Kempner debates proposal to hire city manager
By David Lowe
As Kempner prepares for a May 2 election about whether to adopt the city manager form of government, residents have presented arguments for and against hiring a city manager.
If voters approve the proposal, the City Council would have 60 days to appoint a city manager and set that person’s salary, according to Sec. 25.026 of the Local Government Code. A city manager, according to Section 25.029 of the code, would administer municipal business and hold “any additional powers or duties” the City Council “considers proper for the efficient administration of municipal affairs.”
Some of those who signed a petition to call the election said a city manager would help municipal business run better, improve the flow of information to the public and address concerns about the mayor’s exercise of power.
Mayor Dr. Keith Harvey, city financial consultant Jack Clark and some members of the public have questioned what work a city manager would do and have said the salary for such an official would result in a significant property tax increase.
WHAT PETITION SIGNERS SAY
Anelicia Cheney-Campbell – a member of the Citizens of Kempner advocacy group and a frequent critic of Harvey – organized the petition. Cheney-Campbell’s husband, Vance Rodgers – who has voiced many concerns about the mayor, and who is running against Councilwoman Betty Parker – also signed the petition.
Cheney-Campbell and Rodgers said it is extremely difficult for residents – and even some council members – to get public information from the city.
In an interview a few days before the council called the city manager election, Harvey said not all council members are well prepared at meetings, because some do not study their information packets thoroughly enough in advance.
The city often delays the release of information, Cheney-Campbell said, even when residents file open records requests.
Cheney-Campbell said her concerns about transparency began before Harvey took office in May 2019 but have continued throughout his time as mayor.
A city manager, Cheney-Campbell said, would be a “neutral third party” who would work for the City Council – and would get information to council members and citizens.
In addition, Cheney-Campbell said instead of the mayor preparing a city budget for the council to consider, it would be valuable for Kempner to have a city manager to prepare a draft budget.
Cheney-Campbell also said because a city manager supervises all municipal employees, such an administrator would give staff members the freedom to do their jobs – and provide information to the public – without worrying about how the mayor might respond. Along with voicing her concerns about Harvey’s staff oversight, Cheney-Campbell noted grievances police filed in 2018 about thenmayor Carolyn Crane’s management of the police department.
In an interview, Harvey questioned who a city manager would manage.
The Municipal Court judge reports to the state, Harvey said.
The police department currently is under the mayor’s authority, so “all this stuff would have to be rewritten,” if Kempner added a city manager, Harvey said.
In an email statement, the mayor added: “We need to make sure the voters know that a vote to create a City Manager, who does nothing more than what is currently being done in the city, will come with a major tax increase to cover the cost.”
Harvey said numerous residents have come to his office in recent days to express concerns about a tax increase connected to hiring a city manager.
Citing ZipRecruiter, the City of Kempner Official Communications page on Facebook said that as of Jan. 28, 2020, the average annual pay for a city manager in Texas was $84,847.
During the Feb. 4 City Council meeting, Clark said a city manager would cost Kempner $40,000-$50,000 per year.
Parker said she thinks that is a “lowball” range.
Clark said unless taxable values rise significantly – which he said is unlikely – Kempner’s property tax rate will have to increase 11 cents per $100 property value to pay for a city manager. An 11-cent hike in the tax rate would add $110 in annual taxes for every $100,000 of property a person owns in the city limits.
“Unless your [citywide] taxable value really goes up, or unless you cut expenses and services somewhere, you’re going to have a tax increase,” Clark told the council. “And I think it’s important that y’all know this from a financial point of view – from a budgeting point of view – and I think it’s important that the citizens know this before they vote for this [city manager proposal].”
The financial consultant said he has been working with Kempner a long time, and the city manager proposal “concerns me more than anything I’ve seen.”
Kempner is not big enough, Clark said, to have a city manager with a $50,000-per-year salary. He said he does not know of any municipality Kempner’s size that has a city manager.
Councilman Mack Ruszkiewicz said a city usually adds a manager when there is population or job growth, an increase in city staff responsibilities, or an influx of immigration. Kempner has had none of those recently, Ruszkiewicz said.
Adding a city manager, the councilman said, would be very expensive and would open a “can of worms.”
SUGGESTIONS FOR SAVINGS
Some of those who signed the petition to call a city manager election said they are not convinced Kempner will have to increase taxes to afford a city manager.
One of those petition signers is Councilman John Wilkerson. He was absent from the Feb. 4 council meeting but commented in an interview about the petition.
Wilkerson said signing the petition does not necessarily mean a person supports hiring a city manager – but it does mean the person believes Kempner voters should get to decide.
Although Wilkerson said the cost of hiring a city manager is a potential disadvantage, he said claims that a city manager would be extremely expensive and would require a large tax increase are “scare-tactic propaganda.”
The councilman questioned the validity of using the average city manager salary across a broad area to predict what the pay would be in Kempner. The City Council would determine the Kempner city manager's duties and workload – and therefore would set the salary, Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson said he “absolutely” thinks the council can hire a competent city manager for significantly less than the regional or state average city manager salary.
Rodgers also disputed claims that hiring a city manager would impose a tax burden on Kempner property owners.
“I don't even see why a tax increase would be necessary,” Rodgers said.
He, Cheney-Campbell and Wilkerson said Kempner could use a city manager firm – which provides an administrator as a contract service – or contract with a justice of the peace to run Municipal Court.
Rodgers also said City Hall could close on Fridays – with Municipal Court remaining open – and thus could limit a city manager’s work to about 24 hours per week. With that approximate number of work hours and with an hourly pay rate of $20, the cost would be about $28,000 per year, Rodgers said.
He also said if Kempner had a city manager, it could eliminate either the city secretary position or the court clerk/assistant city secretary position.
The combined salaries for the city secretary and assistant city secretary/court clerk are $51,623 this budget year, Harvey said.
During the recent council meeting, Clark noted the option of hiring a city manager and firing the city secretary, but he said he does not think the council could find a city manager who would agree to do secretary duties.
Clark said with the current city staff, business is running as well as – or perhaps better than – it was before Kempner’s two secretaries and Municipal Court judge resigned in September.
In his recent interview, Harvey said there is no reason to fire existing staff members.
“I want the city to know the city secretary’s not going anywhere, the court clerk’s not going anywhere, the municipal judge is not going anywhere, and the associate judge is not going anywhere,” Harvey said, “so [people] just need to kill all the rumors, all the fallacies, about somebody going somewhere to bring in a city manager.”
REACTIONS TO THE PETITION
Clark cautioned the City Council to remember what he called the “agony” of balancing this fiscal year’s budget.
The financial consultant also noted the council vote in 2018 to lay off two police officers because of what Crane – the mayor at the time – said were budgetary concerns. Had Kempner retained all the officers, Clark said, the city would have had a year-end deficit of $50,000 – or about what he predicted a city manager will cost annually.
Gisela Nena, who signed the petition for a city manager election, spoke at last week’s council meeting. She asked if Kempner could have a part-time city manager, and she said she would be willing to pay an extra $20 per year in taxes to fund such a position.
Harvey said he does not know of any city manager who wants to work part-time.
Ruszkiewicz said the Lampasas Central Appraisal District reported only 377 dwellings in Kempner have property taxes assessed. Even if the taxes for each of those properties increased $100 per year, that would not be enough to fund a city manager position, the councilman said.
Kempner resident Jeff Golemba said he thinks it would be a waste for Kempner to have a city manager. Golemba said Kempner does not have significant infrastructure to manage, as does Lampasas – which has a city manager.
John Brooks, another area resident who spoke at last week’s council meeting, said the council and mayor manage Kempner’s city business. As a result, he questioned the push for a city manager.
“There’s always other reasons going on,” he said. “So, a lot of people are smart enough to pick that up, but it’s up to us in this room to get that message out.”
After the meeting, Brooks elaborated by saying he thinks petition signers already have a potential city manager in mind. Adding a city manager could increase conflicts between Kempner officials, Brooks said.
During the council meeting, Harvey said petition signers have not outlined what duties they propose for a city manager.
He also said the motivation for the petition is not concern about the mayor position in general but instead some people’s dislike for him and his way of managing the city.
“No other mayor before me had a city manager,” Harvey said. “But when Keith came on deck, [some people said] we need a city manager. Because God forbid what he will do – the power he has.”
Rodgers said a city manager would resolve many concerns Harvey’s critics have about him – such as the way he conducts meetings. Rodgers said the mayor has limited the council’s discussion and ejected people –including Wilkerson – from meetings for disagreeing with him.
In his recent interview, Harvey said as mayor, it is his job to maintain order in meetings. He also has said he warned Wilkerson and Rodgers they were out of order, then made them leave the meeting when they continued being disruptive.
Although Section 25.029 of the Local Government Code states that a city manager “shall administer the municipal business,” Section 22.037 of the code says the mayor shall preside at all City Council meetings.
Wilkerson and Cheney-Campbell said there could be more conflict – at least initially – if Kempner hired a city manager. Nevertheless, Cheney-Campbell said hiring a city manager “would get us through this administration and the next administration.”
Wilkerson said the key would be to have a strong City Council that would restrict mayoral power.
Wilkerson and Cheney-Campbell said they think a city manager would be beneficial now, but also even if Harvey were not mayor.
“I think it's completely valuable for the past, present and future,” Cheney-Campbell said.
She and Wilkerson said it would help to have a city manager, because a new mayor can be elected every two years. If an inexperienced mayor takes office, a city manager would give Kempner a professional who understands how municipal government works, Wilkerson and Cheney-Campbell said.
Harvey encouraged council members to communicate with residents about the facts related to the city manager form of government.
Clark, Brooks and Municipal Court Judge Ken Mahoney recommended the city hold at least one public forum before the election so people can hear information for and against hiring a city manager.
Cheney-Campbell said despite her disagreements with Harvey, she is giving the city “the benefit of the doubt” that there will be a public forum and that representatives on both sides of the issue will be allowed to present information.
Jack Clark, Kempner’s financial consultant, said hiring a city manager could result in a tax rate hike of 11 cents per $100 property value. That would add $110 to the annual tax bill for every $100,000 of property a person owns.
Some petition signers said combining positions, outsourcing Municipal Court or reducing City Hall hours are ways to afford a city manager without a tax increase.
Mayor Dr. Keith Harvey said the city manager petition arose because of some people’s dislike for him. Some petition signers say it would be a good idea to have a city manager no matter who the mayor is.