Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Months of turmoil within the Castle Hills City Council has taken its toll on the coffers of the small suburban city, which has to stage a special election in November to fill two council seats and expects to lose more than $100,000 in revenue because it failed to meet state-mandated tax-setting deadlines.
Political infighting in the council, which consists of five aldermen and a mayor, led to the budget process hitting a roadblock in September. Two city council members derailed the fiscal year 2020 tax rate adoption process after failing to show up at a key meeting. The same two council members led a charge to reinstate former Place 3 Alderwoman Sylvia Gonzalez after she was removed. Castle Hills is preparing for a special election to elect her replacement.
Mayor JR Treviño, who is serving his first term as Castle Hills mayor, said the continuing upheaval has left him weary.
“I’ve only been mayor for about four months and I feel like it’s been about four years,” Treviño said.
On Monday, Castle Hills City Council ratified the state-mandated effective property tax rate of $0.480619 per $100 valuation, a decrease from the $0.501345 rate proposed for fiscal year 2020. Although the proposed rate was not a tax increase – Castle Hills has had the same tax rate for 10 years – it would have generated an estimated $180,000 in new revenue for the municipality.
“Since we didn’t have a budget hearing, we can’t levy a tax now,” Castle Hills City Manager Ryan Rapelye said.
State law requires governing bodies to hold two tax hearings and adopt a new tax rate no more than 14 days after the second hearing. Castle Hills held its second hearing on Sept. 10, which meant the City Council had until Sept. 24 to adopt the proposed tax rate. In order to adopt a tax rate, City Council must first adopt the budget, Rapelye explained. State law also requires a governing body to ratify the effective property tax rate if its proposed tax rate is not adopted by Sept. 30.
Alderwoman Lesley Wenger (Place 4) and Alderman Mark Sanderson (Place 2) did not attend a key Sept. 17 public hearing on the proposed fiscal year 2020 budget and tax rate, causing the City Council to cancel the meeting because it lacked a quorum. The cancelled meeting meant the council could not vote on the budget and tax rate at its subsequent City Council meeting on Sept. 24 and thus could not adopt the proposed tax rate, Rapelye said.
Treviño explained that the city manager had originally scheduled tax hearings to allow the council some buffer room if something delayed the process.
“Ms. Wenger and Mr. Sanderson requested we push to the last possible [minute] to give citizens more time to be involved,” Treviño said. “Ironically, they’re the ones that didn’t show up.”
Wenger and Sanderson did not respond to emailed or phone requests for comment. In an email Wenger sent to a Castle Hills resident and obtained by the Rivard Report, she stated she was sick and unable to attend the Sept. 17 budget hearing. Wenger also stated that Sanderson was unable attend because his house had flooded.
With the lower state-determined effective tax rate in place, Castle Hills expects to lose $118,000 in revenue.
“The money was going to be set aside and transferred into street and supplemental drainage,” Rapelye said. “Roughly six extra streets could have been done for [$118,000].”
While city politics in Castle Hills has long been marked by regular squabbles, City Hall has been the scene of increased friction since the May municipal election. Controversy erupted over the swearing-in of Gonzalez by Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar after officials learned that sheriffs are not one of the officials authorized by state law to swear in elected officials.
Treviño said opinions from the Texas Secretary of State, the Texas Municipal League, and Castle Hills’ city attorney concurred that Gonzalez’s seat should be declared vacant.
Amid the wrangling over Gonzalez’s status, she and Wenger were arrested in July on felony and misdemeanor charges that were later dismissed. Gonzalez was accused of taking petitions that were city property. Wenger, meanwhile, was arrested on felony charges of fraudulently possessing identifying information and tampering with physical evidence, allegations that stemmed from an unrelated effort to oust Rapelye as city manager.
Wenger, Sanderson, and Gonzalez sued the City of Castle Hills in early September to reinstate Gonzalez as the Place 3 alderwoman. The three have since dropped the suit after Gonzalez decided she no longer wanted to fight for her reinstatement, said Art Martinez de Vara, the attorney representing them.
“This is a sordid tale with a number of bad actors, which has brought Castle Hills into disrepute,” wrote Wenger in the email to a resident.
Defending the lawsuit cost the City around $60,000 in legal fees, Rapelye said.
Amy McLin, a former Place 3 alderwoman who defeated Wenger in 2017 for the seat but was ousted by Gonzalez in May, is serving as alderwoman in a holdover capacity until a special election is held in November. The special election will cost Castle Hills around $7,800, according to Treviño.
In addition to replacing Gonzalez, Castle Hills voters will select a replacement for Place 1 Alderman Clyde “Skip” McCormick, who resigned in August due to health reasons. He has continued to serve on City Council. Two candidates have filed to run for Place 1, while another two have filed for Place 3.