Sugar Land’s FY 2013 budget vote not unanimous

Two opposed over funding for license plate recognition system

By Betsy Dolan

Despite a series of budget workshops and public hearings, Sugar Land’s city council members were not united in their support for the City’s $181.6 million fiscal year 2013 budget. Two council members, Amy Mitchell and Harish Jajoo were opposed to the inclusion of $1 million in funding for the first phase of a proposed license plate recognition system and voted against the budget plan which was approved 5-2.

The city has discussed adding over 200 cameras to monitor the major thoroughfares in Sugar Land with a majority of the cameras able to scan license plates in the hope of being able to catch suspected criminals before they leave the city limits. Some Sugar Land police cars are already equipped with cameras that have the capability of reading thousands of license plates a day and can alert officers to possible stolen vehicles and outstanding warrants. Some legal experts and civil rights advocates have raised questions about the technology because of data collection and privacy concerns.

At the budget vote on September 18, Mitchell proposed an amendment to remove the $1 million that had been budgeted for the license plate recognition system in District 1 in order for the city to obtain additional information about the system and to determine whether it is something Sugar Land residents want.

“I’ve gotten a lot of emails saying that they don’t want it,” Mitchell told the council members. “I need additional information before I feel comfortable putting it in the budget. It is a want, not a need, and I think we need a better understanding of the type of system and whether the community wants it.”

Jajoo asked the council to consider removing the funding proposal from the budget so that the council could spend FY2013 studying the plan and gauging public opinion with the intent of moving forward in FY2014. But Councilman Joe Zimmerman said that the budget’s wording will do exactly what Jajoo had proposed.

“There is a misunderstanding in terms of the budget. It (the proposal) is merely a place holder. It will clarify what technology is available, give council a chance to review the technology and decide whether they wanted to move foward,” Zimmerman said. The council then voted on Mitchell’s amendment which did not pass on a 5-2 vote.

$181.6M FY2013 Budget Approved

Sugar Land’s fiscal year 2013 begins October 1, 2012 and ends September 30, 2014. The five-year capital improvement program totals $129 million with first-year funding of $27.18 million for drainage improvements in the Ragus Lakes area and throughout the City, sidewalk and pavement rehabilitation, extension of Meadowcroft Boulevard, various utility projects and land acquisition for future City use.

Nearly $55.16 million in projects, such as park and trail amenities, were unable to be funded within forecasted debt and operating capacities according to the City.

An adopted tax rate of 30.895 cents will increase average 2011 residential tax bills by about 2.75 percent, though individual tax bills will vary depending on increases or decreases to home values. The increase to the tax rate was recommended to maintain current service levels, support debt service requirements and ensure structural balance in the budget.

Sales tax has grown at a rate higher than anticipated for 2012. The fiscal year 2012 budget anticipated 3 percent growth in collections over the prior year; to date, Sugar Land is 5.5 percent above expectations.

Utility bills will increase in January as the city implements the next step toward mandated groundwater reduction. The average residential bill will increase approximately $2 per month as the surface water rate changes from $1.42 to $1.61 per 1,000 gallons. One more rate adjustment will be needed in 2014 to implement a full year of surface water plant operations.

Residential solid waste bills will remain at the current $16 per month rate, as the city’s provider, Republic Waste, agreed to waive contractual increases for 2013 due to the success of the automated collection and recycling programs.

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