Fort Worth budget plan closes gap with deep cuts, fee hikes

FORT WORTH -- The proposed $1.3 billion city budget for fiscal 2011 was unveiled Tuesday, and it closes a $73 million funding gap without hiking the city's property tax rate. But it eliminates more than 200 city jobs, lays off 87 employees, closes three libraries and a city pool, and slashes funding for the homeless, various maintenance programs and health inspections.

It could also lead to slower emergency response times, depending on how far the Fire Department's overtime is cut, fire officials said.

Mayor Mike Moncrief said the budget and its challenges give the city a chance to "redefine municipal government in Fort Worth."

"It would be foolish to think we can keep doing the same things the same way and expect different results," he said.

Council members stressed that some of the proposals could change over the next month as the council holds workshops and public hearings.

"There might be a false economy in this," Councilman Jungus Jordan said of the Fire Department cuts. "This is one area we'll look into a little more."

The Police and Fire departments were both asked to cut 5 percent from their budgets. About 90 percent of the Fire Department's budget goes to personnel costs, Fire Chief Rudy Jackson said, so there's little room to cut anything except staff time -- $2.1 million in vacant positions and $3.1 million in overtime.

The reduction would mean that five of the 12 stations that currently have more than one firetruck or engine would be reduced to a single apparatus. The burden would rotate among the stations, most of which are in inner-city neighborhoods.

Response times in those areas could rise by as much as 1 minute and 50 seconds, Jackson said.

The Police Department proposal would eliminate 40 vacant positions, but it would maintain its response times by reorganizing divisions and putting more officers on patrol, Chief Jeff Halstead said.

City Manager Dale Fisseler said he also plans to change pension and retirement healthcare benefits for new employees, which are big expenditures for the city. Specifics will be unveiled during a workshop Friday.

The 87 layoffs proposed in the budget are all outside the public safety departments and include 25 from the library and parks department, 22 from community relations, and 11 from housing and economic development.

"A lot of what's going on seems to be on the back of the rank-and-file employees," said Vince Chasteen, president of the General Employees Association.

Elsewhere, the budget closes Forest Park Pool, the only public pool that's still open. Three branch libraries would close: Meadowbrook, Northside and Ridglea.

Funding for the arts, the homeless and a subsidy for the Ambulance Authority will all be reduced. And the city will eliminate the plan that buys back unused vacation from employees.

Also on the block are maintenance at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, health inspections, freeway light maintenance and mowing of property that violates the high-grass rule.

Like most cities, Fort Worth relies on property and sales taxes for most of its budget, and the recession has hit both hard. Budget officer Horatio Porter projected a $77 million gap between income and expenses in June.

The city got a small reprieve last month, when the Tarrant Appraisal District announced that the drop in property values wasn't as great as expected. Still, the budget gap remained at $73 million.

The budget proposal keeps the city's property tax rate at 85.5 cents per $100 of assessed value.

However, water and sewer bills would rise by a combined 2.5 percent, and various fees would increase, including inspection fees for businesses and the environmental assessment on residential water bills.

Budget administrators said they expect to gain nearly $7 million by repealing the policy restricting property taxes on mineral values, funding that will help with street repairs, graffiti abatement, gang intervention and more. And they propose using about $15 million in reserves from the general fund and workers' compensation fund to restore debt capacity to help make sure capital projects are completed on time.

In previous discussions, the council left the door open to raising the tax rate, and some council members said they might want to restore some of the services proposed to be cut.

"One day, I don't know when, but we will get out of this hole," Councilwoman Kathleen Hicks said.

"We need to make sure that, years from now, we are addressing the needs and concerns we're facing as a city of close to 700,000 people."

And in a sentiment expected to be echoed by community groups, Councilman Sal Espino said: "I will be advocating for funding to keep our libraries open."

Mike Lee, 817-390-7539

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