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Government Fort Worth 2019: A conversation with City Manager David Cooke

Fort Worth 2019: A conversation with City Manager David Cooke

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If you were hoping that 2019 would bring clear lanes of traffic with no barricades, traffic cones or detour signs in Fort Worth, don’t hold your breath.

Work is underway and will continue on initiatives from last May’s bond election – and to complete initiatives from earlier bond elections.

But the new year will bring some clarity to several issues, such as the effort to salvage the city’s pension fund, what the impact will be from the Legislature’s 86th session beginning in January, whether Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald will leave for Baltimore and possibly shining more sunshine on the Trinity River Vision project.

Municipal elections for mayor and eight city council seats are scheduled for May 4, with the candidate filing period from Jan. 16 through Feb 15.

Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke expects the next U.S. Census Bureau population projection to show that the city has added 20,000 to 25,000 people for a total of 890,000 to 900,000 residents.

That’s related to road construction and repair.

“When you think about really what’s going on, particularly in the road area, that’s 2014 bonds, even some bond programs before that. And now we’re going to add onto that the 2018 bonds,” Cooke said.

“It’s really doing two things. One is we’re adding capacity to roads, so you’ll see that a lot on the newer developed areas. And then, we’re having to maintain and replace old road infrastructure in the older part of the city. You are going to see it throughout the city in all areas. Sometimes it’s maintenance and sometimes it’s new capacity.”

The city’s Race and Culture Task Force, which was appointed by the city council, delivered its final report in December.

“So we’ll be putting together an implementation plan on those recommendations,” Cooke said.

The economic development strategies developed by the city, the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce and Visit Fort Worth will continue to be a focus.

“We’re going to be implementing those strategies that came out of those three initiatives,” Cooke said. “All those initiatives were coordinated, so hopefully that’ll come in new businesses locating here. It’ll come in growing businesses that are already here.”

On Dec. 11, the council approved a plan that over time will move to ease the city’s $1.6 billion employee pension fund liability, which had the fund on the path to insolvency in the next two or three decades. The city formed a Pension Review Committee in 2015 to study the issue.

But the council’s plan still has to be approved by a vote of participating members of the Fort Worth Employees Retirement Fund, who will vote on whether to increase their contributions to the fund. The city’s – the taxpayers’ – increased contribution is contingent on employees voting to increase their contributions. That vote is expected in February.

A key issue in resolving the pension fund problem is, as Mayor Betsy Price told the city council, to stay off “Austin’s radar.”

Lack of a local agreement would boot the issue to the Legislature. Based on decisions the Legislature has made for other cities, that would likely mean the end of all cost of living adjustments for those on the pension.

“It gives us a chance to settle our issues here locally, where it ought to be done,” Price said.

Cooke said that concerning other legislative issues, the city likely will be playing defense in many cases.

“There’s a lot of talk about revenue caps or assessment caps or those type of things. We believe that those decisions [on property taxes] should be made locally and not by people in Austin,” he said.

The police department could be looking at new leadership in the coming year. Late in 2018, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh announced that Fitzgerald was her choice to become the fifth police commissioner in the city in four years.

But the Baltimore City Council has to approve the decision and some council members visited Fort Worth to meet with locals before making the decision. The final vote will come late in January. Fitzgerald went to work as Fort Worth police chief on Oct. 19, 2015.

Continuing its neighborhood revitalization efforts, the city council is scheduled to vote Jan. 15 to select the Northside area to receive revitalization funding for 2019, with stakeholder group meetings in early January. The council will be asked to provide $2.87 million in funding, a city news release said.

The funding comes from a half-cent property tax allocation to provide capital projects, improve public safety and attract private investment in underserved neighborhoods.

In 2017, the city provided $2.56 million to implement capital projects aimed at improving the Stop Six neighborhood. The next year, the Ash Crescent neighborhood in southeast Fort Worth received $2.77 million for improvements.

The targeted Northside area is bounded on the south by Jacksboro Highway, on the west by Roosevelt Avenue, on the east by Ellis Avenue and on the north by Northeast 25th Street.

Elsewhere in the city, discussions about establishing a Near Southside Medical Innovation District have been prompted by the opening in 2019 of the new TCU-UNTHSC Medical School. Such a district is one of the primary goals of the city’s strategic plan for economic development efforts.

“We’re very fortunate to get the medical school accredited and now moving forward with the first class. That medical innovation district is partly to build off that,” Cooke said.

“The conversations are going along really, I think, to get at what does that mean for us in Fort Worth? What do we think a medical innovation district should look like? Or what should be in it? Or how it should develop?” Cooke said.

Classes at the medical school start in July 2019 with 60 students. The school began taking applications for its inaugural class in November and had more than 600 students apply in the first 24 hours. Applications closed Dec. 15

Many issues in the city are interconnected.

While education does not, technically, fall under city government, it has an impact across the spectrum. Some level of city involvement will be needed by Read Fort Worth, a coalition of business, civic, education, philanthropic, nonprofit and volunteer leaders that is seeking to ensure that all Fort Worth third-graders are reading at grade-level by 2025.

“Intelligent people can figure out that if I have an educated workforce, that’s going to be good for me,” Cooke said. “I think that if you talked to any business leader, too, they’re going to tell you the same thing. They’re going to go to where the workforce is and where they’re educated. And I think that’s going to be a bigger and bigger issue. It comes out of the economic development strategic plan, too. We need to be able to keep and attract an educated workforce and the jobs that are going to go with it.”

And Fort Worth was recently designed after a five-year campaign as a Blue Zones community, the largest city in the nation so certified, a key step toward becoming a healthy community.

“So that goes into a different level of effort, and a different phase [for the Blue Zones program],” Cooke said.

With the issue of federal funding for the Trinity River Vision project clouded, the council has asked for an extensive review of the project by outside consultants. The Trinity River Vision Authority board intends to select a consultant no later than March.

“The county, the city and the water district all have responsibilities, so hopefully it’s a top-to-bottom review,” Mayor Betsy Price said in December. “I think the beauty will be in that they’re not just looking at how it’s done. They’re looking for suggestions on how we can move this project forward.”

Cooke and District 2 CouncilmanCarlos Flores serve on the TRVA board of directors.

One really big event – many years, decades even, in the making – closes out the year: The TEXRail commuter line from downtown to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport is scheduled to begin operations.

“Dec. 31, I’m scheduled to ride the train to the airport. About how big of a deal do you think that is?” Cooke said. “So what kind of cool is that? It’ll be the last day of 2018. And we’re going to take a ride on it and go to the airport. I think it’s a huge celebration.”

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