Mayor Leeser wants to keep city debt free while saving tax payers money

City of El Paso (Credit: CBS4/KFOX14)

El Paso city leaders are gearing up for tough talk about people's tax dollars.

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said the city needs to live within its means and not issue debt for projects it can't pay for.

At the beginning of the month, Leeser vetoed council's plan to issue almost $45 million in debt to pay for more projects not currently in the budget.

Tuesday, council will vote on whether to override that decision.

“You live within your means,” Leeser said, explaining his decision.

The city of El Paso is considering issuing debt called certificates of obligation or "COs" to pay for operational costs of additional projects.

“I don’t believe we should use certificate of obligation to operate everyday items,” Leeser said.

The money would go toward projects like more aquatic facilities, spray parks, and public art. Projects not currently in the 2017 budgets.

If the city issues the CO’s, the debt gets paid back through revenue like property taxes.

But the mayor says that's just bad business.

“I’m very concerned. I made a commitment to the taxpayers and it’s that I would operate the city in the best way possible and the most responsible way,” Leeser said.

The city is trying to deal with budget shortfalls in 2018 and the quality of life bond projects are causing budget projects for the next five years to swell.

In 2012, voters approved construction costs.

But there doesn't appear to have been much foresight into what those projects would actually cost to run, staff, operate and maintain; which all adds significant expenses to the budget.

“More than likely there was not a lot of thought put into what the operational costs will be,” said Robert Cortinas, the director of management and budget for the city of EL Paso.

For example, Cortinas said, the new west side pool will be very expensive to run.

“We don’t want to just have nice facilities, we need to make sure we have people working in them, the materials and supplies we need to operate them,” Cortinas said.

In the coming years the city will also have additional rec centers, aquatic centers, parks, arena and a children’s museum to staff, operate and maintain.

If the city starts using debt to pay for operating these projects and venues, Leeser said the city would be breaking a promise it made to voters.

“We told voters, ‘If you pass the quality of life we would never issues CO's to operate them,’” said Leeser.

Of course the city has the option to charge fees to use facilities but those costs would not cover all of the operating and maintenance expenses associated with the venues.

And he said the CO’s could put an additional burden on taxpayers

“We need to make sure that 100 percent of the people that we asked to pay taxes have the ability to enjoy and be able to afford to do the things they are paying for,” Leeser said.

Another area putting financial strain on the city is public safety.

As previously reported, the city faces a critical shortage of police officers.

According to the city, funding public safety significantly adds to the budget and so does the city’s commitment to the animal shelter and employee compensation packages.

There are about $17 million to $18 million in increased expenses with only $2 million in revenue for the 2018 budget, city staff explained.

Tuesday, council will vote on whether to override the mayor’s veto.

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