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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Fort Worth budget proposal would trim 120 positions

A. Lee Graham lgraham@bizpress.net

Fort Worth vows to right its financial ship, even if the city’s next proposed budget means staffing cutbacks.

“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 the Aug. 13 City Council meeting.

Still, the plan would eliminate 120 positions, including as many as 15 layoffs. And city police officer 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 pre-council portion of the council meeting.

That “ultimate goal,” Higgins said, is right-sizing city spending to ensure Fort Worth is living within its means.

“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.

About 46 vacant police officer positions and 36 vacant firefighter positions would be cut, with the 15 employees slated for layoffs already notified of that recourse, said Jay Chapa, interim director of the city’s financial management services.

Five already had been offered other jobs, with the others 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, and Hall said … “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.”

The 2014 budget proposal represents an increase of $6.5 million, or less than one half of 1 percent, compared to the current fiscal budget, Chapa said. A penny would move from the operating budget to debt service to boost debt capacity for infrastructure projects. Each penny reduces the city’s operating budget by $4.1 million.

The general fund portion of the proposed budget would total $570 million compared to the current year’s $583.8 million total.

Budgets of 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 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 cutbacks 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 of the aforementioned annual budgets.

Gobbling up about 61 percent of the proposed budget’s general fund is public safety, with community development services and non-departmental expenses each consuming 12 percent; infrastructure services, 10 percent; city manager and appointed officials expenses, 3 percent; and management services, 2 percent.

At $204.2 million, the city police budget would rise 2.2 percent higher than the current budget and would feature 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 feature 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, 2013 Washington Examiner study comparing residents per employee for cities whose populations exceed 200,000, Chapa explained that Fort Worth has one employee for every 116 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,” said District 2 Councilman Sal Espino.

“There’s a shortage of athletic fields, too,” said Espino, also calling alley maintenance as “problematic.” Such concerns – and many others – are expected to be discussed at two budget workshops. The 8:30 a.m. sessions are set for Thursday Aug. 15 and Friday Aug. 16 at City Hall, pre-council chambers, 1000 Throckmorton St.

The budget proposal goes under the microscope four more times at Thursday study sessions set for Aug. 22, Aug. 29, Sept. 5 and Sept 12, all at City Hall’s pre-council chambers.

The City Council is expected to consider adopting the budget and tax rate at its Tuesday Sept. 17 regular meeting. More information on the budget is available at http://fortworthtexas.gov/budget/fy2014/

 

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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.

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