Fort Worth reinstates 12 firefighters, 6 code officers in budget

Posted Friday, Aug. 23, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The city boosted its property tax collection and sales tax revenue projections for the 2014 budget Thursday, allowing Fort Worth officials to restore 12 firefighter and six code officer positions that had been targeted for cuts.

City Council members had questioned whether the cuts were necessary.

The staff, with agreement from the council during an afternoon workshop, also reinstated spending for firefighter overtime, street maintenance, alleyway mowing and athletic field maintenance.

Council members, who said they have heard from citizens about proposed public safety staffing cuts, still struggled with not restoring all 36 firefighter positions in the department’s vacation reserve pool that City Manager Tom Higgins originally proposed cutting.

“Can I tell my citizens they’re safe?” Councilman Jungus Jordan, who represents the southern District 6, asked Fire Chief Rudy Jackson during the workshop.

“They’re safe,” Jackson responded.

Mayor Betsy Price said the remaining cuts in the budget will have “very, very minimal impact to our citizens.”

“We will continue to monitor the budget, monitor the needs, as we go along [through the fiscal year], particularly public safety,” she said.

The staff increased next year’s projected property tax collection rate by a half-point to 98.5 percent and boosted sales tax projections by 1 point to 4 percent growth. That raised the proposed general fund budget by $3 million to $573 million.

Jay Chapa, the city’s acting financial management services director, told the council that the staff believes that the revenue projections remain “conservative” and that the budget additions still keep the city on track for a stable outlook without big shortfalls beginning next year.

The staff restored $1.9 million of a proposed $3.8 million fire cut.

Jackson said he will use restored money on overtime until he can fill the 12 positions, which had gone vacant as the city looked to close a shortfall in the general fund budget.

Last week, facing the prospect of 36 lost positions, Jackson said that he would have to deactivate four fire companies on average per day and that he would limit the deactivations to the city’s 12 stations with double companies. A company is made up of one vehicle and its crew, and Fort Worth has 42 stations in all. Jackson said the deactivations would increase average response times by one minute and 48 seconds at the stations where they occur.

The citywide average response time today is about five minutes, running one minute higher in far north Fort Worth, outside Loop 820, Jackson said.

On Thursday, with the restorations, Jackson said he would have to deactivate two companies on average per day and would limit those to the eight stations within the loop that have double companies, a move to allay fears of lengthy response times in Fort Worth’s sprawling suburbs, particularly in the north.

Average response times will increase by one minute at the stations where deactivations occur, Jackson said.

Public backlash

Council members worried about public perceptions created by the cuts, and an assertion by the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters association last week that budget cuts could put the city’s fire insurance rating at risk and expose homeowners to higher premiums.

“I’m still personally uncomfortable that we haven’t funded” the full proposed fire cut, Jordan said.

“Are you comfortable with that personally?” council member Gyna Bivens, who represents the southeast/east District 5, asked Jackson about the new staff proposal.

“I can say that I’m going to do the best I can to manage the resources that have been given to me,” Jackson responded.

Jim Tate, president of the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters, said, “We haven’t heard anything from anybody outside City Hall who thinks this is a good idea — cutting fire service.”

The staff’s new recommendation “still leaves us short,” he said.

“It’s a phantom fire service plan,” he said. “You never know who’s going to be shut down from day to day.”

Among other budget restorations, code compliance will shoulder the loss of four budgeted positions instead of the 10 originally proposed.

Brandon Bennett, the code compliance director, said in an interview that he will use the positions for a “strike team” to augment the department’s code and animal control presence where needed.

Other budget restorations announced Thursday:

• Street maintenance cuts that would have meant the loss of 34 lane miles of maintenance in 2014.

• Alleyway mowing cuts to $189,680 from $379,300, or to 520 segments from 823. In the current budget, the city cut alley mowing by 50 percent.

• Athletic field maintenance cuts of $118,447.

Council members have scheduled two more public hearings on the budget, at 7 p.m. Sept. 10 and at 10 a.m. Sept. 17, and are scheduled to vote on the budget Sept. 17 after the hearing.

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

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