The Ballinger city council dismissed city manager Tommy Turney at their bimonthly meeting on January 6th. As previously reported, councilman Rick Morrish cited concerns over the water agreement previous councils had worked out with the City of Abilene. The water deal guarantees water for Ballinger in the future. The deal is for 40 years with an option for another 40 years. Currently Ballinger purchases 280 acre-feet of water per year from Abilene. One acre-foot of water equates to 325,851 gallons. That comes out to Ballinger purchasing 91,238,280 gallons of water per year from Abilene.
Turney explained the current water deal on January 17th, 2019:
“Currently the city of Ballinger purchases its water from Millersview/Doole and Abilene. Ballinger purchases 360 acre-feet per month from Millersview/Doole and 140 acre feet per month from Abilene. Our agreement is for 500 acre-feet per month from Millersview/Doole but as their water consumption increases due to growth (the area includes Wall, TX) our require amount is lessened.
Now, at the present time, we purchase the water from Abilene but it doesn’t come from Abilene, it comes from Lake Ivey just like the Millersview/Doole water does. Abilene, like Millersview/Doole has water from lake Ivey that they sell. The difference is that we presently pay Millersview/Doole $1.43 per 1,000 gallons and we pay Abilene .36 per 1,000 gallons. The reason that Ballinger pays so much less to Abilene is that Ballinger because of the new water deal.”
Turney further explained the water deal, “Under the water deal with Abilene, the city of Ballinger will pay $3,000,000 for the design of a water line to go from the north Abilene water treatment plant to the south Abilene water treatment plant. $2,000,000 of the money is forgiven via the Texas Water Board. $1,000,000 will be from a bond (see photo). This is only for the design of the pipeline between the two water treatment plants in Abilene and does not include construction costs. This will allow the north plant to send water to the south plant.
As mentioned, Ballinger receives water from Lake Ivey or, in an emergency, from Ballinger City Lake. Abilene receives water from 3 sources; Possum Kingdom, Hubbard Creek and Fort Phantom.”
At the January 6th city council meeting, Morrish cited the possibility of the water deal termination as being his main concern. For the City of Ballinger to default on that deal would raise serious concerns about the future of the city when it comes to having an adequate supply of water in the future. Having to seek a new deal or to find another source for water could cost the city millions. An article in the Abilene Reporter News on January 8th reported that Abilene city manager, Robert Hanna, said that Ballinger had fallen behind in payments but the payments for the water deal are now current. On January 9th, the Runnels County Register sent an email to Abilene City Manager inquiring as to when the payments were brought current. Hanna replied to the email stating that there were 2 payments made to Abilene; one on December 20th and one on January 6th.
In his email, Hanna stated, “We had to send a termination notice to get a response. We tried multiple avenues.”
The Abilene Reporter News article states that the payments totaled approximately $90,000. The significance of the payments is that the second payment was made on the day that Turney was dismissed by the city council, January 6th.
According to Ballinger city councilwoman Kristi Goetz this was also the case when it came to Turney returning a leased excavator. The excavator sat at the water plant for months costing the city $8500 each month. Goetz said that the council told him to return the equipment on several occasions but that he only returned it the day the council deliberated and approved a pay raise for him.
Turney weathered many storms during the 18 months that he was the Ballinger city manager. It was confirmed at the same council meeting where he was dismissed that Turney inherited a debt of $600,000. City secretary Bonita Shields openly confirmed that amount at the council meeting. Turney also came onboard after the budget for FY2018 was set. Turney may not have been aware of the dire financial situation that the city was in because previous councilmembers maintained that there was $200,000 in the black when former city manager Bryan Grimes left office to take the same position at Willow Park. There have been several council changes since Grimes left. Darlene Brice Kelly had to step down because she had reached the term limit. Bob McDaniel won the election and defeated Kelly in the next election 2 years later. Councilwoman Kristi Goetz surprised many when she defeated incumbent and long-time councilman Eloyed Fuentes. Jason Gore was elected to the council as well. By far, the biggest surprise was long serving mayor Sam Mallory being defeated by challenger Dawni Seymore by a mere 3 votes. Seymore’s rise was meteoric, to say the least.
The council was facing challenges of their own after Turney was elected. Many in the community did not want him as the city manager. Councilman Rick Morrish said that he didn’t want to hire Turney and that he was going to hold him accountable at every turn. The subject of former mayor Mallory’s Certified Pool Operator contract was investigated a few years ago. It was determined that while it was illegal, he canceled the contract upon being told he wasn’t allowed to hold the contract. Mallory was a city official, and the contract went to his own LLC. The manner in which it all happened was also questioned because it showed that Mallory went to the CPO training with Grimes before they even put the contract up for bid. KRUN radio general manager compiled information from several sources for his own investigation and the Texas Rangers looked into the issue.
Another challenge for Turney and the city was the fact that the city had no financial resources and that their Moody’s credit rating had dropped. As previously reported, $360,000 in CDs were cashed out to cover costs for paving projects and to make up for a shortfall in sales tax revenue. The city had grants for the projects so $225,000 was repaid to the city. But that too was spent, leaving the city with no reserves. This was confirmed at a council meeting in which CPA Gayla Fullerton said that the city had been using the CD money as “cash on hand” to put their budget in the black. Without that money, the city would have been in the red. Turney came into a town with no financial resources and was left to try and figure out how the city could live hand-to-mouth every month, making payroll off of sales tax revenue and water bill payments. This, while loads of work still needed to be done in the city, work that he would have to come up with a way to pay for.
The next challenge would come in the form of employee complaints. To date, 11 employees have left the city since Turney was hired. Some were laid off due to budget constraints, at least 1 was fired and the others resigned.
Several employees wrote letters complaining about Turney. Then, councilman Bob McDaniel said that former mayor Mallory had taken him on a ride in his truck and parked at the cross. McDaniel said that Mallory told him to try and dig up dirt on Turney with Turney’s former employers in Saudi Arabia. McDaniel openly asked Mallory about this in council and Mallory said that it did happen. Then it came to light that certain council members were meeting with the aggrieved employees to coach them in their letters to the council. It gave the appearance of a behind the scenes conspiracy with the sole goal of not necessarily finding the truth, but of getting Turney fired. Over 140 people showed up at a council meeting when the council was considering terminating Turney over the employee complaints. It was a “her word against his” type issue since there was no proof or evidence of what the employees alleged had happen, save for one secret recording former IT tech Corey Van Zandt. Van Zandt made the recording while in Turney’s office. Van Zandt made notes of actions he perceived to be less than honest by Turney. He gave those at a city council meeting. McDaniel asked him why he didn’t bring the issues up when he first knew of them, rather than secretly trying to form a case against Turney over several months. In the end, the council voted 5-0 in favor of keeping Turney as city manager. This was due, in no small part, to the dozens of Turney supporters who showed up at the meeting and spoke on his behalf. Turney said that a day or two after that meeting, a meeting in which Morrish voted to keep him, that Morrish came to his office and asked him to resign. The feeling at the time was that Turney couldn’t do anything to change the minds of those against him.
Then came the credit card and Amazon purchases. The misuse of the city credit card by multiple employees is egregious. A previous article details the misuse of the credit card and Amazon orders, including orders for “personal trimmers,” “razor scooter batteries,” purses, meals at steakhouses and other restaurants as well as numerous other items. Employees using the city account to get these items tax free could threaten the city’s tax-free status.
Thousands upon thousands of dollars were spent on travel mere months after the city cashed in their financial reserves. This included a trip to Washington D.C. by Grimes and former council members Darlene Brice Kelly and Philip Arp. The trip ran up a bill of over $2,000. There was the other spending on trips by the former city manager that continued to drain city funds. Trips to Austin, Lubbock, Houston and other places that included hotel, food and gas. There was no per diem limit. In all, former city manager Grimes jaunts around the state drained the coffers of over $20,000 during his time in office. Employees drained the well also as they used the card to eat at upscale restaurants like Ruth’s Christ Steakhouse, Perini Steakhouse, along with Brazilian steakhouses, PF Changes, Hooters on the Riverwalk, and a myriad of other restaurants. The city was in a budget crisis, with no reserves, using their CDs to make it appear the budget was in the black every month and yet this spending was allowed by the city manager and city council, with council members going on some of the trips.
Turney was never under investigation for credit card misuse. While the malfeasance is readily apparent, it will probably never be investigated. One Texas Ranger investigator told councilwoman Kristi Goetz that Ballinger is “politically tainted.”
The city has already started the process of moving on from Turney. There is a new temporary city manager coming onboard and they’ve replaced Gore with Jeff Smith. McDaniel officially resigned on January 10th so they will appoint someone to fill his position at the next city council meeting. Both Smith and McDaniel’s replacement will serve until the next general election in November.