City Manager Tom Higgins cautioned his assistant city managers in a late January memo that the upcoming budget talks aren't going to be much fun.
"As you're aware, Fort Worth faces a significant deficit as we move toward the 2013 budget discussions," Higgins wrote in a memo posted on the city's Web page for city employees. (www.fortworthgov.com/roundup)
Hairsplitters might remind the city manager that under Texas law, municipalities can't run "deficits," but a $45 million "shortfall" means the same pain.
As a way to get his assistants, or ACMs, to be ever mindful of every penny, Higgins asked that "all departments take immediate action" to:
"1. Ensure no open General Fund and internal service fund positions are filled without written approval from the applicable ACM.
"2. Thoroughly review and evaluate all requests for travel on city business. All departmental travel requests must be approved by the appropriate ACM.
"3. Scrutinize all renewals of memberships and subscriptions and the continuing costs of such memberships."
Good grief. Management 101 budget responsibilities have to be outlined in a memo?
And let's be honest. It's going to take a lot more than cutting a Rotary membership here and a subscription to American City & County there to have any meaningful impact on a $45 million shortfall.
For three years, city Budget Officer Horatio Porter has been preaching about the need for the staff and council to get serious about identifying and focusing on essential services. And for three years, Porter has used the same simple math equation to illustrate the problem: The city does 100 things but can afford to do only 80. Which 20 things do you cut?
The council's answer too often has been: "We need to do 150 things."
The city does need to do more of what are essential services -- such as road, bridge and water infrastructure improvements. But it'll take some fancy talk to convince taxpayers that the city deserves more of their hard-earned dollars when the council piddles away $2.6 million on a temporary aviation exhibit or plans to spend $250,000 to fix a public swimming pool that's going to be dug up after one summer.
The criteria consumers use before buying something are simple: Efficient, effective, quality service and cost. If you're buying a refrigerator, a car or a high-definition TV, you shop around until you find the right deal.
Private sector companies have to be responsive to market pressure if they want to continue attracting consumers. In some cases, companies have to transform themselves to survive.
In government, the same kind of market pressure doesn't exist. City residents can't choose different streets to drive on or a different "company" to answer their 911 calls.
Fortunately, Fort Worth is a great city overall. Heaven knows it's much better to be in Cowtown than Motown. And because that's true, people keep coming to Fort Worth. That's a good thing. But no amount of economic recovery can offset the rising cost of providing city services. Sales tax revenue can't grow fast enough, and property taxes won't because it would be political suicide for politicians with a two-year horizon called re-election.
Last year, the Fort Worth City Council closed a $23.1 million shortfall through a variety of fund-shifting maneuvers and increased water and storm-water fees. The city held open 42 positions ($5.8 million), transferred $5 million from the capital project fund and took a $10.6 million reimbursement from the aviation fund. All were justified as one-time fixes.
The city is looking at a 2013 budget gap that's almost double that amount.
It's going to take more than nickels and dimes to fill it.
Jill "J.R." Labbe is editorial director of the Star-Telegram.