Fort Worth’s proposed $587 million budget uses small surplus to close gap

By Scott Nishimura

Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke on Tuesday proposed a $587.3 million general fund budget for 2015 that uses a small surplus to balance revenues and expenditures, gives employees a pay raise, and boosts positions in several departments to keep up with the city’s growth.

The budget, up 2.5 percent from this year, adds money for the start of operations at the city’s new police and fire training facility next year, implementation of the $292 million 2014 bond program that voters approved, and recommendations that the city’s volunteer task force on homelessness recently made.

It includes small reductions in library, municipal court, and city attorney staff, pares the Comin’ Up Gang intervention program following significant declines in gang-related crime, and proposes to transfer the police crime prevention unit to the Fort Worth Crime Control and Prevention District.

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It’s the city’s first proposed budget since 2010 that didn’t include a significant funding gap that needed to be filled; city officials predicted last year that they’d set the table for future stable budgets after years of volatile post-recessionary ones.

“This year, I’m the guy who comes in near the end of the play and gets to deliver the closing line,” the new city manager, David Cooke, told Mayor Betsy Price and City Council members. “We have a strong local economy and revenues are improving. Although there are reductions in services, we were careful to minimize the impact on citizens.”

The proposed budget, as expected, left the city’s property tax rate the same as it’s been for years. It adds a total $1.9 million in fee increases for planning and development, code compliance, police, and parks and community services. The planning and development and police increases were implemented during the 2014 fiscal year.

Cooke’s proposed $1.5 billion citywide budget, which includes the general fund, water and sewer, solid waste, storm water, parking, golf, municipal airport, and several other funds, is up 2.6 percent. It includes increases in water and sewer rates to be announced next week.

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The city’s property tax rate – 85.5 cents per $100 of assessed value – amounts to about $1,710 for a home appraised at $200,000 for tax purposes.

The proposed budget improves efficiencies, addresses service levels “in areas of concern” in the fast-growing city, maintains infrastructure, “invests in employees,” meets obligations, and maintains required reserves, Cooke told council members.

The general fund budget projects a 5.3 percent increase in property tax revenue to $308.9 million, and a 4.1 percent increase in sales tax revenue to $126 million. It uses only $1.9 million in excess “fund balance” to balance.

“The goal next year and the year after is to not use any fund balance,” Cooke told council members.

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Price praised Cooke and the city budget staff for the proposal, which the council will hold public hearings on and vote on in September, and she stressed the importance of sustainability.

“We all know this has to maintain,” she said, “It’s always easier to hold the line than to go back and cut.”

The proposed general fund budget’s biggest piece, 61 percent, goes to public safety. Other pieces: non-departmental, 12 percent; community development, 12 percent; infrastructure and economic development, 10 percent; city manager and appointed officials, 3 percent; and management services, 2 percent.

The proposed budget, as indicated in a report Friday from Cooke to council members, gives general employees a 4 percent across-the-board pay raise, which would be their second since 2009. Cooke, under a resolution the council voted on Tuesday night, will implement the raise on Aug. 23 for the final month of the fiscal year and include it in the 2015 budget. Another 1 percent would go toward augmenting pay for positions that are highly in demand and hard to recruit.

The proposed citywide budget adds a net 35.3 positions, for a total 6,394.5.

In the general fund, it adds employees in planning and development, code compliance, transportation and public works, and housing and economic development. Those are to address an “increase in development activity/service level issues,” Cooke said in a report to the council.

In code compliance, for example, two officers would be added to the seven general fund employees who are responsible for policing the city’s substandard buildings, Brandon Bennett, the city’s code compliance director, said in an interview.

Another two would be added through a proposed fee increase who would be responsible for inspecting restaurants and substandard motels, Bennett said.

The proposed general fund budget adds $3.5 million to the economic development grant budget for commitments the City Council has already made, $1.4 million for a second training class to ensure the Fire Department gets enough qualified trainees to hire, $1.2 million for a Nov. 4 election that the City Council called Tuesday night to fund a new Will Rogers arena and to run City Council elections next Spring, and $496,000 for recommendations the city’s homelessness task force recently made.

The task force recommended the city restore funding for homeless initiatives, pared in recent years’ budgets. The proposed budget addition isn’t yet broken down into more specific items, Aaron Bovos, the city’s chief financial officer, said in an interview. The increase would put homeless funding at $3 million, the task force’s target.

The general fund budget proposes to pare 14.5 positions from the library, municipal court, and city attorney’s staff, Aaron Bovos, the city’s chief financial officer, said in an interview.

That includes five from the library, 6.5 from the municipal court, and three from the city attorney’s office. Only two of the positions – both on the library staff – are currently filled, Bovos said. The rest are vacant. The city, as has been the case with staff reductions in recent years’ budgets, would look to move the affected employees to other open jobs, Bovos said.

But he added it’s far too early in the budget process to even determine whether the proposed job cuts will remain in the budget.

The proposed budget would reduce the number of Comin’ Up Gang prevention programs, run in partnership with Boys & Girls Clubs, to seven from nine.

The city would eliminate the Como and Riverside programs from the Crime Control and Prevention District budget, and move the North Side and Poly programs into the CCPD from the general fund.

The general fund would see a savings of $424,000 annually, and the CCPD would save $174,000 annually. That’s because the Boys and Girls Clubs would have to trim the budgets of the North Side and Poly programs to meet those of the Como and Riverside programs.

Gang-related crime around the Como and Riverside centers is significantly lower than levels around the seven other communities involved in the program.

Sonia Singleton, an assistant Fort Worth parks director, said the city examined several other factors. Como has a community center and other programs, including an after-school program, she said. Riverside has a community center, youth sports programs, a boxing program, and effective reach by Carter-Riverside High School, she said.

Even so, if the city follows through on the cuts, “we have to be vigilant and watching for any change in crimes and be ready to put the resources there,” she said.

The proposed budget would also transfer the $434,000 operation of the police crime prevention unit to the Fort Worth Crime Control and Prevention District, which is funded by a portion of the city’s sales tax.