City pushes community engagement in $296M bond plan

A. Lee Graham From project selection to budget allocation, city officials want residents to know they will play a role in bond election planning. “This is just the beginning. This is not the final set,” said Mayor Betsy Price, reviewing a proposed project list for the city’s next bond package at a June 17 City Council capital planning workshop. With $296 million in available funds, the city is grappling with filling many needs with limited dollars. The $296 million sum is more than the previous $276.4 million estimate after the city decided against using the full $75 million 2013 capacity for a bond issue later this summer. With road and infrastructure improvements expected to consume $206 million of the $296 million, claiming the remaining dollars already has council members in offensive mode. “I’m claiming it right now, so get unexcited,” said District 8 Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray jokingly. She referred to funding a possible library along East Lancaster Avenue that she and library director Gleniece Robinson have discussed. “I want to make sure it does make that list,” Gray said. Among several staff-recommended projects are a new fire station in Councilman Jungus Jordan’s District 6, whose $4.5 million total cost would include $4.3 million from bond funding; and a fourth-floor municipal courtroom expansion in downtown, a $1.1 million endeavor that would be fully bond funded. Other bond-funded projects would include a Walsh Ranch fire station, at $4.6 million, and $2.2 million for a Rockwood Golf Course renovation. Far and away the biggest funding priority is transportation infrastructure, which would include neighborhood streets, intersection improvements and bridge reconstruction. With many of those proposed project allocations supplying only part of total costs, officials must squeeze the most from every dollar. “There is much more need out there than there is dollars available,” said Jay Chapa, interim director of the city’s Financial Management Services Department. Adding public park space is a priority among several council members. “Danny and I got heat about parks in the Far North,” said District 7 Councilman Dennis Shingleton, explaining that he and District 4 Councilman Danny Scarth are feeling pressure from residents in their districts to fund those needs. Equally important is ensuring that such improvements come in completed, rather than done in piecemeal form, said District 6 Councilman Jungus Jordan. “We do a little bit so we have a little bit of a park,” Jordan said of Chisholm Trail Park, applying the same mindset to developing other facilities. “I don’t want to see us end up with a little bit of a community center. We don’t build half a swimming pool.” Espino suggested public-private partnerships as a way to fund more hiking and biking trails, representing $1.5 million of the $296 million proposed bond funding request. “Every citizen in Fort Worth should be eventually able to get on a trail,” Espino said. Espino and Scarth questioned the $18 million estimated project cost for a North Service Center, which would house transportation and public works, equipment services and parks employees in north Fort Worth. “I’d like to get more detail … to give us more of a breakdown cost-wise on what that $18 million is made up of,” Scarth said. Such probing questions come at as the city announces unprecedented public access to bond planning. Not only can residents leave comment cards at public meetings scheduled for this fall, but a website launching in July will include synopses of each project, with a comments section for resident input. “This has been successful in several major cities,” said Price, referring to resource that Downtown Fort Worth Inc. already uses to solicit public input on community planning. Espino suggested augmenting such technological tools with old-fashioned community outreach. “We need to do a lot of outreach in Spanish,” said Espino. He suggested disseminating bond information to Spanish-language radio and television resources, as well. Such issues are expected to be discussed between July and November as residents weigh in at public meetings in each council district. After the council reviews results of those meetings, the city will conduct “at large” public meetings before approving the final project list in December. And in February 2014, the council is expected to call a bond election, with officials citing May 10, 2014 as the likely date.