Olson’s absence looms at candidate forum
By Walker County News Today
Andy Brauninger, one of two candidates in a Dec. 12 runoff for mayor of Huntsville, plans to involve the other taxing entities, such as the county and school district, in an economic development strategy while leveraging Sam Houston State University as an important economic driver.
Brauninger laid out his plans Monday night at a Sam Houston Tea Party candidate forum moderated by Donna Pinon, spokeswoman for the countywide political action committee Voters for Lower Taxes. But event organizers said they worked hard to find an acceptable date for Brauninger’s opponent, Keith Olson, who eventually declined to participate, saying his “strategy” for the runoff was to eschew public forums in favor of teas in supporters’ homes.
The Tea Party gave voters ample opportunity to question Brauninger about economic development, use of municipal debt, improvements to city services, and the city’s lack of affordable housing. Pinon said she would start off with an easy question and asked the at-large City Councilman why he wanted to run for mayor.
The retired maritime industry manager cited his history as a corporate leader. “I think I’ve got the skill set to make Huntsville a better place to live, work and play,” he said.
Voters hit the candidate with questions about any possible link he might have to local activist George Russell, who is now attempting to stall the city’s $12 million Town Creek Drainage Project over charges of fraud and conflicts of interest.
Brauninger dispelled the rumor that Russell was financing and directing his campaign. “This is a rumor that has been generated by my opposition, and I can tell you flat out today that George Russell…has not offered me any money, nor have I taken any money from George Russell. My campaign finance records are public record,” he said. But Brauninger said the mayor represents all citizens. “You may not agree with them, but you still represent [them]. They are your people.”
Brauninger and fellow Huntsville City Council member Ronnie Allen challenged a move to approve a Town Creek Drainage Project contract at the Nov. 17 council meeting, which, they argued, would violate the city’s charter, thus opening the city to a lawsuit. A majority of council approved the contract.
Brauninger explained that he strongly supports the Town Creek Drainage Project but opposed any action that could lead to a legal challenge. The charter prohibits council from acting on a contract between a general election and the date at which new council members are sworn in. Brauninger said he saw no problem with waiting until after the runoff to ratify the contract.
The crowd of about 50 voters also applauded Brauninger’s assurances that he strongly supported economic development.
“Let me say right off the bat, and I hope The Huntsville Item is here tonight, I am for economic development. Don’t let anybody tell you that I am not for economic development.”
Brauninger publicly opposed and voted against the city’s plan to establish an economic development corporation to be funded with $625,000 in city sales tax. Voters said no to the Type B or 4B option on Nov. 3, but Brauninger said voters should expect to see the city raise the issue again, possibly with the more restrictive 4A.
“I didn’t vote against economic development, I voted against the methodology they were going to use for economic development,” he said.
While Brauninger said he believes the city can and should use tax dollars to invest in economic development under certain circumstances, he opposed 4B because the city had no plan for how it would use the dedicated sales tax funds.
“If I’d walked into the CEO’s office and said I wanted $625,000 for a project but I didn’t know how I was going to use it, I might not have had a job when I walked out the door,” he said.
Likewise, the city also had no plan for how to offset the loss of $625,000 from the General Fund other than to”raise revenue (by raising property taxes) or cut expenses” — in other words, raise property taxes or lay off city staff.
If the 4B corporation’s board of directors wasn’t satisfied with the allocated $625,000, it would have the power to borrow money, something Brauninger said he opposes.
“I don’t think you should obligate the taxpayers without the taxpayers voting on it.”
Brauninger’s alternative was inspired by the recommendation of a group at a recent Houston-Galveston Area Council seminar at SHSU, which he attended. His plan is to form a coalition of all taxing entities in the region to fund a corporation made up of outside professionals, recognized leaders in the field of economic development.
He would support use of tax incentives to bring in light industry that would add payroll jobs for families and the corporation would be expected to leverage Huntsville’s strengths, like its location on Interstate 45, to attract light industry.
But Brauninger said he is glad the city is adding retail and restaurant outlets, but those businesses will and should locate here without tax giveaways.
“They do offer jobs for our students but don’t ask the citizens to incentivize you.”
Despite Olson’s claim that municipal debt was a valuable tool for economic development, Brauninger said he opposed burdening taxpayers with any unnecessary obligation.
“I can’t think of a scenario in which I would approve debt for economic development,” he said.
But debt was soon to be a big issue for the city—the city is about to retire about $60 million worth of debt and City Council will decide whether to incur more debt or lower property taxes, he said. Brauninger said he would finance city improvements as much as possible with money from the unallocated reserves and keep taxes “at or below the effective rate.”
The city’s financial policy is to maintain enough in its budget reserves to cover three months of planned operating expenses as unallocated reserves in the event of cash flow variations and unexpected expenses. The city’s more than $17 million in unallocated funds is twice what it needs to satisfy that requirement, Brauninger said. Council could use excess funds from these unallocated reserves to pay for capital improvements or lower the city’s property taxes. Instead, he said, a council majority chose to give city employees a 7.5 percent raise funded by these unallocated reserves. Brauninger said his understanding was that unallocated reserves should never be used for continuing expenses like pay raises, so he voted against the measure and the 2015-16 fiscal year budget for that reason, he said.
Brauninger said he supports attacking aging city infrastructure problems a step at a time, starting with streets.
“Fixing streets are a home run,” he said. Street improvements are visible proof that the city is spending money wisely on essential services.
An audience member asked Brauninger what he would do about a lack of affordable housing in Huntsville, homes under the $140,000 to $150,000 range. Brauninger promised to check on the problem.
Brauninger and Olson are at-large council members and regardless of which one is elected, council will need to conduct an election to fill a vacant at-large seat in 2016. Brauninger said he expects council to set a May date for that election at its first meeting in January 2016.