Fort Worth City Council aims to beef up animal care and control

09/04/2014 5:36 PM

09/04/2014 5:38 PM

Animal care and control, and code compliance should be beefed up in next year’s budget, using money from the excess fund balance, City Council members said Thursday,.

Council members agreed at a budget workshop to add another code compliance supervisor and four code officers for a safe neighborhood team that will largely help with education and improving specific areas. They also plan to add two animal welfare support officers for the shelter and three more animal control officers dedicated to catching strays.

The total cost of the additions would be $960,300 for the first year and $712,512 the second year, most of which would come from the general fund.

Mayor Betsy Price supported the increases, but she cautioned council members about adding too many other projects to the budget. The council also discussed their wish lists for more police officers, a new police division in the far north, funding for transportation projects, a larger intergovernmental department and more diversity recruitment.

“We have been through several long years of lean times managing major budgets and all of a sudden because we are there doesn’t mean we can go adding a jillion different things without the ability to support it in next year’s,” Price said.

The city was already planning to use $1.9 million the from excess fund balance to bridge an initial shortfall in the budget, leaving $11.8 million in the excess fund balance. An additional $5.3 million of the excess fund balance has been earmarked to for longevity pay for firefighters, if the city and Fort Worth Professional Firefighters can negotiate terms in their contract, said Susan Alanis, assistant city manager.

Councilman Danny Scarth has also urged the council to find ways to enforce potential zoning restrictions on game rooms that would make the industry more transparent and easier to monitor. Game rooms — businesses that operate 8-liners — are largely unregulated.

Scarth wants the city to talk about using zoning ordinances to limit the industry, for example allowing them only in planned development areas and imposing distance restrictions from churches, schools, hospitals and other game room locations.

Brandon Bennett, director of code compliance, estimated he will need two senior enforcement officers to regulate the game rooms, at a first-year cost including equipment of $209,410.

City Manager David Cooke said adding that to the budget would come later in the year. The council has not approved an ordinance regulating the game rooms.

“We don’t see it as a static unchangeable plan. We see it as something that will need to be amended,” Cooke said of the budget.

Councilman Jungus Jordan, echoed by council members Gyna Bivens, Dennis Shingleton, Sal Espino and Scarth, also expressed concerns about the way the city is handling a trust fund to pay for future retiree health care benefits.

Called the Other Post-Employment Benefits Strategy (OPEB), it would receive $14 million in the proposed budget. The trust was created to help the city cope with rising healthcare costs.

The city has been making payments to the trust annually since it started in 2009, accumulating a balance of $55.9 million. The trust is not scheduled to start paying out until 2029, said Alanis. In addition to the annual trust payments, current retiree health claims are also being paid from the general fund.

Jordan argues that the trust is forcing taxpayers to pay double for retired employee healthcare.

He and others want to free up that money, but Cooke urged the council to wait on that decision until after the next actuarial audit in January.

The proposed budget initially presented to the council in August also includes 5 percent across-the-board raises for general employees and adding five employees for planning and development for better customer service; five more positions for maintenance for parks and community services; and four positions in code compliance.

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