By Walker County News Today staff
The Huntsville City Council on Tuesday voted 6 to 1 to approve a $237,000 contract with the Houston-based National Signs for the manufacture and installation of way-finding signs to be erected at Sam Houston State University and tourists sites in Huntsville.
Council also voted 6 to 1 to amend the city’s fiscal year 2015-16 budget and Capital Improvements Project budget to transfer $200,528 from Hotel Occupancy Tax funds to the CIP budget and return $182,522 to the General Fund that had been earmarked for the project, leaving a project fund balance of $248,850. This includes $11,850 in costs the city will have to pay to bring the signs into compliance with Texas Department of Transportation regulations where required.
Only Ward 3 council member Ronnie Allen voted against the measures. Ward 1 council member Joe Emmett was absent from the vote.
Each of the 30 one-sided vinyl signs costs an estimated $7,075 to manufacture, mount and install at 14 locations including various sites on the Sam Houston State University campus, the Sam Houston Statue Visitors Center, the HEARTS Museum, the Texas Prison Museum, the Wynne Home and the Huntsville-Walker County Chamber of Commerce.
A majority of council voted on Aug. 5, 2014 to approved a three-stage contract with Austin design consultants fd2s for design of the signs. Council on Aug. 19, 2014 amended that fiscal year’s budget to transfer $250,000 from the city’s General Fund into the CIP to fund the project. On Nov. 18, 2015, council approved designs as the city struggled with TxDOT over compliance issues for signs that would be installed in state rights of way.
Allen, again, questioned the wisdom of the costly project.
Citizen critics of the six-figure signage project have questioned why the city, struggling in recent years with a purported budget shortfall, employee layoffs and staff reductions, record city property taxes increases, old, failing infrastructure, and the specter of hundreds of thousands of dollars in unfunded employee and retiree benefit liability, needed way-finding signs in a community of fewer than 30,000 permanent residents.
A council majority has defended the project by saying it supports the city’s Strategic Initiative No. 1, “to provide…amenities that enhance the city’s already beautiful and historic natural environment.”
Council’s answer to concern about using General Fund monies was to pull the money instead from the growing rolls of HOT funds, which the city controls. These funds cannot be used to provide city services or fund employee benefits.
However, during a period of Tuesday’s meeting designated for citizen comment, former Huntsville mayor Karl Davidson questioned the use of HOT funds in this case. State law requires that the hotel/motel tax be used exclusively to fund projects that put “heads in beds” — those that attract overnight visitors to Huntsville.