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Government City officials vow to manage finances

City officials vow to manage finances

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Robert Francis
Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

Fort Worth vows to right its financial ship, even if the city’s next proposed budget means staffing cuts. “We made every effort to minimize the impact of the budget on existing employees,” said City Manager Tom Higgins, summarizing the city’s $1.45 billion fiscal 2014 budget proposal at a recent city council meeting. Still, the plan would eliminate 120 positions, including as many as 15 layoffs. And police positions would not be immune from the budget ax. “It has become clear we cannot meet our ultimate goal without our public safety department participating in the belt-tightening process,” Higgins said at the Aug. 13 pre-council session.

That “ultimate goal,” Higgins said, is to adjust city spending to ensure that Fort Worth is living within its means. It’s an objective that budget planning forces the city to revisit each year. Not only would the latest budget proposal trim staff, it could increase some emergency response times. “We do expect to see an average increase in our response times,” said Fire Chief Rudy Jackson at an Aug. 15 budget workshop. That’s because the city would deactivate about four fire companies, each comprising a vehicle and its crew, on as-yet-undecided days to help offset the staff cuts. That would increase response times by one minute and 48 seconds on those days, Jackson added. Police services also would feel the budget sting. About 46 vacant police officer positions and 36 vacant firefighter positions would be cut, and the 15 employees slated for layoffs already have been notified of that recourse, said Jay Chapa, interim director of the city’s financial management services. Five already had been offered other jobs, and the others are free to apply for the 86 vacancies outlined in the budget proposal, Higgins said.

The specter of police cuts has drawn criticism from the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, whose president opposes the planned job cuts. “We are concerned about public safety in Fort Worth and our ability to meet citizens’ needs,” said Sgt. Steve Hall, association president. Asked to give a realistic preference to the proposed budget, Hall said he would prefer “to maintain as many of the vacancies as we can and fill those with police officers and put those guys and gals on the street.” Police Chief Jeff Halstead acknowledged staffing challenges. “People are upset with me that we’re reducing vacancies,” Halstead told the council at the workshop. “Over time, I cannot get those vacancy numbers to zero. It is a very competitive market right now,” he said, referring to municipal police departments nationwide.

And when the city opens its public safety training center in south Fort Worth, officer training capacity will rise, Halstead said. The police and fire departments aren’t the only resources expected to feel the budget sting. So is city infrastructure, with alley maintenance under the gun. “Some residents aren’t able to maintain them, but they are ours that we should maintain,” said District 8 Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray, referring to alleys that she and at least one other council member said are often in high crime areas. “These are things that really and truly affect our city,” Gray said. Sharing that sentiment was District 2 Councilman Sal Espino. “I’m very concerned about the impact … in alleyway maintenance,” Espino said. “If we don’t maintain them, sooner or later we’ll have to pay for it.” The budget proposal calls for reducing funds for alley mowing from $379,300 to $189,680 and from 823 locations to 520. The transportation and public works department pays for the mowing. “It’s been a roller coaster ride down from the last several years,” said Doug Wiersig, the city’s director of transportation and public works, referring to alley mowing, building maintenance, storm water and street infrastructure expenses, among other department costs.

Meanwhile, the water department is recommending a water rate increase of 6.4 percent and a sewer rate hike of 5.2 percent, though nothing has been decided. Underlying the proposed cost-cutting are potential future benefits, Higgins said. “The goal is to make sustainable changes to our budget that will allow us to invest in the city’s infrastructure, maintain services and provide our employees with needed opportunities going forward,” Higgins wrote in the proposed budget document. The 2014 budget proposal represents an increase of $6.5 million, or less than one half of 1 percent, over the current fiscal budget, Chapa said. A penny of the tax rate would move from the operating budget to debt service to boost debt capacity for infrastructure projects. Each penny moved reduces the city’s operating budget by $4.1 million.

The general fund portion of the proposed budget would total $570 million compared with the current year’s $583.8 million total. Budgets in each of the last several years have focused on different priorities. In what city officials dubbed a recession-driven budget, fiscal 2010 saw more than 200 layoffs, eight unpaid furlough days and other cost-cutting measures. In the so-called fiscal 2012 recovery budget, vacant police officer positions were filled, employees received a 3 percent across-the-board salary increase and a penny was shifted to debt service. And in what officials called the fiscal 2013 maintenance budget, 17 staff positions were eliminated and 15 cents were shifted to debt service for capital projects. “The proposed 2014 budget moves us closer to fully addressing the structural imbalance between the city’s revenue and what we spend on an annual basis,” Higgins said. Mayor Betsy Price acknowledged the sacrifice, which many consider essential to achieving those ends. “Balancing this budget will require some reasonable cutbacks, but we are determined to minimize the impact to our citizens,” Price said.

To that end, city officials are using what they call six guiding principles in formulating the latest fiscal plan. Those are: keeping the tax rate constant at 85.5 cents per $100 of assessed property valuation continuing to invest in infrastructure improvements, maintaining the fund balance at 10 percent, continuing to align revenues and expenditures, minimizing the effects of budgetary cuts on residents, and investing in employees. “We did use these guiding principles to help us make decisions and make sure this budget is aligned with those,” Higgins said, referring to previous budgets. Gobbling up about 61 percent of the proposed budget’s general fund is public safety. Community development services and non-departmental expenses each consume 12 percent; infrastructure services, 10 percent; city manager and appointed officials’ expenses, 3 percent; and management services, 2 percent. At $204.2 million, the police budget would rise 2.2 percent over the current budget and would fund 1,797 approved positions. Meanwhile, the Fire Department budget would drop by 2.9 percent, to $117.8 million, due to some vacancy trimming and overtime costs. It would fund 919 approved positions. With employee salary, pension, health care and other personnel costs consuming 73 percent of the proposed general fund budget, council members have acknowledged the challenge of serving the city’s rapidly growing population. Pointing to a July 25 Washington Examiner study comparing residents per city employee for cities with populations exceeding 200,000, Chapa said that Fort Worth has one employee for every 116 residents. In comparison, Dallas has one employee for every 82 residents and Plano one employee for every 111 residents.

“As we’ve grown, numbers of employees have not grown with it,” Chapa said. “It’s been a very strong effort of management to keep numbers of city employees and do more with less.” That’s the challenge as the council continues discussing the budget proposal. “We need to figure out a way to address continuing code [compliance] issues and loose animals,” Espino said. “There’s a shortage of athletic fields, too,” he added, and called alley maintenance “problematic.” The budget proposal goes under the microscope three more times at Thursday study sessions set for Aug. 29, Sept. 5 and Sept 12, all at pre-council chambers at City Hall, 1000 Throckmorton St. The city council is expected to consider adopting the budget and tax rate at its Sept. 17 regular meeting. More information on the budget is available at http://fortworthtexas.gov/budget/fy2014.  

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