In 2008, a 3.3 million dollar bond was approved by residents of Hutto. The final vote was 361 FOR and 340 AGAINST. The bond initiative was for several items we will detail below. Ultimately, this past July, four Hutto City Council members rammed the project through in a controversial 3-4 split vote. The approval spends the 3.3 million dollars on a project that was much different than proposed to voters in 2008/2009 and ultimately passed by voters in the 2009 November election.
In 2008, a proposed project for Fritz Park was initiated. The “Fritz Park Master Plan” project specified several key areas the 3.3 million dollars would be used for. Specific costs established in the “Master Plan” which were publicly distributed are listed below.
Phase I Cost – $900,000.00 – The first phase of the Fritz Park Master Plan construction of elements as outlined in the plan adopted by City Council December 2008. This phase will include an internal walking trail within Fritz Park, possible fitness elements along the trail, tennis courts renovation, additional irrigation and electrical as plans are designed, an additional parking lot at the end of Park Street.
Phase II Cost – $1,368,000.00 – The second phase of the Fritz Park Master Plan construction of elements as outlined in the plan adopted by City Council December 2008. This phase will include but is not limited to walking trail along Park Street to the football and Baseball/Softball fields; redesign of both the football and baseball/softball fields; addition of a concession stand/storage/restroom facility and adjacent parking lot; playground units and entry point signage.
Park land Aquisitions – $1,000,000.00 – The citizens approved funding to obtain future parkland during the November 2009 bond election. The approval gives the City Council the authority to secure future parkland once property becomes available. The funding does not include the costs for improving the parkland but helps ensure that the City has parkland secured for future generations.
The initial proposal by Parks Director Mike Hemker was approved in late 2008. According to the city website, the final proposal was approved in August of 2009 by City Council and ultimately placed on the Nov 2009 ballot.
Even though every public presentation, bond-election-pamphlet, press release and news article focused on Fritz Park and the specifics of the project, the bond initiative was vaguely worded, giving council power to appropriate the funds as they saw fit. The bond narrowly passed by 21 votes.
Fast forward seven years. In July 2016, the current City Council, now facing a fast approaching bond expiration, proposed approving the 3.3 million dollars to be spent on a project far from what was sold to residents in 2008/2009. Council members Michael Smith and Ann Cano were on the council in 2009 and ultimately approved the final projects associated with the November 2009 bond initiative.
During discussion session in the July 7, 2016 meeting, Council member Nate Killough questioned the plan in detail, opposing the updated proposal. “So at the end of the day, we are going to pay 3 million dollars, rearranging the softball fields, we’re going to move the football fields 40 yards and out of that 3 million dollars the only thing we are gaining is a rest room/concession stand?” Parks Director Mike Hemker said “and about 6,000 square feet of storage but an acceptable restroom”.
The meeting continued for an hour with much debate, heated at times. The exorbitant costs of a “grand entryway” to the fields was mentioned by council member Valdez. Valdez equated the entryway to the Roman coliseum and stated he felt this could be done at a much less expense.
As discussion went on, further scaled down versions of the original plan approved by voters were also flushed out. There will be no bleachers or seats in the new stadium, only staggered rows of concrete to sit on. Seating, gone. The playground, gone. Batting cages, gone. The parking lot, gone. The internal walking trail, gone. Restoring the tennis courts, gone. Landscaping, gone. The 1 million for future park land, gone.
According to documents obtained from the City, in 2010, the field restorations, concession stand and restroom alone would have cost $1,368,000.00 to build. Those three alone will now cost the entire 3.3 million. At one point during discussion, it was discovered the drawings of the proposed project given to the council that night were not even a true representation of what would be built.
Council member Tom Hines also expressed his concerns of the high costs and the lack of delivering on what the residents were proposed in 2009. “If we scale this back then maybe we can put the trail in, maybe we could put the play ground in, maybe we could install bench seats in the stadium and add the parking lot.”
Councilman Michael Smith then interjected: “We’ve we’ve had seven years of input on this now. People have had seven years if they didn’t like [sic] to say hey let’s move this somewhere else.”
Council member Killough then stated: “We go back to that whole thing of spending money just because it’s there and we feel we need to spend it, that’s a terrible notion to ever look at anything and say we’ve had that money and it’s been there for nine years and we need to spend it.”
Smith: “I’m not talking about spending money to spend money we have a contract with the citizens where we told then all those years ago we were going to build them a new park.”
Killough – “What are we going to give them for three million dollars?”
Smith – “A new park”
Killough – “It’s not a new park. We could do something more with that 3 million dollars. At the end of the day what I see, it’s the same thing we have right now. It’s just prettier there’s a bow tie wrapped around it and now there’s a bathroom. Minus the bathroom and the concession stand and maybe some storage it’s the same thing. For three million dollars I want more.”
Councilman Michael Smith, visibly upset, stated: “We had tons of input, we’ve had 7 years of citizens input, I think it’s bold for the seven of us up here to say we know better than all the citizens who input all these years.”
In response to Councilman Smith’s retort, Council Member Hines stated: “I have a hard time swallowing that. We aren’t bucking that. I think what we are bucking is it’s been 7 or 8 years and over that time costs have increased and we have lost buying power.”
Smith and Cano, who approved the original project in 09, then tried to justify the delays on the “bad economy”. Smith said “things were great before Ann and I got on Council and then it tanked”. Smith said it he “reigned in all of the projects because we couldn’t afford to do them.”
Smith’s inaccurate economic assessment and a lack of action, delaying the project, cost tax payers dearly. Construction costs actually plummeted in 2009/2010 which would have offered more buying power with the funds already in place from the Bond election. Costs remained below January 2009 levels until late 2011. Now, construction costs have increased tremendously since bottoming in 2011.
It’s important to note the 8.5 million dollar bond for street improvements began in 2012. The 5.5 million dollar bond approved YMCA began in March 2013.
After discussion, a vote was then taken to approve the project, removing the majority of items originally voted on and approved by the public in 2009. Nate Killough, Tom Hines and Lucio Valdez voted against the updated project – Michael Smith, Bettina Jordan, Ann Cano and Doug Gaul voted to approve.
Council member Michael Smith’s attempts to justify this action with excuses ranging from “the funds will expire if we don’t spend them” and “we had a contract with the citizens” to “the economy tanked” aren’t setting well with many tax payers.
One resident stated “I was told I was paying for one thing and was given something totally different. Sure I am getting a new field with a shiny new concession stand, but I was told my tax dollars would pay for MUCH more. This is just another example of poor leadership from our politicians. They could have scrapped the project, let the bond expire, put a new initiative with true costs on the ballot and let the citizens decide.”
Now, many are laser focused on the details of the new 53 million dollar bond package being proposed. We will continue providing details on that as they become available.
We will also be reporting on another violation by Commissioner Cynthia Long recently discovered. Stay tuned.