May 9, 2014

Anticipated low voter turnout worries some in Fort Worth

In Tarrant County only 26,789 people voted early. Experts predict that a single-digit percentage of voters will cast ballots in the elections.

This year’s low voter turnout has some some Fort Worth leaders worried about the passage of the city’s transportation-focused, $292 million bond package as well as the renewal of the its half-cent crime control district tax during Saturday’s election.

Fort Worth saw 5,671 people vote early in-person, and the overall projected turnout is expected to be a single-digit percentage of the city’s registered voters, according to political analysts.

Overall in Tarrant County, only 26,789 voters showed up for early voting for the local elections. The Arlington school district, which has a historic $663.1 million all-or-nothing bond package and contested trustee race, had 7,103 people vote early in that election.

Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce President Bill Thornton said the citizenry is not responding. The chamber has endorsed both Fort Worth ballot issues.

“In my opinion this would be devastating if these two did not pass,” Thorton said of the bond and the renewal of the Crime Control and Prevention District tax.

Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at TCU, said those are legitimate concerns, since people who oppose “anything they see as raising their taxes” generally show up at elections.

“The reason I’m not sure that analysis holds very well for this election is because I have not heard an undercurrent of opposition,” he said.

Still, Riddlesperger said, local elections — from bonds to council races — are incredibly difficult to predict.

“The question in most cases is ‘Do the voters assess that the government trying to get the bond money is going to spend that money with due diligence, effectively and for the purpose it was intended?’ ” he said.

The Fort Worth bond program will pay for projects without increasing taxes, and the crime control sales tax has been in place since it was originally approved by voters in 1995.

The six-way race for Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns’ seat is even harder to call, Riddlesperger said, where the likely outcome is a runoff between the two highest vote-getters. Who those two will be is anyone’s guess, he said.

Margot Garza, 43, Greg Hughes, 58, Ed Lasater, 44, Juan Rangel III, 28, Bernie Scheffler, 35, and Ann Zadeh, 47, are all running.

Bryan Eppstein of the Eppstein Group and consultant for the political action group campaigning for the bond and the crime control district, said at least four of the council candidates are “extremely competitive” and he expects the top four to be fairly close in the number of votes.

The low voting turnout, he said, could also be more a result of voter satisfaction. Since there isn’t anything extremely controversial on the ballot, not as many people will show up, Eppstein added.

Arlington schools’ bond package

A total of 7,103 Arlington voters cast their in-person ballots early for a contested trustee race and bond package, which includes updates to every single public school in the district, except the new Adams Elementary. The district’s last bond package in 2009 drew out 4,601 early voters.

If the package is approved, the maximum tax increase would be 15 cents from 2016-20, which would cost up to $126 extra a year for the owner of a $100,000 home.

The district would build four districtwide centers, construct two new elementaries, re-purpose two elementary schools for fine arts/dual-language academies, tear down one junior high and rezone hundreds of junior high students.

In addition, every elementary would receive two science labs and a music strings room, and every high school would receive multipurpose activity centers for athletics and fine arts, and renovations to existing career/technical spaces.

The district would build two special education centers in south Arlington, and update security, transportation, electrical, mechanical and plumbing, lighting, ADA accessibility and HVAC for the 65,000-student district.

“This is the right piece, the right bond, the right time for the district,” school board President Bowie Hogg previously told the Star-Telegram.

Contested races in Arlington, street tax

Two women are also vying for the Place 7 seat on the school board.

Kecia Mays, an auditor with the Texas comptroller’s office, is running against Bridgett Davis, a retired educator. Mays most recently served on the volunteer committee that recommended the items on the bond package.

Davis is in her third year on the site-based decision-making committee at Martin High School. Committee members serve in an advisory capacity to the principal and help with performance objectives, budgeting and planning.

Both women have children in the district.

The Arlington City Council also has a few races of its own with District 6 incumbent Robert Shepard and District 7 incumbent Jimmy Bennett each facing challengers in their bids for a fourth, two-year term to represent the entire city.

Chris Dobson, a massage therapist, is trying to unseat Shepard, an attorney, for the District 6 at-large council seat. This is Dobson’s fourth bid for a council seat.

Bennett, a certified public accountant, is facing off with first-time candidate Gerald Kern, for re-election to the District 7 at-large council seat. Kern owns Elite Concierge and Luxury Transportation, a company that provides celebrity bookings and other services.

Arlington voters will also decide whether to approval renewal of a quarter-cent street maintenance sales tax.

The sales tax, which was first approved in 2002, generates revenue to repair Arlington’s 3,000-lane-mile network of roadways. It expires every four years unless voters renew it.

Staff writer Susan Schrock contributed to this report.

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