Hopes of using debt to jump-start big-ticket projects such as an inclusive playground and a new police department evidence room in the next budget year dimmed Thursday, as city budget writers recommended a more conservative approach to the Waco City Council.
But that doesn’t mean those projects are dead.
In a council budget and audit committee meeting, city staff advised against an idea discussed last month to shift at least 1 cent of the current 77.6 cents per $100 property tax rate from the operating budget to debt service. That penny shift would have opened up debt capacity for $28 million worth of projects, including parks, fire stations, police facilities, streets, sidewalks and drainage works.
Budget director Laura Chiota said demands on the operating budget would make that shift difficult.
“The balance is very delicate, and we don’t think we can shift a penny,” Chiota said.
Instead of changing the rate structure, she and City Manager Dale Fisseler suggested allocating most of this year’s increased property tax revenue toward new debt-funded capital projects. Based on conservative estimates, that would allow the city to issue bonds of $11.9 million for a pared-down list of projects, supplemented with $1.9 million in cash.
Those projects include:
- $8.9 million in street improvements. The city public works department had asked for nearly $20 million for those improvements.
- $3.48 million to replace Fire Station No. 5 on Speight Avenue and to buy land for a new fire station at Panther Way and Ritchie Road. The fire department had sought $4.1 million.
- $500,000 for a parks department project to renovate the Waco Suspension Bridge, plus $300,000 for general parks improvements. The parks department had sought $5.38 million, including $1.7 million for an inclusive playground that would serve children and adults of all levels of ability. Staff members are now proposing to work with disability advocates to raise money for the playground and fund it during the following two years.
Meanwhile, the Waco Police Department request for $2.8 million for a new property room and crime scene facility is being bumped into the 2018-19 budget year under the staff proposal.
Fisseler will present his preliminary operating budget to the council in July. He said that budget will require new spending to meet the priorities of the city council.
Councilman John Kinnaird said he doesn’t want to skimp on improving streets.
“My priorities are infrastructure and streets first,” Kinnaird said. “If the new things in the operating budget preclude us from putting focus on that, then what you’re talking about doing may not fit my priorities.”
Fisseler said the council also has stressed support for public safety, and that’s part of the new demand on the operating budget.
“You’re talking about new fire stations, and you have to staff them,” he said. “With body-worn cameras, you create civilian positions that stay with us forever.”
City budget officials estimate the cameras will cost $158,000 upfront, plus $242,000 a year for data services related to the cameras. In addition, the city would pay $189,000 for three positions to manage the system.
At the same time, Police Chief Ryan Holt is requesting 10 new police officers in the next fiscal year as part of a proposal to ramp up police staffing from 247 to 279 in four years. That would cost $2.4 million a year in salaries and benefits.
Kinnaird said he agrees it will be tricky to balance the needs of the capital and operating budgets, but he doesn’t want to lose sight of street needs and projects such as the inclusive playground.