March 5, 2013

Fort Worth faces a $50 million budget shortfall

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price talked about the city's growth and budget challenges at a Chamber of Commerce gathering Tuesday. The talk included a Q&A with Whit Smith, chairman of the Chamber board.

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FORT WORTH - City leaders must find a way to address a $50 million funding shortfall this year while still embracing new initiatives such as making City Hall more open to all residents.

In her second State of the City address Tuesday, Mayor Betsy Price talked about both the continuing growth in the city -- and the looming budget challenges -- as the cost of running the city is far greater than the tax revenue coming in.

"We continue to press for fiscal accountability and fiscal responsibility," Price told more than 1,200 people gathered at the Fort Worth Convention Center for the Chamber of Commerce's largest annual gathering. "There are bold decisions to be made in 2014 on the budget.

"Our current budget is simply not sustainable," she said, adding that the expenses are much greater than revenue. "We will flatten expenses to get down to the revenue level. ... It won't be easy, but we are up to the challenge."

Price addressed a number of issues -- including road construction, customer service and making city business more transparent -- during a 40-minute talk, which included a question-and-answer period with Whit Smith, chairman of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce board.

While Price didn't give any estimates of how big a deficit the city faces in this year's budget, Chief Financial Officer Horatio Porter put a $50 million price tag on the shortfall.

Earlier this year, he asked all city departments to turn in recommendations on how to cut their budgets by 10 percent.

Soon, he and other city staff members will review the suggestions and "pick the things that are most logical, most strategic" and most sustainable. They hope to start talking to City Council leaders about potential options as soon as next month, Porter said.

"Last year, we used our savings, some fund balances to close the gap" between revenue and expenses in the city's budget, Porter said. "This year, we won't have that luxury."

Reducing the general fund by 10 percent would create a needed savings of $58 million and could affect services and staff.

"There aren't any easy ideas on the list," Porter said. "We're looking for the most sustainable and those that have the least disruptions to our citizens. ... There will be some real impacts to those considerations."

Among the options Price suggested for consideration are efficiency reviews to determine "best practices" for all city departments as well as ways to privatize various city services.

Among the other issues Price touched on:

Transparency: The mayor said another issue high on her priority list is making City Hall more accessible and open to everyone. She hopes the city will soon hire a new director of public engagement who can work at reaching out to residents.

That person would help create a mobile application and a new city website, making it easier to handle city business online.

"It's time for a change at City Hall in the culture," she said. "There are great people, but we've got to get government out of the way and let you ... build this great city."

She also talked about creating customer service teams -- to better serve the public -- and expanding transparency.

"When you want something, you don't have to submit a public information request," Price said. "You can just go online and call and get it."

Growth: Despite the budget challenges ahead, Price said, 2012 was a "good year, one of very positive growth." That included a 5.9 percent unemployment rate, new home starts up 97 percent and new multifamily starts up nearly 400 percent.

"We still face challenges, ... but the sales tax hit record numbers and property taxes, as you know, are beginning to inch back up," she said.

Development : Price touted new development, from the opening of Renaissance Square in southeast Fort Worth to Sundance Plaza on schedule to open this year. She also mentioned ongoing developments, from Marine Park Pool on the north side gearing up to open soon to the Trinity Lakes TIF District being poised for millions of dollars of development over the next decade.

Transportation : She said $16 billion is being spent in North Texas on new transportation projects. And city officials are working to spend funds from past bond projects and get ready for a 2014 bond program that could reach $270 million.

"You all have orange cone syndrome -- you are sick and tired of the cones," she said. "You're going to have orange cones for quite a while, but it will get better."

Price also mentioned the recent changeover at the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, where city leaders appointed all new board members. "We did change out the board," she said. "We needed a fresh set of eyes and new energy."

Community : Price touched on items including a new police and fire training center opening late next year and working to build a healthier community. She touted the FITWorth program, a community-wide health program, and the 2012 FITWorth Health Kids Challenge, in which children compete for new PE equipment for their school.

"The state of Fort Worth is strong," Price said. "Our city is very strong. And we are fortunate in that."

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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