Fort Worth approves $1.4 billion budget

Posted Tuesday, Sep. 17, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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By the numbers Some of the projected numbers in Fort Worth’s budget: • Public safety: 57 percent of general fund. • Police: $204.2 million, up 2.2 percent. 1,797 authorized positions. • Crime Control and Prevention District: $59.4 million, up 8.5 percent, funded by a fraction of Fort Worth’s sales tax. The parks department is moving part of the Late Night Program and part of the Comin’ Up Gang Intervention Program to the crime district. Police are moving six school security positions to the crime district. • Fire: $119.7 million, off 1.3 percent. 931 authorized positions. • Closing the initial $50 million budget shortfall: $16.1 million in “sustainable cuts,” including the job positions; $21.9 million in increased property and sales tax revenue; $7.7 million in one-time budget savings; and a $14 million payment to a retiree healthcare trust instead of $21 million. The city announced plans during the budget cycle to shift retirees to less costly Medicare Advantage plans. • Personnel: 73 percent of budget. Source: City of Fort Worth

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The city’s passage of a $1.4 billion 2014 budget Tuesday — with 113 eliminated positions, projected gains in property and sales taxes and a small use of one-time savings to bridge a shortfall — may mark the last in a series of post-recessionary budgets with big gaps to close between revenue and expenses, Mayor Betsy Price and other Fort Worth officials said Tuesday.

The budget, as expected, restored half a potential cut in the Fire Department budget, as well as a proposed cut in money for alley mowing and street and athletic field maintenance. Fire Chief Rudy Jackson, who had warned that he would have to deactivate fire companies on a rotating basis, told City Council members last week that he could avoid that move to start the year.

The budget puts Fort Worth on course for stable annual outlooks after years of big initial shortfalls, Price said.

“I’m optimistic,” Price said. “If property tax continues to increase, if sales tax continues to increase and if departments continue to get us savings that they committed to, we should be in good shape come next September.”

As part of Tuesday’s budget votes, water rates for typical residential users in Fort Worth will rise 5 percent in fiscal 2014; the city’s cost of raw water continues to increase at the same time demand softens. Sewer rates for the typical user will rise 4 percent as the city tries to adjust for lower demand.

The citywide budget is up 0.6 percent. The $573 million 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 last year.

The property tax rate will stay 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.

One-time raise

The budget includes a one-month, one-time potential pay raise for general employees in September 2014. The raise would be 5 percent on average, Jay Chapa, the interim financial management services director, said Tuesday.

The council would likely consider making pay raises permanent for general employees in the 2015 budget if that year’s outlook is stable, Chapa said.

Vince Chasteen, president of the city’s general employee association, is skeptical that a raise will come in 2015. General employees have received one raise in the last five years, while police and fire employees generally receive annual raises under contract.

“Everybody who works for the city has a stake in what goes on in order to service the citizens,” Chasteen said. “For certain groups to be treated differently, I never have felt that was the right thing to do, but it is the way it is.”

Price said she’s optimistic that city departments can find $5 million in savings through the year to fund raises of 3 to 5 percent in 2015 for general employees.

“That is good,” she said. “Our general fund employees haven’t had a raise in a long time.”

The 113 eliminated positions were virtually all vacant. City staff had left positions open after attrition heading into the 2014 budget review.

The budget contains a limited number of potential layoffs. Of seven employees most recently facing layoffs, one was offered another job in the city and declined and two retired, Chapa said.

Officials said they expect the property and sales tax picture to look stronger for 2015. Those two revenue sources account for more than 70 percent of the general fund. Citywide, sales tax revenue is projected to be up 4 percent in 2014, and the property tax revenue base is projected to be up 2.7 percent even though the tax rate remains the same.

The city, which is self-insured, is also moving to compress its healthcare costs, up a projected 3 percent in 2014 from 8 percent last year.

“We’ll have some savings that weren’t there before,” Chapa said.

Fire, police staffing

Much of the controversy surrounding the budget focused on cuts to public safety staffing.

The Fire Department originally faced a $3.8 million cut, and Jackson warned then that he would have to deactivate an average of four companies a day. (A fire company is one vehicle and its crew.)

In late August, City Manager Tom Higgins and the budget staff restored half the money that was to be cut. Jackson said that he’d have to deactivate two companies on average per day and that average response times would increase by one minute at the affected stations.

Council members worried, however, that fire protection would lessen, and Jackson told council members last week that he could start the year with no deactivations. The department will rotate firefighter-qualified inspectors, arson and bomb personnel, and prevention officers into firehouses from time to time to augment staff. The council will review staffing at the end of the first quarter.

Jim Tate, president of the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters association, said Tuesday “I feel pretty confident” the department can avoid deactivations. “We’re going to make a lot of sacrifices.”

If the city’s revenue exceeds the budget, full funding might be restored at midyear, Tate said.

“We’re able to keep all the companies in service and keep our citizens safe, and that’s the top priority,” Tate said.

The council voted unanimously on the budget. Council member Kelly Allen Gray, whose husband is a Fort Worth police officer, recused herself from voting on the general fund portion of the police budget.

The Police Department lost 46 unfilled positions, but Police Chief Jeff Halstead told council members that he couldn’t keep up with normal annual attrition of 60 to 70 officers and didn’t need the unfilled positions in the 2014 budget.

The city is building a public safety training center and headquarters on the south side, and Halstead said that will dramatically improve the city’s capacity to train recruits.

Sgt. Steve Hall, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, said the city could fill the positions if leaders had the will.

“We do have response time issues. … And we are not going to fix those until we address our staffing,” Hall said.

Priority 1 response times in far north Fort Worth are eight to 11 minutes, Halstead said, slower than the four- to seven-minute average in the city core.

Code compliance was originally slated to lose 10 positions, but after council members and neighborhood representatives raised concerns, the staff restored six code officers. Code Compliance Director Brandon Bennett said he’d organize a “strike team” to augment his department’s efforts when problems surface.

Scott Nishimura, 817-390-7808 Twitter: @JScottNishimura Caty Hirst, Twitter: @catyhirst

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