"Leadership is ACTION, not POSITION."
None can contest the absolute charm that is Hutto and this is why we're seeing families from around the country move to this suburb of the Greater Austin Area. Deemed one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation is indeed an accolade, however, our infrastructure is nowhere near ready for the influx of development we're pushing and expecting. Unfortunately, we are three years behind city street development, neighborhood growth, and overall big picture community planning which has created a piecemeal patchwork of development throughout the city. Neighborhoods don't have adequate thoroughfares, we are replete with flooding issues, millions of dollars worth of land is sitting untouched, and high-potential venues are lacking in vision and leadership. At taxpayer expense, we've welcomed developers and businesses to Hutto and given them free rein to do as they please with little regard to checks and balances from our city government. We spent a pretty penny for the new city hall and gave up a lot of decision-making power to the developers in the process with regard to which businesses come to the Co-op and where they will be situated. We need to continue holding the developers accountable for what they promised and keep expectations high for this expensive property. The Co-op District has incredible potential for our city and I truly hope we can take back full control of the development for our best interest.
Before we continue bringing in more development at the rate we've had, we need to reign in current developers and businesses and ensure that they are following city guidelines and keeping their promises to Hutto. Once we get through the current development projects, we then need to work closely with our Economic Development Commission (EDC) and Chamber of Commerce to create a well thought out, big picture plan that looks 30 years in the future, not 5. We need to be interviewing businesses and developers on why they want to be in Hutto - not convincing them to develop here. Business development needs to relieve the tax burden of our residents.
Lower the Resident Tax Burden
I am not a proponent of Hutto spending the bond money that was approved of in the 2018 municipal election. Because of inaccurate verbiage and incorrect information provided to the voters, if we were to go forward with executing the bond, then residents of Hutto will ultimately pay upwards of 25% more in taxes. Upon learning of the misleading information related to this bond language, the city leadership needed to correct the language, publish the facts of the incremental tax rates to the public, and then take the bond back to the voters in the next election. Once the money is allocated via bond, the city has a fiduciary responsibility to execute those plans directly. However, it is necessary for the voters to know the full details of a bond measure before they vote - not after the fact. In the past year, our City Council worked hard to lower our high tax rate AND the resident tax burden. My first step on the council will be to fight for the 2018 bond language to be rewritten as accurately as possible, push out education on the bond, and make a motion for it to be sent back to the ballot for the voters to decide.
As a small business owner with multiple LLCs and looking at establishing a retail space in Hutto, I clearly understand how high the burden is to do business in Hutto vs. neighboring cities and counties. In an effort towards reducing the tax burden on our residents, the City of Hutto needs to work closely with Williamson County and we MUST update our impact fee plan to include higher rates for water and wastewater impact fees and a more reasonable rate for traffic impact fees. Our city cannot afford to continue waiving these fees and treating them as though they are incentives. Impact fees are a vital method in infrastructure financing and essential to the business conducted by any local government. Many in Hutto wonder why we can't afford to fix streets, fill potholes, create new roads, better water solutions, etc. The money from impact fees is truly the bread and butter necessary to fund infrastructure or public services. These fees move the burden away from our residents and allow the city to develop parks, schools, roads, sewers, water treatment, utilities, libraries, and public safety buildings. All of these areas need to be developed as our city continues to grow at our current rate.
As an FYI: Cities are required by Texas state law to update impact fee language every five (5) years (Sect. 395.052 of Local Government Code, Title 12-Planning & Development) - the last time this was done in Hutto was January 17, 2013. We absolutely cannot be out of compliance regarding state mandates, especially when it's essential to our development. Because impact fees were waived to developers the past years, we have a good deal of new businesses and neighborhood developers doing work in Hutto, but not paying their fair share of the burden which has thusly fallen onto the backs of resident tax rates.
Finally, we need to appoint community members to our commissions like the EDC and P&Z that have the qualifications and experience to assist the city with smart growth steps. Commission appointments are the first line for much of what happens in our town from zoning approvals, impact fee studies, and new development. It's imperative that they feel confident and empowered to ask tough questions and occasionally say no when necessary. Through appropriate appointments, residents will see their tax burden lower because we'll see smarter development and economic growth that truly benefits the city and effectively drives sales tax revenue.
Mandate Fiscal Oversight
Our Hutto City Council needs to ask the right questions, demand transparency, and enforce stewardship of tax-payer dollars. The council has made great strides in this by conducting a forensic audit for the 2019 Fiscal Year and then publishing that report for the public to view. What this audit revealed is that we are a city that is growing quickly and, just like how a business scales with growth, we, too, need to scale. This means creating a thorough system of checks and balances that allows for questions to asked by elected officials of how taxpayer money is being used. This also means encouraging our City Manager to move forward with the hiring of a permanent CFO who will participate in the oversight of city spending and assist in straight-forward communication with the public.
I would appreciate seeing a policy created where there is a quarterly report provided to the council from the City Manager or CFO regarding city spending, staff purchases, budget tracking, etc. This policy is an easy way to ensure faithful stewardship of tax dollars in a public capacity that is also transparent and on the record. The city council is comprised of elected representatives and they have the ultimate responsibility of fiscal oversight. Hutto has sadly seen what can happen when fiscal oversight is done behind the scenes or is a responsibility given to only a few. We are a city that is growing and that means we are learning.
My idea of successful city marketing is that which aims at turning the city into a brand with a certain value in the mind of the consumer. As the owner of a marketing firm with significant experience in branding and development, I know this is an area where we can make some great improvements for the city. Specifically, the branding of a city is the successful management of its image through strategic innovation and coordinated economic, commercial, social, cultural, and government policies -- all areas our city council manages and influences. Hutto needs to maximize our benefits towards our costs, communicate (advertise) ourselves and define target groups, and we need a broader definition of what we offer to encourage tourism, attract inward migration of residents, or enable business relocation/establishment.
Successful city marketing management will include our city council and city staff establishing clear marketing goals for the city, planning and executing activities to meet these goals, and measuring progress towards goal achievement. One simple idea we should be executing is the cross-promotion of our city events in large cities like Austin where there is an innate draw for their residents to seek out small-town festivals and events like that seen in Hutto. Right now, Hutto is missing out on tourism revenue that can also translate into business development loss.
We must work diligently to improve our city reputation through strategic marketing if we hope to see businesses with Hutto values desire to relocate here.
The current water situation should absolutely be a top priority. I'm encouraged to see that our city has finally revisited our water and wastewater impact fees (should have been done in 2017 for state compliance) and we are currently considering a recommended improvements from a well-known water firm. While there are potential future gains to us owning our water supply, we mistakenly put the cart before the horse by making such a large purchase without having established a solid plan for maintenance, growth updates, and financing tools. The city needs a viable, cost-effective, and long-term plan immediately. So, now that we may have a great plan for the next 50 years of Hutto Water, what now?
From drinking water to wastewater to stormwater, municipal utilities across the United States are trying to better quantify their infrastructure needs, develop more targeted plans, and explore a broad set of financing tools to pay for it all. Increasingly, cities and utilities are also learning more from each other and collaborating with a variety of public and private partners to adopt a more flexible, forward-looking approach in future projects. Only 17% of water utilities across the U.S. are confident that they can cover the cost of existing service through rates and fees—let alone pursue needed upgrades. This is what Hutto is faced with today. Financially, our utilities need to overcome several hurdles, including rising operating costs and unpredictable revenues that make it difficult to maintain self-sufficiency and make long-term capital plans. We must proceed towards our financing decision carefully in order to fully consider our current asset conditions and long-term debt.
A huge part of deciding on the right financing option for Hutto is for our city leaders to be crossing city lines and talking with leadership from municipalities like ours and the neighboring cities. The situation before us is not unique (83% of cities are facing it). In my personal time over the past years, I've already had great conversations with leaders from other Texas cities about their water and this is something our city leaders should do right now. For example, the Mayor of Rockwall was a great source of information when I approached him about this issue recently. Rockwall just emerged successfully from this exact issue not long ago and they are more than happy to share their findings, research, and experience.
If elected to our city council, I will approach the financing decision for our water with a thoughtful and thoroughly researched mind. I will also continue to build relationships with other city leaders in order for Hutto to benefit from their knowledge and experience.