Crime control tax up for renewal amid concerns

05/04/2014 12:00 AM

05/06/2014 7:39 AM

Jayne Michel drives slowly through her neighborhood in southwest Fort Worth, looking for anything out of the ordinary — a door slightly ajar, a stranger standing on the sidewalk or an unfamiliar car driving around.

Michel, a Code Blue volunteer, has been driving or walking her quiet neighborhood for several hours each month for over 20 years.

“There was a gang member who lived a block down and across the road, and he was killed. He was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting. And we said, ‘That’s it. We are taking back our neighborhood,’ ” Michel said.

Such is the role of Code Blue Citizens on Patrol volunteers, who are charged with keeping a close watch on neighborhoods and reporting suspicious activity to police.

Michel and the 766 currently active Citizens on Patrol volunteers in Fort Worth are the main reason the city’s crime rate has dropped over 40 percent since 1995, Police Chief Jeff Halstead said.

The other fundamental reason for the drop in crime, Halstead said, is the extra $716 million in crime-fighting money the city has raked in since 1995, when residents approved an extra half-cent sales tax for the Fort Worth Crime Control and Prevention District.Voters will decide Saturday whether to continue the tax.

Now, Fort Worth is one of the safer cities in the United States, and residents are being asked to renew that sales tax in Saturday’s election. By state law, the crime prevention sales tax has to be renewed by voters every five years.

But some worry that the tax, which generates about $60 a million a year, is being used to make up for shortages in the city’s general fund and are calling for more transparency from the City Council, which dissolved the citizen Crime Control and Prevention Board in 2010 to run the program itself.

‘Dependent’ on crime tax

The city’s neighborhood patrol officers, replacement vehicles, Citizens on Patrol program, technology improvements, radio equipment and even the city’s new police training center are among the items at least partially dependent on the crime tax for funding.

The city would be “hard-pressed” to operate without the tax money, and residents would likely see drastic cuts to city programs and/or increases in property taxes to make up for the loss, said Mayor Betsy Price.

Councilman Jungus Jordan, whose district includes one of the most active Citizens on Patrol programs in the city, said the city should use the crime tax to supplement, not supplant, the general fund.

But even with that goal, Jordan said, the city is very “dependent” on the crime-control funds.

“We are basically in the position that, if we lost that money, we would have to make the decision — are we no longer going to replace police cars? Are we going to displace 200 police officers? We would have to find $58 million somewhere else,” Jordan said.

In a move Jordan said he disagreed with, the city moved multiple funding categories from the general fund budget to the crime-control budget for fiscal 2014, including an extra $3.47 million for jail services and $481,000 for a late-night program for kids.

Joseph Deleon, who served on the crime district board for six years until it was dissolved, said the city is “addicted” to the crime-control money.

“We were the checks and balances, and we kept the money separate from the general fund,” Deleon said of the former citizen board. “For example, the expenditure of the jail, that kind of expenditure historically has always come from the general fund. We didn’t go to the voters to fund normally recurring expenditures for the city.”

Price disagreed.

“I don’t see it as a crutch. The money of CCPD is designed to fight crime, and the jail is part of crime fighting. The new training center is part of crime fighting, officers on the street, education for kids, school safety — I don’t see it as a crutch. It is an additional funding source for safety concerns,” Price said.

Halstead said that because of several years of tight budgets, “we had to look at alternative methods to keep everything moving forward and running smoothly.”

“It is really the envy of all other major cities across the nation because the fund strictly enables the Police Department to have some of the latest and greatest technologies,” Halstead said of the crime district fund, adding that it was part of the reason he accepted the job here nearly six years ago.

Code Blue concerns

Michael Cohen, an active Code Blue captain in Fort Worth’s south division, is also worried that the city is using the crime fund to plug holes in the general fund and was one of several Citizens on Patrol captains demanding that the council make changes to how crime control district is run in a November meeting.

Cohen presented a petition signed by 79 Citizens on Patrol captains, including Michel and her daughter Elaine Bumpus, demanding that the citizens board be reinstated.

From the inception of the crime district in 1995 until 2010, 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 city councils. But to some members of Code Blue and the citizen board members, the council’s action was a grab for power.

Deleon, who served on the crime district board for six years until it was dissolved, says the volunteer board was a valuable check-and-balance backstop, even though the council had final authority over its decisions.

Though the council did not reinstate the citizen board, it has created a Code Blue advisory committee to work with the Police Department, review the budget and make suggestions to the council, Price said.

Michel and Bumpus are both on that new committee, and they hope it will address some of their concerns about transparency and improve communication.

“I think we need more citizen input. I think they need to listen to us more, but I don’t think it is bad they [council] are the board, just as long as we can say — ‘OK, we don’t like the way you are using the money here, let’s talk abut this,’ ” Michel said.

If the tax is renewed by voters, Halstead said he wants to use the money in the next five years to focus on fighting cybercrime, which is a nationally growing trend, increasing training for school administrators and officers, and re-investing in the Code Blue, which has had a drop in volunteers.

Move to transportation?

Other residents, including Fort Worth City Council candidate Bernie Scheffler, believe that since the crime rate has dropped so drastically, it is time to start looking at using the half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements instead of crime prevention.

Currently, Fort Worth is capped on its sales tax. It sends a half-cent to the Fort Worth Transportation Authority and uses a half-cent for crime control. In contrast, Dallas dedicates a full cent to transportation, which is used to help fund the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system.

As Price pointed out, however, Dallas has higher crime rates than Fort Worth.

In 2012, Fort Worth averaged 588 violent crimes and 4,222 property crimes per 100,000 people, while Dallas averaged 675 violent crimes and 4,374 property crimes per 100,000 people.

Jordan said that though transportation is a priority for Fort Worth right now, the safety of the city will always be the top priority.

“We will have to find a different way to fund transit, and we will continue to work with the state Legislature and the federal government to find funding sources,” Jordan said. “Our first priority, our No. 1 priority, is keeping the city safe. And that, in my opinion, is by keeping the CCPD.”

This report includes information from Star-Telegram archives .

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