The Woodlands Township board set its overall 2020 budget at $127 million and is proposing a slight property tax increase combined with reduction of some unnecessary expenditures to reduce the financial burden on residents that arose in 2019 from increased costs for trash services as well as streetscape maintenance in 2020.

The overall 2020 budget is set at $127 million in expenditures, with $130 million in revenue coming into the township coffers, said Monique Sharp, assistant general manager for Finance and Administration for the township. The proposed property tax rate is 23 cents per $100 of valuation of a property, an increase of 0.27 cents from 2019. The tax rate is subject of a public hearing scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 28, and is scheduled be voted on by the township’s seven-member board at 6 p.m., Sept. 12.

Township board Chairman Gordy Bunch said although there was a slight property tax increase, which amounts to slightly more than $11 per household in extra taxes per year, he was happy with the outcome of the four days of budget meetings and ther 2020 budget, saying that the increased expenses for trash services through Waste Management as well as increased costs for fully assuming the duties of managing the Brightview streetscaping maintenance contract led to creative solutions to prevent a higher tax increase.

“There were increased expenses for the same services in 2019, most notably was the trash expenses which went up $1.6 million,” Bunch explained. “The Woodlands Development Company currently manages the streetscape maintenance, they reduced their funding commitment, totaling about $1.1 million, and management of the services. So, we had a starting deficit of about $2.7 million to deal with (for the 2020 budget.). What we were able to do by only (raising tax rate) by 0.27 cents per $100 was to keep the impact per household to about $11 a more per year.”

How the township board did that was a mix of creative budgeting, Bunch noted, which included eliminating some now unnecessary expenditures and shifting other funds to different areas of the budget. Some of the larger expenditures that were eliminated included $250,000 that had annually been put into a budget contingency fund; redirecting an annual $350,000 expenditure from the Economic Development Reserve and shifting it to the Capital Replacement Reserve Fund.

“I want to thank my fellow Directors and professional Township staff for their hard work and commitment in preparing and approving a budget to deliver high quality services to our residents and businesses,” Bunch said in a press release issued by township officials. “The Woodlands Township is committed to its residents and businesses in creating a community that enhances quality of life while increasing overall value. We have never started a budget with a $2.7 million increase in expenses for the same services from the prior year. These are two major items totaling millions of dollars where we do not have control of the increased costs.”

Trash, landscaping costs skyrocket

According to the press release and information provided by Sharp, the costs for trash and recycling services are increasing $1.6 million — equal to $36.10 per household — and streetscape maintenance expenses will rise by $1.1 million, or $25 per household. The release stated that the increases for the two services represent would have meant a total hike in costs of $61.10 per household and, “without other adjustments to the budget; an increase in the tax rate of 1.31 cents would have been required to cover the higher costs.”

“The Board of Directors was able to effectively manage around these higher expenses and limit the tax rate increase to only 0.27 cents, representing 1/5 of the starting deficit and only $12 per household. At the same time, the Board approved budget initiatives aimed at enhancing community services and amenities. I salute the Directors and Staff for making hard decisions but yet keeping the high quality, high caliber programs and services that residents in The Woodlands expect and enjoy.”

One area of concern for the township board during the first eight months of 2019 was a decrease in sales tax revenue, which was due to several reasons but was primarily attributed to confusion and uncertainty about possible revenue from internet sales tax that state officials had told local governments they would be receiving in 2019. However, due to various adminstrative issues at the state level, that internet sales tax revenue has not been paid to local entities, which caused about a $1 million reduction in expected sales tax revenue, Bunch added.

Due to that “unrealized internet sales tax revenue,” as well as not knowing what will happen with Anadarko, one of the township’s largest employers which is headquartered in the township but faces an uncertain future after being purchased by rival company Oxy, Bunch said officials created a new fund with $2.5 million in it to help if future sales tax revenue falls short in 2020.

“We did create a sales tax reserve fund, that will allow us to address possible sales tax budget shortfalls that could arise in 2020,” Bunch said. “We are also still awaiting on the ramifications of the Anadarko sale. Their situation does have an impact on our sales tax, our hotel occupancy tax and our property tax if the company relocates their offices and workers.”

As for new expenditures, Bunch said the township board took several measures to ensure the quality of life of the township is maintained and enhanced and also to increase public safety and provide more recreational opportunities.

The township approved purchasing a second set of “bunker gear,” or the protective fireproof uniforms worn by members of The Woodlands Fire Department. The suits can get wet and contaminated while fighting a fire and take time to be cleaned and dry. The second set, while costly, will allow firefighters to not worry about their protective gear if a second incident occurs within a close timeline of a prior incident. The Fire Department will also receive funding for “opticon” technology, which is similar to a garage door opener but that allows fire vehicle drivers to change traffic signals with the click of a remote device to create safer response on area roads. Extra high-water rescue vehicles were also funded.

One area of need that was addressed in the new budget was funding for crisis intervention training for the entire township staff as well as the fire department. The training will be aimed at reducing gun violence as well as suicide prevention and awareness, something that has come to the attention of local leaders as the rates of attempted suicide and suicide in the township and county continue to increase.

On the recreation front, the 2020 budget includes funding for a universally accessible playground structure at Bear Branch Park, an extended and paved bike path in the Spring Creek Greenway area, stand-up paddleboards outfitted with eliptical bicycle devices, additional kayaks and watercraft for area waterways, more seating and shade structures for the Rob Fleming Aquatic Center, higher pay for township lifeguards in an effort to retain talented lifeguards and other items.

The 2020 budget and proposed tax rate will be the subject of a public hearing at 5 p.m., Sept. 28, and is scheduled to be officially voted on at 6 p.m., Sept. 12.

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