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A Fort Worth councilman is questioning whether the city has done enough to save money and run departments efficiently ahead of a vote on the nearly $2 billion budget.
Across the board, council members and Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price celebrated a budget that reduces the property tax rate by 3.75 cents.
But most homeowners will pay more to the city as home values in North Texas climb and the city increases some fees. The city’s estimate shows an average property tax increase of $93.44, and even with the rate reduction, Fort Worth will bring in about 9% more in property tax revenue compared with last year.
But councilman Cary Moon said the city hasn’t done enough to justify the new revenue so he won’t vote for it in September.
“We want to raise our hands and say are we’re being good stewards of the dollars we already have,” he said. “I would say we’re doing better than most cities, but not well enough to ask for more money.”
He said there are a number of fundamental things about the budget he disagrees with, mostly tied to efficient government.
City financial software is not centralized, so he believes some departments may not be collecting revenue owed by vendors in an orderly way and could be losing money through overpaying on overtime, utilities and equipment, he said.
Another inefficiency is an extra $1 million for mowing contracts, he said.
The goal is to improve how often city properties are mowed, but Moon said it creates a situation where two contractors may be paid to mow the same property.
“I know this is boring, but when I see us raising stormwater fees or property taxes it’s concerning,” he said.
Moon also disagrees with hiring a police monitor and assistant, recommendations from the Race and Culture Task Force aimed at increasing police transparency. The two-person department will cost the city just under $300,000 in 2020.
He appears to be alone in his assessment that the $1.9 billion budget shouldn’t be approved. Most council members and the mayor have voiced support of the budget City Manager David Cooke has outlined because it accomplishes five goals they laid out over the past year: lower the tax rate, invest in and maintain infrastructure and public buildings, ensure services are distributed equally and allow for initiatives spurred by council members.
“You’re looking at a fine line between providing services and lowering the rate,” said Price, who was Tarrant County tax assessor-collector before becoming mayor, calling the budget “fair.”
She said she understands that many homeowners would pay more, but noted that the city has dropped its tax rate by nearly 11 cents the last four years.
For her, the budget goes a long way toward supporting early childhood development and learning. She’s hoping to use about $500,000 for seed money to be matched with local foundations and federal dollars to fund children’s programs in the city.
Price and council members have also voiced support of the efforts by city staff to spread services more equitably across the city. Part of the 2020 budget includes increased funding for street lights, roads and sidewalks with a focus on minority neighborhoods.
The focus on improving existing infrastructure was something Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray said she was excited about. The budget has nearly $3 million more for infrastructure work, including $500,000 for street lights.
“Our city is dark,” she said. “You don’t really see a lot of people walking around at night because it’s so dark.”
Moon may be on an island in opposing the whole budget, but other council members have voiced concerns.
Councilman Brian Byrd was critical of what he called “hidden taxes” in a recent budget workshop. Though the tax rate may drop, water fees will increase on a separate bill. He said that didn’t feel transparent.
“Our citizens shouldn’t have to go to three places to find out what they’re paying,” he told the Star-Telegram.
Byrd noted that most home values will increase around 7% and the average home will see a nearly 5% increase in the tax bill to the city.
“That’s, in my estimation, a hefty increase, and I’m not a fan of it,” he said.
He and other council members have been critical of state legislation they say handcuffs the city’s ability to lower the tax rate more.
Chiefly is Senate Bill 2, which imposes a 3.5% cap on property tax revenues for cities and counties. Any more, and taxing units will have to receive voter approval. Previously, taxing entities were restricted to an 8% increase in property tax revenue from the previous year, and voters had to petition for an election to roll back the rate.
The city will also lose between $8 million and $10 million because of a bill that cuts right-of-way fees telecom providers pay cities to supply cable and phone service and another that does away with fees collected from red light cameras.
“With the state legislation the way it is, we have to be pretty prudent,” Councilman Dennis Shingleton said. “It’s almost like they want to take all our money away.”
Councilman Carlos Flores said he wanted Fort Worth to continue shifting the property tax burden away from homeowners and toward commercial proprieties.
Since around 2003, Fort Worth residents have paid more than businesses. A 2016 estimate showed homeowners made up 61% of property tax revenue while commercial property owners were about 39%. Flores said those shares should flip.
Despite Moon’s holdout on the 2002 budget, he said Fort Worth has made serious improvements over the last four years.
“I’d put our city operations up against any big city,” he said. “We’ve done a good job, but we can do so much better.”