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Winters City Council Wrap Up

Bill Hancock
Runnels County Register

The following is a wrap up of the November 26, Winters City Council meeting.

Part of the Winters City Council meeting covered complaints about city employees using city-owned vehicles for personal use as well as complaints regarding the professionalism of city employees. Buddy J. Miller addressed the council regarding the issue, "As public servants and municipal employees, you're expected to uphold a level of professionalism. This professionalism imparts respect and confidence from the community towards the people in these said individuals in these positions. Regardless of if you're off duty, or off the clock, you're a representative of the position you hold, your department, the city and of the taxpayers you ultimately work for." Miller said that city had refused to address citizen concerns, were uncooperative with local groups, engaging in bickering on social media, and, in one case, instigating a verbal confrontation with a citizen. Miller said that the actions of the city and employees were unacceptable and should never be tolerated at any level.

Miller also spoke to the council about the private use of city-owned vehicles, "Additionally, the use of city-owned vehicles, fuel and other resources for personal use is not only unprofessional, it's a financial liability the city does not want, or need to incur. Examples are dropping off and picking up children from school, grocery shopping and general shopping. Use of city vehicles to pull personal trailers, or recreational items such as boats, or anything else that can be deemed, 'personal use,' and unrelated to the duties of employment, to include, but not limited to, transporting that employee to and from employment. First responders who are on call are not who this pertains to." Miller said that all other city-owned vehicles should be parked and secured on city-owned property. He believes that saving money but cutting out the alleged personal use of the vehicles should be sufficient to hire an additional police officer. Winters had been plagued by burglaries since March and many citizens want to hire at least one additional police officer.

Mayor Lisa Yates responded to Miller by first addressing the conduct of city employees, "My notes, Mr. Miller, are very similar to yours, as if we had written them together. I expect any employee in the city to be respectful, accommodate reasonable requests, be friendly, be competent, effectively communicate with all citizens of Winters, regardless of personal relationships." Yates stated that she expects employees to be ethical and have integrity. Yates said that with Winters being a small town, communication is not difficult, but that there are special nuances because there is not another person to go to if someone has a problem with a city department. Yates said that if people are having trouble, they should seek out the department head or find a council member to facilitate that communication.

Yates also addressed the vehicle use, saying that the use of a city-owned vehicle is generally left to the department heads. She said that she has spoken to the department heads about that subject, "I have made the department heads aware that they need to monitor that." According to Yates, there are different demands depending on the department, "Various positions require after-hours or outside of traditional hours assignments." Yates said that the general public is not always aware of those assignments, including tending to the lake and RV spots on the weekends. Miller said that he was more concerned with city employees using city-owned vehicles for shopping, "I think more of my concern is (a city employee) driving up to The Crossing, or Yesway, and the vehicle sitting out there running for 15-20 minutes while someone is inside shopping, or dropping of children at school."

Alderman Mark Burkhart spoke about his concern regarding liability should someone not employed by the city get injured in an accident in a city-owned vehicle, "The liability portion is that if they have an accident, with a spouse or children in the vehicle, the city now becomes liable for those expenses incurred as well as any lawsuits, and we just can't afford to do that, or allow that to happen. I don't think that the insurance covers the family of spouses in a city vehicle. That's a big concern." Yates responded, saying that most insurance covers passengers in vehicles but that they would check into it.

Ana Miller addressed the council regarding their budget and amendments, "When I looked at our 2018-2019 audit that was given, we spent $158,000 over budget on our police force, alone. So, I called the city and they weren't prepared for my questions, so I called the auditor." Miller said that the auditor explained to her what the city was spending as well as spending money outside of the budget, "In order to make a purchase above-budget, you're supposed to amend the budget. You're supposed to vote on it as a council and amend the budget. So, when I looked at everything, that year, we spent, just looking at rough numbers, $661,000 above budget. Why are we not amending our budget?" Miller said that she understood the purchasing of vehicles and equipment, but wanted to know why the city wasn't amending the budget, "When you read the auditor's report, they say that 'You guys are doing this wrong." She said the auditor made the comments for both years where she had looked at the audit. Yates addressed the concerns, "The auditor's report was glowing. There was nobody in the audience the night the auditor's report was given, other than department heads and the council. So, the one recommendation they had was coming back and doing the budget amendments that you're talking about. Our revenue comes almost primarily from taxes and the sale of water. Those are recorded in two different places, and that's very much a holdover from our water superintended who was here in the past, who preferred to have water funds kept in a different place. It doesn't mean that all of the money isn't the city's."

According to Yates, the city has seven departments to fund; street, water, admin, police, sewer, lake and park, "At the last audit, they prefer an asset liability ratio to be 3-to-1. Winters is 12-1. All the budget can be is what we anticipate. We can not anticipate overtime, for instance, in law enforcement." Yates said that they also couldn't anticipate vehicles needing to be replaced or other equipment breakdowns. The auditor, according to Yates, said that it was recommended that they amend the budget twice a year, "If not more."

The auditor's report, dated September 30, 2019, showed that the city had $743,750 in CDs. The report also states that the city had Unfavorable Budget Variances and noted the failure to pass budget amendments, "The most significant budget variances are in the general government, police, highway and streets and swimming pool. The City records garbage sales net of expenditures. However, the revenues and expenditures should be recorded separately. The City had some expenditures paid after the end of the year that were incurred during the 2019 fiscal year. These expenditures were not appropriately budgeted. In addition, there were no budget amendments during the year. The Council approves all expenditures before paid." Page 48 of the audit states that the city went over budget in, "General Administration, Municipal Court, Airport, Parks and Recreation and Debt Service." Page 7 of the report shows that, "Capital outlay for the swimming pool was not budgeted."

Page 10 of the report shows that the city had a general revenue of, $1,401,861 in 2019. These funds came from Sales tax, $267,572; property tax, $553,209; Right of way, $75,050; Investment Earnings, $45,155; Miscellaneous income, $69,787 and transfers, $391,088. According to the report, the net position, after adjustments, was $1,359,146.

The report also listed financial highlights: The City's total net position increased by $453,464; Net position of gov't activities increased $280,910; The city's expenses were $280,910 less than the $1,922,901 generated in taxes and other revenues from gov't programs, including transfers. The city's business-type activities revenue was $1,838,878, while operating expenses were $1,664,324, including transfers; The total cost of the city's programs were $2,915,227, with no new programs added. The report also states that there was a fund balance of $758,198. As stated above, according to the report, "The City had some expenditures paid after the end of the year that were incurred during the 2019 fiscal budget. These expenditures were not appropriately budgeted." The 2020 auditor's report has not been released yet to see how much money was used from the 2020 budget to cover, if any, 2019 expenses.

The council also addressed the use of social media after a citizen brought up the issue. The city Facebook page has been temporarily taken down, pending the city council officially assigning it to someone. The city council said that social media was a courtesy and not a requirement. They said that posting agendas and other information on Facebook wasn't required by law, the information is only required to be reported on the city website and in the newspaper. One attendee said that we're in the 21st century and that Facebook is important to distributing information. Yates addressed the city using Facebook, "That's a place a place for a lot of accusations to be thrown around, a lot negativity to be thrown out there. We've got a responsibility behind it." The citizen addressed the council, saying that there were ways to avoid some of those issues when it came to dispensing information, such as making the settings where admin had to approve any posts and not allowing commenting. Yates and the council continued to express reluctance to use Facebook, "It's nonstop when things are rolling well. As soon as there's a hitch in the road all of the negativity (starts). I struggle with putting a platform out there to give people a voice to be very negative all of the time. And if you restrict some of those comments, the comment is going to be that you're restricting my voice." The city said that the employee in charge of the Facebook page had it linked to her personal account, and was receiving negative and "hateful" personal messages. The employee spoke up, "Why was I getting hateful messages about something that I have no control over?" The employee took down her Facebook, which, in turn, removed the city's Facebook. Other people in attendance continued to support the city having a social media presence. One man said that the notice for filing an application for city council was opened up July 18, but it wasn't posted to Facebook until August 6th. Yates addressed the statement, "That's another reason not to have a Facebook, in my opinion." Alderman Clayton Woffenden supported the city not having a Facebook, "Facebook is the worst place you can put anything if you want to know the truth." Buddy Miller responded Woffenden, "Well, it is the 21st century." Woffenden asked everyone, "What did we do before we had Facebook?" Miller responded, "What we did before is irrelevant. This is the 21st century, now." Miller specifically mentioned the notice for the  elections. Woffenden replied that it didn't need to go on Facebook. Yates also responded, "It's posted where it's legally required. Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram isn't the place to do business."

The council addressed a major issue with their city elections. Some people who live in Winters weren't given the option of voting in the city elections when they went to the polls. Yates said that the people who were not given the option to vote in the election could request a paper ballot from the election office.

Lastly, the city council voted to lease property for water storage tank to a company for $100/month. Yates said that is in line with other city leases. There are three companies bidding on a 3-year contract that will require significant amounts of water. The company would need to fill a 6,000 gallon truck at least 4 times a day. There was concern that it would deplete the city's drinking water out of the lake. City attorney Ken Slimp said that a caveat should be put into any contrcat regarding drinking water taking precedence over the water needed for the work. No paperwork was submitted since the companies are still in the bidding process, although, the lease of the location for the holding tank was approved. The move would help generate revenue for the city as they sell the water for $9 per 1,000 gallons.