By Elsa Maxey
Ever wonder what the City of Sugar Land has in common with the federal government? Both their fiscal years start in October. At the national level the challenges are not only about the possibility of raising the debt ceiling, but also about the debt that has been incurred. In Sugar Land, as is the case with cities throughout the state, there has to be a balanced budget each year with a required fund balance. Sugar Land reports that it has $5 million more than the policy requirements—a one-time use fund, somewhat akin to the state’s Rainy Day Fund, an emergency account.
There’s no such thing as a debt ceiling for Sugar Land “other than what is imposed by the State of Texas” said Jennifer Brown, the city’s Budget & Research Director. At the current time, the city owes a tax-backed debt of $138 million, according to Brown, from 18 issues between 2001 – 2010 for parks, streets, traffic, municipal and drainage improvements and some debt from annexed municipal utility districts. She said eight of the 18 are refunding bonds “to capture savings for the city,” and the city’s debt is typically issued with a 20-year repayment schedule.
Sugar Land’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year is $184 million. Last week city council heard from City Manager Allen Board, who presented the city’s annual fiscal plan of action, his 11th one, and it includes a five-year financial plan with capital improvement projects close to $130 million planned for the next five years.
“I am pleased to inform you that the City of Sugar Land stands strong today in fiscal year 2011, as we have in years past to meet our financial obligations and prepare for our future,” said Bogard. He told city council that the last several years, which were atypical, showed a local slowdown in growth and development, impacts from the national economy, and it was the first time in Sugar Land in 25 years.
Bogard said the proposed budget establishes a new normal for the city citing modest growth revenue streams. “It is structurally balanced and addresses the city council priorities, policies and plans,” he said. The city reports that estimates show it ending the year better than budgeted.
Sugar Land also did it by cutting 18 positions, 6.2 percent of its workforce in non-public safety roles, a $1.1 million reduction in personnel expenditures without layoffs. Sugar Land’s total workforce numbers 642 full time equivalent positions, and it operates with about 20 to 30 vacancies due to normal turnover, said Bogard.
The proposed budget represents a substantial decrease, 34.8 percent, from the current one. Capital projects decreased from “a record $145.7 million” that included a surface water treatment plant and the minor league baseball stadium. For the upcoming year, capital improvement project are estimated to cost $35.8 million.
So, what’s in store? No one from the city got a raise last year, but this upcoming year a three percent merit raise has been budgeted.
For those who live and run businesses in the city, the water bills will go up because the city is mandated to convert to surface water in 2013 to be done with a surface water treatment plant currently under construction. It’s pricy — $100 million, and there will also be another increase the following year when the water treatment plant is completed and operational, said Brown. She also said that the new fee is to be paid by all city water customers and those in municipal utility districts participating in the city’s groundwater reduction plan. Those include residents in Greatwood, New Territory, and also private well owners. Expect to see a water bill go up by $7.25 a month for those using 11,000 gallons in a month.
On the other hand, the city reports that solid waste fees will decrease with automated collection, which starts in December.
A higher city tax? That depends on the appraisal numbers from the Fort Bend Central Appraisal District. Right now, the city’s tax is 30 cents per $100 valuation. Brown said the appraisal district told the city it anticipates reaching 95% certification later this week, and “we should receive our totals around August 1.” The city plans to adopt its tax rate on Sept. 6, when it will also adopt its new budget.
If you pay Sugar Land city taxes, your assessments will be focused on rehabilitation, including drainage improvements, facility renovations, park infrastructure, sidewalks, pavement, streetlights, landscaping and bridge rehabilitation. The five-year budget plan also includes facility renovation for a Seniors Center; land acquisition for destination center, an indoor concert venue and acquisition of parkland in Telfair; mobility plan implementation; improvements to State Highway 6 in certain areas; the next phase of the Brazos River Corridor with a festival site, more trails and parkland; and water plant upgrades for surface water conversion.
City budget workshops have begun and those meetings are open to the public.