Tough budget decisions not popular, but still necessary

Posted Saturday, Sep. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Taking a stand doesn’t always mean you’re going to win a popularity contest.

I’ve certainly found that’s the case in the political fishbowl. Breaking away from the “that’s the way it’s always been done” crowd can be a lonely thing to do.

Once you take that step, you’ll draw criticism from many — if not all — sides.

It’s sometimes easier to keep one group happy and another unhappy (as in Washington partisan politics) instead of taking the time to work through a tough challenge to find true compromise — a place where no one is completely satisfied, but everyone can live with the final product.

In Fort Worth, the City Council is working hard to break out of the usual budget mold with a long-term vision. We’re taking a stand against perennial budget deficits.

The last time the city didn’t face a budget deficit was 2008. It’s time we took that bull by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. We’re very close.

Back in March, during my State of the City Address, I stressed the importance of getting the budget under control. With direction from the City Council to bring spending back in line with revenues, City Manager Tom Higgins delivered a $1.4 billion budget proposal that includes sustainable solutions with no increase to the property tax rate.

The proposal closes an estimated $50 million budget shortfall in the city’s general operating fund.

Of course, the hard part about taking a stand for fiscal responsibility is the decision to make sustainable reductions to city departments that are doing very important work. But if we are to live within our means, if we don’t want to pay higher taxes, cuts must be made — and cuts require difficult choices.

To be clear, we aren’t laying off police officers or firefighters. We will not be deactivating fire companies. However, some budget cuts are inevitable, including some currently vacant positions in police, fire, code enforcement and other areas.

In the case of currently vacant police positions, Police Chief Jeff Halstead reported that because of limited training capacity he couldn’t fill all those positions next year even if he had them.

And when Fire Chief Rudy Jackson was asked if we could confidently tell residents they’re safe even with proposed cuts in vacant fire positions, Jackson responded affirmatively: “They’re safe.”

Throughout the coming year, we’ll continue to closely monitor public safety. If we need to make an adjustment, we will.

In its latest review of our city finances, the Fitch rating agency gave Fort Worth a high AA+ rating. The auditors at Fitch took notice of our efforts to stabilize the city’s finances. Specifically, Fitch noted our efforts to resolve the city’s budget imbalance and reduce the pension liability as two major factors resulting in our excellent rating.

What does that Fitch rating mean? It means we can save taxpayers millions by borrowing money at lower interest rates for needed street improvements, parks, libraries or fire and police stations. We must maintain this course.

On Tuesday, the City Council is scheduled to vote on the proposed new budget. Just like the council’s milestone decision to change future earned pension benefits for city employees, our decision on this budget can be a turning point for Fort Worth.

If we stand strong for fiscally responsible government, we can achieve our goal of once again aligning spending with revenues. This could very well be the last time in the foreseeable future the city needs to discuss a deficit.

Come next September, my hope is that instead of talking about cuts, we can talk about where we can invest our growing resources to build an even stronger city.

I believe these decisions must be made to sustain Fort Worth’s prosperity for the long haul. We may not win a popularity contest, but that’s not what this is about.

It’s about leaving this city better than we found it.

Betsy Price is mayor of Fort Worth.

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