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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

State of the City: Price touts Fort Worth’s ‘renegade spirit and grit’

It’s now the 15th largest city in the country, but Fort Worth retains its heritage as a city of “great character and great characters” as well as “grit and a bit of a renegade spirit.”

That was the word from Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price speaking at her eighth State of the City address on Feb. 19.

“We’re fiercely loyal. Whether you’re the first time in Fort Worth or whether you’re a fourth or fifth generation, people love Fort Worth,” she said to a crowd of nearly 1,300 at the Fort Worth Convention Center on a rainy, cold day.

More improvements to the oft-lamented Interstate 35W, a new app for residents to report city issues, and Fort Worth on track to be the first big city in Texas to solve its pension issues locally — those were among the many wide-ranging, disparate topics covered by the mayor, who is running for re-election for a fifth two-year term. She has three opponents in the May 4 election.

Price said Texas Department of Transportation officials have told her they plan to help alleviate one of the city’s most frustrating areas of traffic congestion. The project would expand I-35W from U.S. Highway 287 about eight miles north to Eagle Parkway.

“My friend Bruce Bugg, who is chairman of TxDOT, has promised that we will have plenty [of funds] in place for 3C, the last leg,” she said.

Price also applauded the recent opening of the TEXRail line between downtown Fort Worth and Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. Now, she, Trinity Metro and other area officials want to expand the rail line, with many looking to go south into the Near Southside. Price said the train line came in under budget, freeing some funds to expand it. Trinity Metro estimates it would cost about $139 million to take the rail line to the Near Southside.

Price also announced that a new resident engagement tool will debut in the city in March. Citibot is a technology-based customer service tool that will allow people to text the city with an address and a complaint and receive an immediate response from customer service. Residents will receive notification of receipt, an estimation on the repair and a notification when the request is completed.

Price also touted that Fort Worth is on track to be the first big city in Texas to find a pension solution locally. It is facing a $1.6 billion unfunded liability and police, fire and all city personnel have until Feb. 22 to vote on the changes to the pension fund. “I think, with the help of our team that’s worked hard on educating people, that we will have the votes,” she said. “I hope I’m not being too optimistic but I feel very good about it.”

In her eighth address as mayor, Price was interviewed by moderator Jason Whitely, senior reporter and host of WFAA Channel 8’s Inside Texas Politics.

They covered topics as diverse as spending bond funds, pension issues and – well – diversity, touching on the recent report from the Race and Culture Task Force.

Among the subjects covered:

· Fort Worth is the 15th largest city in the United States by population, but is perceived as the 48th largest city. That’s an economic issue for the city and business development leaders. “It drives me crazy. But people just don’t realize what Fort Worth is or what we have to offer,” said Price, noting that the recent Economic Development Plan has made some headway in getting the city noticed.

“We now have Amazon Air’s largest facility, we have Uber ELEVATE coming in, being designed at Bell Helicopter. We want to encourage economic prosperity for all, to encourage innovation, but just as importantly as recruiting new businesses is how do we focus on growing our own businesses? How do we continue to raise that profile nationwide?”

· Part of economic development is workforce readiness and that centers around education. One area of focus for the city is increasing reading skills among third graders, considered a key for future success. Read Fort Worth has entered its second phase with the goal of 100 percent of third graders reading at grade level by 2025. Currently, 35 percent of third graders in the Fort Worth Independent School District are reading at grade level. “We’ve come 5 percent in the last two years, but we’re going to have to jump this forward,” she said. “To get to 100 percent by 2025 we need a 9.3 percent annual growth in literacy year over year.”

· Fort Worth has a Race and Culture Task Force, with initiatives to begin in mid-March.

“The Race and Culture Task Force … really peeled that Band-Aid back and took a hard look at Fort Worth,” she said. “There were some tough conversations on what needed to change in Fort Worth and what had been impacted. Is it a perfect report? Probably not.”

But it is a good start, she said. “The city will have to hire someone who’s an equity officer, who is charged with implementing this plan,” she said. “We’re looking at everything we do at the city through an equity lens, and it’s data driven. If we take a hard look at the data that we have and move that forward based on data and equity, it’ll stay on the front burner.” She also said the city would be leveraging private dollars through area foundations to implement some of these changes.

· Fort Worth once had the highest property tax rate of any major city in Texas — “not by a little but by a whole lot,” she said — but that has changed,

“As our values began to rise, we had the responsibility of reducing that rate. If we’re going to remain competitive for young families, for older families, for businesses to come to Fort Worth, we had to get that rate down,” she said. “Plus, if your value’s going up, your tax bill continues to rise. It’s our responsibility to alleviate some of that burden.”

But Price said Fort Worth’s property tax base is “upside down,” with 64 percent from residential properties and 36 percent from commercial properties.

“That puts a huge burden on you as homeowners. Part of what we have to change and part of what we’re going to talk about with economic development in a few minutes is increasing that commercial development. To do that, we simply had to slash that tax rate to remain competitive. And in three years we moved it down seven cents, and that puts us down in the lower bracket for major cities in Texas, which makes us much more attractive to businesses,” she said.

· Price also talked about bonds, Fort Worth bonds. She said Fort Worth has vastly improved delivery of capital projects and bond programs since the creation of the Property Management Department. “When I was elected in 2011, we started looking at our capital campaign and our bonds and realized that we still had bonds that weren’t delivered from 1994,” she said. “And just last year we finished delivering on the … the last of the 2000 bonds. We’re not different from other cities but when we did this 2018 bond election, we promised that if you would approve it, and you did at 81 percent, that we would deliver in four years. And I’m proud to say that all the arterial roads that were in this bond are already contracted in the design phase.”

· Fort Worth has invested millions of dollars in neighborhoods with crumbling infrastructure and high crime rates, specifically Stop Six and Ash Crescent. As a result, crimes against property have decreased 25 percent and building permits have increased 48 percent.

“What we did was take what’s the equivalent of a half-cent of our property tax, it’s roughly $3 million this year, and invested in neighborhoods,” she said. “We started with identifying neighborhoods where crime is high, poverty is high, education issues, safety issues where infrastructure was not where it needed to be. We looked at those issues and we went in and our first neighborhood was in Stop Six area. That was three years ago. We went in and put additional police officers on the streets, many on bikes so that they know their neighbors.”

As a result, crimes against property have decreased 25 percent and building permits have increased 48 percent. This year, Fort Worth will channel $3 million into a neighborhood on the Northside hoping to effect similar change.

· The city is also revising and expanding its Neighborhood Empowerment Zone boundaries from 30 square miles to now cover 48.54 square miles. New neighborhoods include Las Vegas Trail and Diamond Hill-Jarvis. Las Vegas Trail Revitalization Project, for instance, represents a partnership of private companies, human service organizations and government agencies aimed at helping residents of the area in West Fort Worth improve their neighborhood. The effort is headed by District 3 Councilman Brian Byrd and the United Way of Tarrant County’s TD Smyers. “One particular hotel in that region was responsible for about 50 percent of the crime, mostly narcotics crime and prostitution,” said Price. “But we were able to bring state law, bring our city attorney, code compliance and the police department to the table and really put the pressure on this hotel to either shut down or clean up their crime. I’m proud to say that effort of coming together working collaboratively has seen a huge reduction in the crime in that hotel.”

· Speaking of crime, Fort Worth had the second-largest drop in overall crime and the largest drop in violent crime among the 30 largest U.S. cities, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University of Law’s 2018 Crime Statistics.

· Fort Worth has allocated $5.6 million to house homeless people, particularly veterans.

“We had a goal from November, from late October into the end of December to house 100 veterans in 100 days and that’s a pretty audacious goal,” she said. A coalition of groups, including veterans’ associations and apartment owners, worked on the project. They exceeded their goal. “And I’m proud to say that we now have a 181 veterans in that 100 days in permanent housing,” she said.

· The Fort Worth Fire Department welcomed new leadership in Chief Jim Davis. He is partnering with Cook Children’s Medical Center on an Infant Safe Sleep initiative after having worked with a similar program in Columbus, Ohio. The program will teach first responders the basics of infant safe sleep to help deploy education and resources to the community – offering cribs when needed. Fort Worth’s infant mortality rate is 6.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, above the national average of 5.9.

· According to Gallup research, Fort Worth is ranked 58th in health and wellness efforts. Five years ago, Price said, Fort Worth was ranked 185th. She attributes this success to the adoption of the Blue Zones program. “It’s an all-encompassing program in Fort Worth and we’re five and half years into it and I’m proud to say, this year we were Blue Zones-certified, which makes us the largest city in the nation to be Blue Zones-certified.”

· Price noted that several programs aimed to alleviate homelessness. The Clean Slate Program led by code compliance and Presbyterian Night Shelter is working to break the cycle of homelessness through this jobs program. Currently, of those who have been employed in this program for more than four months, all have moved out of the shelter. The Morris Foundation has offered a lead gift as part of a foundation effort to match public investments on a dollar for dollar basis, leading to at least 224 units of permanent supportive housing. First Presbyterian Church has pledged $1 million to the development of permanent supportive housing units.

• Fort Worth has the 12th highest water quality in the nation.

Before the event, attendees were serenaded by the East Fort Worth Community Jazz Band, which gave the event a Fat Tuesday flair.

The presenting sponsor of the event was Simmons Bank.

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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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