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2013-08-08

Will increased taxes pay for '24-7' coverage?

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

During a Tuesday, July 30, special called meeting - formerly known as a budget workshop - Bandera City Council struggled with reconciling a potential $327,918 budget shortfall in fiscal year 2013-2014.

One of the most problematic requests, according to several council members, was from City Marshal James "Charlie" Hicks, who proposed increasing his 2012-2013 budget of $235,000 to $360,700.

Resume '24-7'coverage

According to Hicks, of the 744 hours of potential law enforcement coverage per month, the present structure allows only 500 hours to be covered - and only if all officers are on duty. By granting his additional manpower requests, council would increase coverage. "This would allow us not to leave the city without coverage except during a few early morning hours and under extreme circumstances," he said. He added that his department has had many requests from citizens asking that "24-7" law enforcement coverage be resumed.

"The sheriff's office has done a great job of being there for us in the many gaps we have had in coverage. But, the truth of the matter is that they have 900 square miles to protect and their response time cannot be guaranteed in any given situation," Hicks explained.

To boost coverage to what he considers an acceptable level, he proposed upping Deputy Marshal Will Dietrich to 42 hours a week with an additional pay increase of $1,000 for Master Level Certification. Deputy Marshal Earl Heidelberg would increase to 42 hours. Chief Deputy Scott MacNaughton would move from 20 hours a week to 32 hours with benefits and a new 42-hour per week position would be created that would include benefits and a $3,000 bump from base pay for Master Peace Officer level certification. These additions would allow not only full-time coverage for the city but also sufficient time for officers to take time off and attend training sessions.

'Sell the marshal's office'

Additionally, it would enable Hicks to deal with evidence in a timely manner because, as he noted, "Evidence is almost a full time job due to the amount of paperwork it generates from prosecution to destruction."

During the ensuing discussions, Hicks said with the department's current structure, an inordinate amount of overtime was being accrued, which was "pushing $10,000 for the second month in a row."

Concerned with Hicks' request to be more of an administrator and less of a patrol officer, Councilman Maggie Schumacher said, "You were hired as a working marshal and not as strictly an administrator. We need you on the street and selling the marshal's office." She also suggested hiring a contract officer, such as retired 216th Judicial District Investigator Ernie Lobello, to assist with administrative duties and the evidence locker.

"We could also put security cameras at key locations, such as City Park, the city yard and the wastewater plant. There are ways to help without adding a new position," Schumacher said.

She also queried why pay increases for certification levels were being offered at the beginning of an officer's tenure as opposed to after a year's employment. "Will was just recently hired. Why can't we wait until next next year to give him a certification pay raise?" Schumacher asked.

Addressing another issue, Mayor Don Clark said, "We've also been accused of being a steppingstone for law enforcement officers. Can we put contracts in place that require officers to stay a year? This gets expensive."

Hicks said that because of recent pay raises, the City of Bandera is no longer considered a steppingstone or training ground. "This allowed me to recruit a 20-year law enforcement veteran from across the state," he said.

'Raise taxes'

Most of the residents attending the special meeting spoke favorably of Hicks' department and Hicks' himself.

Resident Brian Black, owner of the Longhorn Saloon, said, "Tourists like seeing officers come into our bar. They like knowing police officers are close if needed. And, if we call 'em, we need 'em."

George Hamilton, who owns property in the city, said, "If Charlie does nothing but keep an open door policy, that what we need - that and commonsense management. Charlie's officers protect the assets of landowners in Bandera and they look damn good, too."

Lynn Palmer, a member of the city's economic development corporation, recommended that council raise taxes to pay for the requested increase in the city marshal's budget. "Or go up on utilities or sewer service. That will also make up for the property taxes lost due to tax freezes," she said.

City residents over the age of 65 can apply to have their property taxes frozen. According to the Central Appraisal District Chief Appraiser Wendy Grams, that accounts for only about a $2,000 loss in property taxes for the city.

Pressing her point, Palmer said it has been five years since the citizens had had a tax raise. And, the last time this occurred, it took the city 10 years to get out of operating in a deficit, she said. Rumors continue to swirl that Palmer is contemplating another run for city council.

Schumacher advised Palmer to "look at the city bank accounts that are drawing .4 percent interest before passing a tax increase on to the citizens." According to information, the city has approximately $1.3 million in CDs drawing a miniscule amount of interest, as well as $300,000 in an operating fund. Additionally, the EDC has $275,000 in bank accounts in addition to a $290,000 operating fund.

Gathering a consensus

Mayor Pro Tem John Hegemier suggested that Palmer was "in the minority" when advocating a tax increase for city residents. While supporting MacNaughton's increase to 30 duty hours with benefits, Hegemier was lukewarm on the necessity of adding another deputy marshal.

"We have to do more with less," said Councilman Jim Hannah. "Residents living on fixed incomes make a tax increase too hard." He suggested more coordination with patrol deputies with the Bandera County Sheriff's Office rather than adding another officer.

However, Councilmen Binky Archer and Brandi Morgan both supported Hicks' budget increase and an additional officer. Archer said residents have asked for 24-7 coverage and Morgan wanted her property protected because she travels frequently.

Schumacher called adding another officer at this time "questionable," noting, "We have options other than raising taxes."

Concurring with Schumacher - and perhaps easing the minds of his constituents - Clark said, "We're going to balance the budget without raising taxes. I don't want to raise taxes."