “This is city land that we really don’t need, and we made a decision to get out of that line of work, and I abide by that.” He also expressed confidence that the club could find another place to hold their events.
On Wednesday afternoon, Morris elaborated on his change of heart.
“Throughout the whole process, I’ve been in support of getting out of the leasing business. When this property came up, I was no different. In learning bits of pieces of information as this process has gone along, there were stories that tugged at the heartstrings, and obviously we wanted to protect the legacy, the history that the Saddle Club brings to Copperas Cove,” Morris said. “But at the same time, last night I heard additional information and I heard the plea from our city staff. Senate bill 2 threatens our city and the business that we do, providing services to our citizens, and we’re going to have to make that up somewhere, somehow. $70,000 for a piece of property is nowhere near the million dollars we might have to make up but it’s a start.”
At the conclusion of Tuesday night’s discussion, City Manager Andrea Gardner said the action of rescinding the April 4 vote would be put on the agenda for the first meeting in May. That action would also authorize Gardner to make contact with the highest bidder for the property to see if this bidder is still interested in purchasing the 15-plus acres. According to Texas government code, the city must accept the highest bid, but if that individual was no longer interested, Gardner said she would then move on to the next highest bidder.
The Saddle Club still has a lease on the property through March 2018.