Thursday, February 29, 2024

Azle council tweaks donation bin ordinance, retiree COLAs, other issues during November meeting

Atypical façade improvement request granted, among other issues

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City approves update to donation bin ordinance

AZLE —During a November Azle City Council meeting, councilmembers made revisions to an ordinance regulating donation bins that was originally passed on Sept. 17 of this year. After putting the ordinance into practice, the council determined there were some issues that needed to be addressed with an updated Donation Bin Ordinance. According to the city manager, these changes were seen as necessary after the council received feedback about bins on the properties of the Community Caring Center, Good N.E.W.S. and other organizations. The updated ordinance (2023-22) removes fees for on-premises bins, limits permit authentication to just notarized signatures, changes the proration to monthly, adds an appeals and revocation section, and cleans up language.

Under the language of the current ordinance, a donation bin is any bin, container, building, trailer, or other receptacle equal to or larger than 45 cubic feet that is intended for use as a collection point for donated clothing or other household materials. There is no grandfather clause for this ordinance, and it is intended to regulate all applicable bins regardless of when they were placed. The ordinance requires bin owners to apply for an annual permit and affix a city-provided decal to the bins or risk impoundment.

The ordinance has already taken effect and will be enforced by the community development department. This ordinance does not apply to the many “blessing boxes” scattered throughout Azle and instead came about to address the issue of furniture and other large items being left at bigger bins within Azle’s city limits. The annual permit fee for a bin that falls under the ordinance’s definition is $200. The impound fee for a violating bin is $200 and the daily storage fee for an impounded bin is $20 per day. The discussion surrounding a donation bin ordinance first started during the May 16 Azle City Council meeting.

City approves changes in retirement benefits

In lieu of participation in Social Security, through the Texas Municipal Retirement System, the City of Azle has provided retirement benefits to its employees since 1979. In order for these benefits to not be watered down by inflation over time the city has utilized Retirement Cost of Living Adjustments or COLAs to recalibrate these retirement payments in accordance with the changing expenses in living. Recently enacted Texas House Bill 2464 has given municipalities the option to readjust how they compute their COLAs. Under recommendations from city staff, the council has agreed on a revised plan that’s expected to save the city money with only a negligible decrease in employee benefits.

“The retires from January of 1990, their current monthly benefit is $317.38,” Assistant City Manager Bryant Lawrence said. “If you do nothing, their monthly benefit in January is going to go to $334.55. if you adopt this new method, it will be $331.78. Here’s one from 2018; their current monthly benefit is $3,667.56. On Jan. 1, under the current method, it will be $3,839.23. Under this new method it will be $3,833.26. So, a difference of six dollars a month.”

The new plan, passed under Ordinance 2023-21, is expected to save the city about $40,000 per year through at least 2031. The savings largely do not come from the slight decrease in employee benefits. Instead of putting budget money away for a retroactive calculation, it uses a simple calculation looking at the most recent year of inflation. The prior method accounted for future calculations that set aside money from the city’s funds. The new method no longer advances funding for future COLAs. Some of the real savings are in future retirees, city management said. The new plan also reduces unfunded liabilities by $400,000 over 20 years. The city government is Azle’s fifth largest employer with 139 employees in 2022, according to the municipality's website.  

city changes insurance policies

In response to rising insurance rates, the City of Azle held a special meeting on Oct. 30 to discuss the issue and made a subsequent decision in its November meeting. Currently, city employees utilize the TX Health Benefits Pool through the Texas Municipal League for health insurance.

Mitchell Rose, an insurance broker with Clark Adamson LLC, and Cat Schlueter, human resources manager for the city, briefly presented on the issue during November’s meeting and provided their recommendations. City staff recommended transitioning to a United Healthcare benefits plan for employee health insurance, Mutual of Omaha for all other ancillary benefits, including enhanced dental and vision, and adding the First Stop Health virtual benefit to the city's employee insurance package.

The new package was described as “richer” and represents only a 4.85% increase from current costs, instead of the projected 16% increase the city anticipated from staying with TML. The new rate is well under the threshold the city anticipated for this year’s increase in healthcare costs, Schlueter said. The new plan will also eliminate the Health Maintenance Organization option which only three employees have taken advantage of and includes new benefits like telemedicine service, First Stop Health.

City approves Façade and signage improvement request

Heather Grayson of Eagle Mountain Healthcare at 807 Southeast Parkway spoke to council during November’s meeting to request assistance in trimming a large oak tree growing too closely to her building. The tree is estimated to be over 200 years old, and Grayson wishes to preserve the tree, but also prevent its branches from doing any damage to the roof.

“When we came up with the program, tree trimming was not exactly what we envisioned, but it does fit the requirement,” City Manager Tom Muir said.

Grayson had already done much of the landscaping and repairs on the leased property herself until she realized it might be covered under a city program. Grayson is a nurse practitioner for adult and geriatric patients.

The Façade and Signage Improvement Program was enacted by the city in 2020 to provide assistance to property owners or business tenants seeking to renovate or restore their exterior signage, lighting or commercial building façades in order to prolong the life of a commercial property. During the meeting, the council voted to approve Grayson’s request and grant her the resources needed to trim the tree.