The Lufkin City Council approved the fiscal year 2020-21 budget and set the tax rate on Tuesday.
The city is proposing a tax rate of 53 cents per $100 valuation, which is higher than the “no new revenue” tax rate of 51 cents per $100 valuation. The proposed rate will raise $368,193 more property tax revenue for FY 2020-21 than it did for FY 2019-20. Of that, $117,173 is from new property added to the tax roll, according to the proposed budget document.
The city also is proposing a $44.5 million budget for FY 2020-21. This is less than the $45.6 million budget utilized in 2020, including budget amendments approved throughout the year.
The most highly contested part of this year’s budget was the plan to eliminate the curbside recycling program. This is one of the ways the city was able to reduce expenditures in the face of a budget shortfall without raising taxes or implementing widespread general layoffs.
The budget also included the elimination of 33 positions. Most of those positions have been vacant. About one-third are filled by soon-to-be retirees or by workers who are going to become contract employees. Each of these eliminated positions were determined after careful study of the departments, interim city manager Bruce Green has said over multiple interviews.
Lufkin attorney Wayne Haglund was the only person to speak against eliminating curbside pickup during the public forum. However, Chasity Boatman later addressed the council upon their request.
Haglund asked the council to reconsider its decision regarding the program and wanted to see the quality of life in Lufkin continue to be as good, if not improve. He believed that by cutting this program it would impact the quality of life in town.
“I have not analyzed the budget, but I doubt that many city services pay for themselves,” Haglund said. “Curbside recycling would not be unique. If a service like this is valued by the citizens then budget ought not be the overriding concern.”
He also suggested that this could make it easier to cut recycling altogether or cut other city expenditures like the library or Parks & Recreation department.
“Doing away with the curbside recycling is likely to … prophesize the whole end of the program,” he said. “In a year or two, when the use of it drops off, that will be the reason, the self-fulfilling prophecy for us to not have recycling at all.”
Ward 4 councilman Mark Hicks addressed concerns about the recycling program, saying it had been a concern of the council’s for more than a year.
“I think the overwhelming reason for doing this is that so many people don’t participate,” he said. “One of the reasons was there is a substantial amount of trash mixed in with the recycling material. So people are just using the blue bin as another trash can essentially.”
In the end, this requires those working at the recycling center to pull out more trash than they do recycling material. Hicks’ other argument was that it is difficult to find buyers for the material. The city has primarily relied upon the sale of cardboard, especially as plastic sales have plummeted.
Both Tyler and Nacogdoches have cut their curbside recycling but rely upon drop points throughout the cities. Lufkin will follow suit.
Hicks suggested creating more drop points at the schools so kids are exposed to it and learn the importance of recycling and of recycling the right way.
“I’d like to find a happy medium here,” Hicks said. “What we’re doing is not working. And I feel like it’s going to continue to get worse.”
Hicks and Green both expressed interest in meeting the needs of people who utilize curbside recycling. They are open to suggestions, but Green talked about a business that works contractually to pick up curbside recycling on an individual basis.
Green acknowledged the citizens who’ve said they’d pay for the program if they could and believes this option could be a way to bring the program back in a different way.
“We are willing to do that. We’ve invited them to Lufkin,” Green. “We’re waiting on a proposal at this time. And that would be made available to all citizens who are using curbside recycling or would like to.”
Ward 5 councilman Rocky Thigpen commiserated with Haglund and reiterated Hicks’ and Green’s point about opening up for other options.
“At this point, as far as the city decision, I feel like this is the best decision for the city’s money at this point and I will be carrying (my recyclables) to the drop-off,” Thigpen said.
Boatman cut in shortly after this, asking why the city hadn’t worked on educating constituents in the years before as the recycling program became such an issue.
“If issues like this have been known about for years why did we not try to increase education before getting rid of the curbside recycling program?” she asked.
Green said the city had been operating on a deficit budget that they typically made up throughout the year. This was the first year that plan actually impacted city programs because of the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 on their budget, he said. They didn’t anticipate needing to cut this program, but were pushed to.
“Your suggestion is a good one, but we didn’t actually plan on addressing that,” Green said. “We hoped we could make it up the way we always have and that is through the deficit process. This year is simply one year that we could not absorb looking at a $1 million deficit.”
In other business, the council also:
Postponed the abandonment and transfer of an undeveloped alley near Elsie Street to the Salvation Army of Lufkin.
Authorized representatives to the Texas Local Government Investment Pool and the TexStar Short Term Asset Reserve Fund.
The council also approved on second reading:
The increase of residential, commercial, irrigation, industrial and wholesale water rates in the city. This is the second 2% rate increase of three planned.
The increase of sewer rates in the city of Lufkin, in the same manner as water rates.
DIBOLL — The Diboll City Council approved the fiscal year 2020-21 budget and tax rate.
The council voted to keep the same tax rate of 63 cents per $100 valuation, causing an increase of $3 or 0.48% on the average home in Diboll from property values rising.
A balanced budget of $5,318,685.85 was set for the coming year. The budget will raise 2.49% or $28,620 more revenue from property taxes than last year, documents detailing the budget on the city’s website state.
Trey Wilkerson, a candidate for Diboll mayor, pointed to a change in the budget document where, after his request at the last meeting, they included the road maintenance fund budget. He said he appreciated their willingness to fix it but shamed the council for only making the change after he pointed it out.
He still found two “glaring deficiencies” in the budget: cutting the compensation for the fire department and failing to maintain city streets.
“Those men and women volunteer to keep us safe, they protect us, and they do it for just a few dollars per call-out, and this budget reduces the compensation they receive,” he said. “It’s already a pretty paltry amount and it’s going to come down even further. I think that shows a lack of respect and appreciation for their service.”
However, council member of District 4 and Mayor Pro Tem Daniel Lopez later discussed this claim and said that not only were there no cuts to the fire department compensation, the city didn’t determine their budget. The council approved the budget that the fire department proposed to them and made no changes to it.
Additionally, salaries were not cut, Lopez said. What is represented in the city budget is also only the city’s portion of the budget, not the entire budget.
Wilkerson also pointed out that the road maintenance budget was bare-bones and that the only expected purchase is a ditch digger.
“The people of Diboll will not see any relief from potholes with this budget,” Wilkerson said.
City manager Gerry Boren said the city budget is bare-bones right now, and that the budget has no capital improvement projects, just the basic necessities. They did this because they didn’t want to create an additional hardship on already struggling taxpayers, he said.
If the economy improves and sales tax allocations begin increasing, the city will accept them into the budget and allocate more money to more expenses. That money comes on a two-month delay, so if sales improve in September, the city won’t see that money until November.
Diboll’s allocations improved in September compared to payments made this time last year, but the city is still facing a 9.45% deficit in allocations year-to-date compared to a year ago.
“So we believe that once the economy fires back up, it’s still going to take us 90 days to start transitioning,” Boren said. “We will start adding additional funds to the departments such as streets, those projects, but right now this budget is survival mode without raising anything.”
The Lufkin ISD Board of Trustees held a special meeting Tuesday to discuss several topics in the district.
The majority of the meeting was for discussion only. However, the board met in closed session with lawyers, employees, a student and a parent to discuss taking action on the appeal by a parent and student on an expulsion decision.
The board voted to uphold the expulsion for the full calendar year.
Shelly Slaton, assistant superintendent of education services and accountability, spoke to the board about the district’s asynchronous learning plan. Superintendent Lynn Torres said the district is required by the Texas Education Agency to submit a plan in order to be able to count the asynchronous students present.
“It has several different pieces to it, including our instructional schedule, our material, how we’re going to measure student progress and how we will implement our virtual learning,” Slaton said.
The deadline to submit is Oct. 1, Torres said. Slaton asked the board to look over the plan before the regular meeting Thursday evening, when they will decide whether or not to vote the plan in.
“This bears a tremendous impact on our local ADA and our attendance accounting system and, ultimately, our funding,” Torres said. “We want to be sure that we get it right, and TEA will review and let us know. From across the state, it has taken as little as three days to have one approved to as long as three weeks.”
In general, virtual learners are not performing as well as they should, Torres said. So the district has been reaching out, checking on them and encouraging them to return to face-to-face learning.
Slaton said 226 students returned to face-to-face instruction on Monday, leaving around 1,800 still enrolled in virtual learning.
Board president Scott Skelton said he anticipates more will ask to come back to in-person after the first progress report comes out.
Parents will have a chance to enroll students in virtual learning for the next nine weeks on Sept. 28.
“Whether certain students have had a good, bad or somewhere in between experience, the effort from the staff, administration and the teachers has been exceptional,” board member Hall Henderson said. “To reiterate what we’ve been saying for a time, this is unprecedented, and what’s being asked of these teachers is beyond imagination still today, but certainly six weeks ago, 12 weeks ago. I applaud everyone in the district for the effort that they’ve put forward.”
Daniel Spikes, assistant superintendent of administrative services, presented 12 new policy changes recommended by the Texas Association of School Boards. The suggested changes mainly focused on shifting procedures from policy into the regulations manual, Spikes said.
The board already approved two of the policies — DIA(LOCAL) and FFH(LOCAL) — in the August board meeting because of timing.
The board also discussed the purchase of 507 Martin Luther King Blvd. Torres said the district’s offer was accepted by the owner, and the board will need to sign some paperwork to formally purchase the property so demolition and construction can begin to expand parking at Garrett Primary School.
Henderson brought up the sale of the final portion of the bond project and asked that it be done soon to take advantage of low interest rates.
“With tens of millions, a little percentage point could make a big difference, so if we could get it in over the next few months, that might be helpful for us,” Henderson said. “The lower we can lock in these rates and have those for the next 20 years, the better off we are. While we may not need the funds for the short term, it’s the long term game on paying that back that I’m more interested in.”
Torres said they would have a conversation with their finance team this week and provide an update. The district has $9.5 million left to sell, and CFO Charlotte Bynum said the funds have to be spent within three years of sale.