City on target with proposed budget

Posted Monday, Sep. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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As a former Fort Worth city manager, I have been following the city’s budget deliberations and understand the difficulties the City Council and city manager are facing in eliminating a major revenue shortfall.

They have made some tough decisions, especially when it comes to the police and fire budgets. Those departments have unions that traditionally have a strong lobby that criticizes any reductions.

They will generally protect their turf, even if it means the general employees have to carry the burden of the cuts.

The easiest thing for the council and staff to do is to cut those programs that impact the quality of life of our residents and transfer those savings to public safety.

This time, they have chosen to use a balanced approach that requires all departments to make cuts, and for that they are to be commended.

Recently, three former fire chiefs held a news conference at a restaurant that recently burned and urged the City Council to restore the cuts in the Fire Department’s budget. The owner and his wife also made the same request.

When the fire occurred, members of the Fire Department did what they are paid to do — contain the fire and try to minimize damage. Their commitment is the same, whether an owner is well-known or not.

I am sure any business owner with fire damage would be just as appreciative for the service they provided.

The fire chiefs stated that deactivating companies from time to time, as is called for in the city manager’s budget proposal, will negatively impact service levels.

In the early to mid-1990s, Fort Worth was in a major real estate slump and the economy was suffering. The city had substantial annual budget shortfalls.

Over a three-year period, we had to cut about 900 positions from the budget and had to increase the property tax rate by 6 cents per $100 of valuation.

Although we tried to minimize the impact on police and fire, during that time they had to step up as well.

One of the strategies submitted by then-Fire Chief Larry McMillen was to deactivate a fire company at those stations that housed two companies, when full staffing was not available, thus reducing overtime costs.

The Police Department deleted several civilian positions and delayed several academies. Both departments had to closely monitor overtime expenses.

When the economy improved, many of the budget cuts were restored. Beginning in 1995, the tax rate was reduced for seven consecutive years and has remained steady since.

The Firefighters Association argues that the current proposal for budget cuts will result in an increase in insurance rates for residents. That alarmist statement is erroneous because the ratings are not based on just one year of operation, but on an analysis of the staffing and location of stations over a period of time.

The city has added several stations over the years and increased the staffing to four people at all companies, so the current insurance rating should be the same for the foreseeable future.

The City Council and city manager have faced tough decisions over the past few years. They have had to deal with budget shortfalls and having to shore up the retirement system.

Some employee groups and residents will be disappointed, but the city’s leaders are doing what’s right and should stay the course.

Bob Terrell was Fort Worth’s city manager from 1992 through 2000.

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