Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price clashed immediately with challengers Monday during TCU’s mayoral election forum on a topic close to every Texas homeowner’s pocketbook — property taxes.
Asked what could be done to curb the tax burden, Deborah Peoples, the chairwoman of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, quickly attacked tax incentives for businesses, saying they shifted the tax load unfairly to homeowners. Describing tax breaks designed to attack commercial growth as “unfettered giveaways,” Peoples said city leaders needed to negotiate more strongly with corporations as the city attempts to lure them here.
“Businesses also need to be great citizens and share some of that tax burden,” she said.
Price, who spent more than a decade as Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector, said taxes are unsustainable, but the responsibility largely lies with the Texas Legislature to find a solution to school finance. More than 50% of the tax bill funds public schools. Fort Worth accounts for less than a quarter. Price said the city had lowered the property tax rate in recent years to help relieve the burden.
“I’m not fond of tax incentives either but every other city offers tax incentives,” Price said. “You must do that to lure jobs.”
James McBride, a political newcomer with 30 years in the service industry, also said state lawmakers must handle school finance and that he worried proposals to cap municipalities’ ability to raise property taxes could “restrain the city’s resources.”
That moment early in the TCU forum, the first publicly to feature both Price and Peoples, set the tone for the hour-long debate as the candidates established themselves. Price positioned herself as the seasoned leader whose focus on education was the ticket to Fort Worth’s future.
Peoples, a longtime Democratic operative, repeatedly challenged Price’s leadership, saying the establishment had ignored wide swaths of the city.
McBride, meanwhile, centered himself as an independent with a working class background he said voters could relate to.
“I am the fabric of you. I come from you,” he said. “I understand what it’s like not being able to pay that next bill.”
Fort Worth consultant Estrus Tucker and Jason Whitely, a reporter with Star-Telegram media partner WFAA, moderated the panel. Emily Farris, an assistant professor of political science, organized the forum with students from her Introduction to American Politics class. Many of the questions were student generated.
The election is Saturday, but early voting continues through Tuesday at 7 p.m. Officials Monday said early voting numbers were in line with the 2017 election. Fort Worth has historically low turnout.
Price and Peoples clashed with each other more than with McBride, often quickly offering rebuttals to one another.
Price hit her achievements hard, pointing to the city’s robust growth over her eight-year tenure and her focus on early childhood education as evidence of success.
Programs like Read Fort Worth, an effort to get Fort Worth third-graders to grade-level reading skills, and other partners with Fort Worth schools will boost student achievement, making the city more attractive to corporations, Price said.
She also touted the need for more child care, calling it a “quiet crisis” that causes too many working class families to struggle.
“This city is healthier, safer and better educated that it was eight years ago,” Price said.
Regardless of topic, Peoples said current leadership had not done enough to serve residents, promising equity if she were elected. As she traveled the city, Peoples said she heard complaints about a perception that City Hall wasn’t listening to residents’ concerns and lacked transparency.
“We have real problems in Fort Worth,” Peoples said. “This election is not about me, guys, it’s not. It’s about where you see yourself in five years, 10 years, 20 years. Where do you see this city?”
Asked what could be done to stop human trafficking in Fort Worth, McBride said a regional approach needed to be taken through partnerships with Dallas-Fort Worth law enforcement. Being a transportation hub made Metroplex unique, he said, pointing to Interstate 35 as a conduit for illicit activity.
Peoples said leadership had been mum on human trafficking, and the first step to eradicating it should be acknowledging the problem.
Price said Fort Worth police’s specialized unit was making progress on a daily basis, though those arrests may not get much attention publicly. In the Las Vegas Trail area, a concerted effort by police and other city services had made a dramatic impact on human trafficking, she said.
Price and Peoples also clashed on transportation. Price said electric scooters, popular in Dallas and Austin, had no place in Fort Worth in their current form. Those cities, she said, had been plagued with unregulated scooters cluttering up sidewalks. A transportation task force would bring mobility solutions to Fort Worth, she said.
Peoples, however, said Trinity Metro, the city’s bus system, needs a complete overhaul and isn’t accessible to many residents. She said she believes the scooters could be a solution for residents without cars and quipped that a task force couldn’t solve the transit problem.
“This city has task-forced itself out,” Peoples said.
Mike Haynes is also running for mayor but did not attend Monday’s forum. He did a Star-Telegram questionnaire.