In the midst of a recession with declining tax revenues, cities still need to raise money to provide services to their residents. When Texas city officials have questions about potential revenue sources, they can turn to Bennett Sandlin, the general counsel of the Texas Municipal League in Austin.
Sandlin has broad working knowledge of municipal tax, finance and economic development law, and he responds daily to queries from member city officials regarding the ins and outs of development incentives, tax assessments and election laws. He gives workshops introducing newly elected city officials to municipal law and is an instructor for a Texas Municipal League (TML) course on the Public Funds Investment Act of 1987, training state law requires for officials tasked with investing government funds. And, during Texas legislative sessions, Sandlin helps review and analyze proposed bills, testifies before Senate and House committees, and keeps the nonprofit association’s 1,090 member cities updated on the status of bills that might impact cities.
“It’s a fun job,” he says. “I get to do a little bit of everything.”
“Right now we are in the tax and budget season for cities,” Sandlin says. “Recently I’ve had a lot of questions about the deadlines that cities have to follow.” Those deadlines involve posting notices and holding public hearings about city budgets, which must be finalized by the end of September, he says. “I put together a timeline of tax and budget deadlines, showing them each step of the process,” he says.
Sandlin says he introduces officials to topics such as procedures for assessing property taxes and a city’s ability to make grants and loans of city money for economic development. He says he often discusses with city officials the kinds of financial tools cities can use to attract businesses, such as funding infrastructure or offering tax incentives.
“By the end of the day I’ve talked with a dozen city officials, and they are happy,” he says. “It’s sort of satisfying.”
While Sandlin will point out the different methods state law allows cities to use for economic development incentives, he does not act as a city’s attorney.
“I show people the possibilities but don’t advise them which to do,” he says. “I tell them here is the nature of the game; if you want to play, here are the legal tools you can use.”
Sandlin has been TML’s general counsel since 2005 and a lawyer with TML since 2000. It wasn’t easy answering officials’ questions when he first started, he says.
“It was maddening because you didn’t know an answer to a single question,” he says.
But Sandlin learned. “The same questions keep getting asked over and over about open meetings, quorums, vacancies in the office of the mayor, the nuts and bolts of city operations,” he says. “After almost 10 years, I probably know, off the top of my head, 70 percent of what someone asks about and can answer them immediately on the phone and follow-up with connections to samples or a Web site.”
All TML lawyers — there are five including Sandlin — are familiar with general municipal law, says Scott Houston, TML’s director of legal services and Sandlin’s colleague since they both joined the TML in 2000. “He is basically our tax, finance and economic development expert,” Houston says. Houston and Sandlin report to Frank Sturzl, the organization’s executive director. The other three lawyers at TML report to Houston.
Houston says Sandlin has created a “Revenue Manual for Texas Cities,” an invaluable resource for TML’s members. “We frequently get questions on what sources of funds are available to fund city services,” Houston says. “He has come up with a manual that shows how cities raise money with sales tax, property tax, tax increment financing and other things.”
Houston notes that many small cities are not able to raise much revenue with property or sales taxes, and the book suggests revenue-generating alternatives such as franchise fees, which utilities payfor the use of public rights-of-way. “There are dozens of other examples in the book to help find ways to raise revenue,” he says.
A Bit of Everything
Sandlin, who now has a wife and two children, says he enjoyed debating while a high school student in Arlington. “Since I was a kid, I loved to argue,” he says. “Debate is a structured way of arguing with someone else.”
After earning a B.A. in the Plan II Honors Program at the University of Texas in Austin, Sandlin says he decided to pursue his interest in debating by attending UT Law where he earned a J.D. in 1993. He participated in UT’s criminal-defense clinic and became a criminal-defense solo when he graduated. “I wanted to hang out a shingle,” he says.
After about six years, Sandlin says he was tired of being self-employed and decided to look at government opportunities.
“I don’t want to say I burned out, but after a while, it’s the same thing over and over again,” he says. “I had two dozen jury trials under my belt and was ready to try something new.”
He applied for and was hired in the municipal affairs division of the Texas Office of the Attorney General, where he worked for seven months before joining the TML.
“I quickly found that I liked municipal law,” he says. “It’s not a discrete group of laws. It’s literally everything under the sun: litigation, health care, government. You have to know a little bit about everything to be a successful municipal lawyer.”
During state legislative sessions Sandlin works with other TML lawyers reviewing every bill filed to determine whether the bill might impact cities. Sandlin also drafts bill amendments and testifies before Senate and House committees about the potential impact of proposed bills.
“We end up showing up at the same hearings, testifying on the same bills,” says Susan C. Rocha, a partner in Denton, Navarro, Rocha & Bernal in San Antonio. Rocha is a lobbyist for several cities including San Antonio, Austin, New Braunfels and Round Rock. She says that during legislative sessions Sandlin “is very patient when people don’t understand a particular issue. He is well versed in the issues and can explain complicated issues like taxes and how tax rates are set,” she says.
Rocha’s firm is one Sandlin says he turns to on those rare occasions when the TML needs outside counsel. For instance, a few years ago, plaintiffs filing a suit against a city requested TML documents the plaintiffs believed were relevant to the case, he says. Sandlin declines to name the case or city involved but says the TML hired Rocha to handle the request.
TML members also keep him busy, some with humorous questions. City councils are allowed to have executive sessions — private meetings closed to the public — to talk about certain things such as sensitive personnel issues, Sandlin says. He recalls a query from a city official who said the city had to replace its police dog and wanted to know if it could discuss replacing the dog during an executive session.
Notes Sandlin, “We determined that one needed to be human to be covered under ‘personnel.’ “