Fort Worth Code Blue leaders want volunteer board reinstated

Posted Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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A powerful community volunteer group is threatening to lobby against the reauthorization of the crime district sales tax in 2014 unless the City Council changes the way the group is overseen.

Thursday night, Michael Cohen, a Code Blue captain, presented a petition signed by 79 Code Blue captains to a meeting of the board of the Fort Worth Crime Control and Prevention District. Since 2010, the board has been the Fort Worth City Council.

The Code Blue captains want the council to reinstate the volunteer board that oversaw the crime district from its inception in 1995 until 2010.

The crime district collects a half-cent sales tax that is intended to pay for community policing initiatives such as graffiti abatement, equipment for Code Blue volunteers, part of the cost of neighborhood patrol officers and officers posted in schools, among many other projects. Voters have to reauthorize the district every five years, and did so in 2000 and 2005 and by 81 percent of the vote in 2009.

This year, the tax so far has generated about $50 million, according to the state comptroller’s office.

For the first 15 years, a volunteer board appointed by the City Council created crime district budgets and submitted recommendations to the council for approval. But in 2010, the council took over the board. That was necessary, officials said, after the Texas Legislature enabled crime control districts to tax residents on utilities without a popular vote or approval by elected city councils.

But to many members of Code Blue, a volunteer group with more than 1,200 active members and 15,000 trained members, the council’s action was a grab for power.

“We don’t want any power, but we want the citizens to review it and then report back to the council,” said Michael Cohen, a Code Blue captain. “That is all [the board] is — another set of eyes and ears between [the council] and the money,”

The council felt it was important for someone accountable to the voting residents to make decisions on new taxes, said Bill Begley, a city spokesman.

“You really do want those elected by the citizenry spending tax dollars or having oversight on the tax dollars,” said Mayor Betsy Price. She said the council would work with Code Blue officers to try to resolve their disagreement.

Cohen, who said he has been a Code Blue volunteer for 21 years, said the City Council is using the crime district’s funds to balance the city budget, such as paying jail costs, and to pay for “pet projects,” such as graffiti abatement and some after-school programs for youth that do not belong under the crime district.

Price, who was not mayor when the volunteer board was disbanded, disagreed that the city uses the district’s sales tax revenue to balance the general budget and said that projects paid for by the district are recommended by the Police Department.

Joseph Deleon, who served on the crime district board for six years until it was dissolved, said the tax is valuable to the city, but he is concerned about how the board is being run. A volunteer board is a valuable check-and-balance, he said, although the council has final authority.

Steve Hall, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, said the city needs to work with Code Blue volunteers to address their concerns.

If the crime district funding is lost, Hall said, that could affect as many as 200 officer positions paid for by the fund and equipment such as patrol cars.

“It is vital for us to cooperate and be responsive to the citizens and their desires and needs,” Hall said. “I complain about the long response times in the North Division, but if you pulled the programs that those officers are filling, I don’t know that we could keep up with the demand.”

Caty Hirst, 817-390-7984

Twitter: @catyhirst

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