Fort Worth’s budget plan would cut more than 100 unfilled positions

Posted Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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City administrators are proposing a $570 million general fund budget for next year that eliminates more than 100 mostly unfilled positions, uses projected gains in property and sales taxes, and dips into departmental savings from this year to help close what was a $50 million shortfall.

The budget, which City Manager Tom Higgins presented to City Council members Tuesday afternoon, moves the city significantly closer to having stable annual budget outlooks, Higgins said.

“We’ve gotten a really good line on revenues, and [heading into the 2015 budget cycle], we’d like to have expenses come in under the revenue line,” Higgins said.

The proposed budget leaves the property tax rate at 85.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, where it’s been for nearly 20 years. That amounts to $1,282.50 for a home appraised at $150,000 for tax purposes.

The separate water budget calls for increases in water and sewer revenue to meet higher costs and lower demand. Water officials confirmed that they will lay out proposed rate hikes to the council this week.

The proposed budget is a total of $1.45 billion across all city operations and funds, an increase of 0.6 percent.

The proposed general fund budget — police, fire, transportation and public works, parks, code compliance, library, planning and development, and the Municipal Court — is down from $583.8 million this year.

“Balancing the budget will require reasonable cutbacks,” Mayor Betsy Price said. “We continue to invest in public safety, and we continue to invest in infrastructure.”

The budget would eliminate 120 positions, including a maximum of 15 layoffs.

Those 15 were notified Monday and Tuesday, said Jay Chapa, the acting financial management services director. Five have been offered other jobs, and the others were encouraged to apply for one of the city’s 86 budgeted vacant jobs, Higgins and Assistant City Manager Susan Alanis said.

“We’re very confident that every one of them should be able to find some other opportunity,” if at lower pay, Higgins said.

Council members stressed that the public safety budget remains strong, even though Higgins’ proposal eliminates 46 vacant police officer positions and 36 vacant firefighter jobs.

Police Chief Jeff Halstead has said it was hard to justify not allowing a reduction in vacancies because the department has struggled to keep up with the attrition. The Fire Department reductions are largely tied to the department’s vacation relief pool and will result in greater overtime, Chapa said in an intervew.

The potential Police Department cuts have triggered a jousting match between the city and the Fort Worth Police Officers Association.

“It makes no sense economically to make these cuts,” Sgt. Steve Hall, the association president, said Monday, arguing that Fort Worth runs the risk of a higher crime rate that would dampen growth.

The city has avoided filling some police jobs in recent years to save money.

“Many of those positions were not filled because they weren’t funded,” Hall said.

In the proposed budget, public safety takes up 57 percent of the general fund. The $204.2 million police budget is an increase of 2.2 percent. The department would have 1,797 authorized positions.

The Fire Department’s share is $117.8 million, down 2.9 percent, because of the elimination of the vacancies and certain overtime. The department would have 919 authorized positions.

The proposed budget for the separate Crime Control and Prevention District, funded by a fraction of Fort Worth’s sales tax, is $59.4 million, up 8.5 percent on projected tax revenue growth.

Under the budget proposal, the parks department would move part of its Late Night Program and part of the Comin’ Up Gang Intervention Program to the crime district. And the Police Department would move six positions for school security under the crime district umbrella.

“The actual public safety budget is up,” Councilman Sal Espino said.

More cuts

Elsewhere, the Code Compliance Department would lose 10 positions — five each in neighborhood property maintenance and animal-control field operations. The department is budgeted for 196 employees.

It has been focusing on “hot spots” across the city — mostly in the older central city — as code officers have been cut in recent budgets, said Brandon Bennett, code compliance director.

“It helps us from falling too far behind,” Bennett said.

The Planning and Development Department would lose 14 positions, including five chief inspectors. The department has been cross-training its specialty inspectors to make inspections across all trades.

Council members stressed that the city remains under substantial pressure on its personnel costs, which are 73 percent of the proposed general fund budget and include salary, healthcare, pension and retiree expenses.

The council has also been shifting a bigger piece of the property tax — 22 percent — to debt service to meet the infrastructure demands of Fort Worth’s fast-growing population and spread. That has further constricted the general fund.

Filling the gap

To close the general fund gap, Alanis said, the budget staff and manager’s office:

• Generated $19 million in “sustainable” cuts, including the job positions, that would contribute to recurring savings.

• Decided against an increased $7 million payment — including $5.2 million from the general fund — to a trust that the staff has been building to fund employees’ retirement healthcare costs. The staff decided to maintain the planned $14 million payment for 2014 and plans to present changes in the healthcare funding strategy to the council this week.

• Projected $19 million in increased revenue from property and sales taxes.

• Used only $7.7 million in one-time budget savings, compared with more than $40 million used to close the gap this year. Alanis said the city still has to confront healthcare costs more aggressively to ensure stable budget outlooks.

“There are some real key structural things that have to happen for us to right the ship,” Alanis said.

The proposed budget includes a 1 percent pay raise for police officers included in a new contract that the council approved this year and experienced-based “step” raises for officers. It also includes a one-month 5 percent pay raise for all employees in September 2014.

The budget has the framework for a potential $5 million raise for employees citywide in 2015 if they can help generate that in cost savings during 2014 and it can be applied to 2015, Higgins and Alanis said. General fund employees have had one pay raise in five years.

The proposed budget, in accordance with the recent recommendations of a volunteer task force, includes $1.1 million for arts grant funding to the Arts Council of Fort Worth & Tarrant County, up from $966,000 this year.

The council will have several public workshops and hearings on the budget before voting in mid-September.

Scott Nishimura, 817-390-7808 Twitter: @JScottNishimura

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