Fort Worth budget wins unanimous approval after contentious nine months

FORT WORTH -- City Council members gave their unanimous final approval to next year's budget Tuesday night after nearly nine months of discussions, cutting tens of millions of dollars in city spending but stopping short of the broader changes that some council members wanted.

Council members said they're going to start working soon on next year's budget, including potentially changing the city's pension system.

"We're not going to solve the issues for the city immediately -- this is a four-year or five-year process," Councilman W.B. "Zim" Zimmerman said.

The council began the process in January, trying to make room for the raises that are included in the labor contracts with police officers and firefighters and to find as much as $4.5 million to pay for the upcoming Super Bowl. At the same time, property and sales taxes declined because of the recession. That necessitated $73 million in other spending cuts from the city's $1.3 billion budget.

During a series of hearings and workshops, council members decided to reinstate about $9 million in cuts -- restoring $5 million to the Fire Department and delaying plans to close three libraries and merge the city's parks and library departments. Those changes will be covered by dipping into the city's reserve funds.

The budget will make big changes in other areas. The city's last public swimming pool will stay closed, and the Police Department will cut $9 million by reorganizing and eliminating vacant positions.

The general fund, which pays for most city services, will rise from $528 million during the current fiscal year to $531 million in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

The property tax rate will remain the same at 85.5 cents per $100 of property value, the highest among big cities in Texas. However, water bills and fees will increase.

City employees won't get a raise, but they won't have to take any unpaid furlough days this year.

About 184 positions will be eliminated, including 106 through layoffs. An exact list of those slated for layoffs was unavailable Tuesday because some of the employees haven't been informed yet.

The city has laid off people each of the last two years but has usually found ways to reduce the number of involuntary job losses.

City Manager Dale Fisseler said that may not be as easy to do this time. Options such as moving people to vacant positions won't be available.

"I don't know that we'll do as well as we did the last two years," he said.

Sense of disappointment

During a public hearing, about a half-dozen people asked the council to preserve some of the areas scheduled for cuts.

Joe Waller, president of the Lake Worth Alliance, said it's unwise to merge the environmental management department into other departments given Fort Worth's issues with air pollution and natural gas drilling.

"We should have the best minds available involved in management of our environment," he said.

Richard Clough said Fort Worth's tax rate is higher than any other big city's in Texas.

"Another way is to say that the city manages the taxpayers' money worse than any other city," he said.

Another resident questioned why the city is closing its last public swimming pool. She urged council members to imagine what it would be like if all kids could learn to swim and be safe from drowning -- "not just the kids who use private pools and country clubs."

Some council members said they were concerned about individual cuts. Joel Burns said the deep cuts in communications staff would make it harder to interact with residents. Kathleen Hicks said she was concerned about the cuts to women's health outreach projects.

"We must ask ourselves and continue to ask ourselves, when have we cut too much?"

Still, Hicks voted for the plan, after voting against the budget for the previous two years.

Mayor Mike Moncrief defended the budget.

"Do you think this is something we want to do?" he said of the swimming pools. "Do you think it's not frustrating to have an aquatics master plan that we can't fund?"

Mike Lee, 817-390-7539