Infrastructure improvements and another decrease in property taxes highlight the $1.8 billion budget passed by the Fort Worth City Council at its Sept. 17 meeting.
The vote was not without controversy, however, with the budget passing by a narrow 5-3 margin.
Mayor Betsy Price voted for approval, along with council members Carlos Flores (District 2), Gyna Bivens (District 5), Dennis Shingleton (District 7) and Ann Zadeh (District 9). Councilmen Brian Byrd (District 3), Cary Moon (District 4) and Jungus Jordan (District 6) voted against, while District 8 Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray was not in attendance.
The approved budget is an increase of 3.4% over the Fiscal Year 2019 budget.
It includes 114 net new positions, including 58 in the police department, 29 to staff a new animal shelter, 14 to staff a new fire station, nine to staff a new library branch, and six code enforcement officers.
The city's property tax rate underwent another reduction, this time by 3.75 cents, from 78.5 cents per $100 valuation to 74.75 cents. For example, the owner of a home valued at $200,000 with a homestead exemption will pay $1,196 in city property taxes.
The property tax rate has been reduced by 10.75 cents over the past four years.
"It's a very good budget," District 7 Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Dennis Shingleton said. "We've got flexibility. We beefed up the police force, capital expenditures, staffing.
"I think it's a good budget. I think the people ought to be proud of what (City Manager) David Cooke and his office have come up with."
The budget increases cash funding dedicated to capital projects, including funds for street maintenance and repair, as well as funds to improve neighborhood vitality and safety.
It also allows the city to implement the 2018 Bond Program, while planning for a 2022 Bond Program.
The budget also includes an outline for a five-year capital planning process aimed at replacing and improving aging infrastructure for one of the fastest-growing large cities in the nation. The five-year plan would add $1.85 billion in capital improvements through the fiscal year 2024 budget.
Fort Worth is the 13th most populated city in the United States as of 2018 with a population of 895,008, an increase from 741,206 in the 2010 census.
The budget allows the city to staff new facilities approved by voters, including:
• The Golden Triangle Library in far north Fort Worth.
• The Reby Cary Youth Library in east Fort Worth.
• Fire Station 43 to serve the Walsh Ranch community.
• Fire Station 45 near U.S. 287 and Harmon Road.
• An animal shelter facility in far north.
• New parks.
The budget also fully funds an increase in city pension contributions, previously approved during fiscal year 2019.
"We're the only major city in Texas that is lowering the (tax) rate with the incoming cap next year," Mayor Betsy Price said. "I'm proud of the hard work we've done on that tax rate.
"I'm excited about what this budget offers. It really does improve service to you while keeping that rate down," she said.
One addition to the budget process is an effort to begin evaluating infrastructure maintenance and investment based on equity.
This effort is in line with recommendations from the city’s Race and Culture Task Force. City officials are starting to use data about equity, which will influence where and how capital improvement dollars are spent.
As part of this effort, the city plans to create a Diversity and Inclusion Department, create a police monitor program and institute a police cadet program. The city will also use pay-as-you-go funds to continue neighborhood improvements and equitable capital investments.
Despite their disagreement with the budget, Byrd, Moon and Jordan each praised Cooke and his staff for the work put into the budget.
The budget will be enacted on Oct. 1 and run through Sept. 30, 2020.
BAN THE BOX
The question of what should and should not be asked on an employment application was the topic of an informal report received by the Fort Worth City Council at its Sept. 17Tuie work session.
A campaign known as "ban the box" focuses on the removal of questions related to criminal history on applications for employment. The report Tuesday was related to the City of Fort Worth's use of criminal history information in the selection process of applicants for general government positions.
Due to the unique requirements and extensive background verification already in place, this does not apply to sworn police or fire personnel.
In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provided guidance concerning potential discrimination in employment screening related to the use of criminal histories. Relying on certain arrest or criminal history information when there is no business justification for it can perpetuate disparity in hiring results.
The purpose of the campaign is to enable ex-offenders to display their qualifications in the hiring process before being asked about their criminal records. The premise is that anything that makes it harder for ex-offenders to find a job makes it likelier that they will become repeat offenders.
In order to abide by the EEOC’s guidance and ensure fairness in the city’s hiring processes, in 2015 the City of Fort Worth Human Resources department removed all questions that were related to criminal conduct from the city employment applications.
"That does not mean we don't do background checks," City of Fort Worth Human Resources Director Brian Dickerson said. "We also don't do a background check until a job offer is made."
Consistent with personnel rules and regulations, the city continues to examine a candidate’s criminal history without involving the person making the employment decision.
Human resources consults with the supervisor before the job is posted regarding the nature of the position and what types of criminal offenses should typically disqualify a candidate. Then, only after the supervisor has selected the top candidate(s), and after a job offer has been presented, human resources staff performs the typical background check of verifying employment and researching criminal history.
If a background check reveals that an applicant has any criminal convictions, including deferred adjudications, or deferred dispositions (other than minor traffic offenses), human resources conducts an individualized assessment to determine if the person is hired or not.
The criteria considered includes:
• The nature and gravity of the offense or conduct: Was it a misdemeanor or a felony? What class, type of offense (example: violent or assault, crime of moral turpitude including theft or fraud, sex offenses, drug offenses), and whether the individual has multiple convictions.
• The time that has passed since the offense or conduct and/or completion of the sentence: Typical criminal history reviews include the past seven years (industry standard). However, human resources will review the individual’s entire conviction record that is available.
• The nature of the job being sought: For example, individuals seeking positions in accounting or as a cashier would be disqualified if they had a history of theft, fraud, embezzlement, etc.
"If you want to ask me if the City of Fort Worth has ever hired a murderer, we have," Dickerson said. "But it was a circumstance where it was the job they were doing, and we believed they had paid the price of their actions."
Dickerson said eliminating the question on the application creates a more relaxed employment interview process for both the person being interviewed and the person doing the hiring.
"I have never hired the perfect person on paper," Dickerson said. "You hire people you kind of formed a bond with. You think, 'I kind of like this person. I can trust this person. I want to hire them.' That's how the process should go."
Dickerson also said the absence of the question could help those who are homeless and seeking employment. In some circumstances there can be a cycle of having difficulty finding a job because of recurring arrests, but the arrests are happening because of an inability to get off the street because of lack of a job.
"Definitely, the homeless should benefit from something like this," Dickerson said.
"It's important the people know that just because they had a hiccup on the road of life, they can't be denied good employment," District 5 Councilwoman Gyna Bivens said.
"They've done their time and they deserve an opportunity to have a job," Mayor Betsy Price said.
JULY SALES TAX UPDATE
The council received a sales tax update for the month of July at the work session.
Sales tax revenue represents approximately 22% of the city’s general fund anticipated revenue in Fiscal Year 2019. It is the second largest revenue source, with property tax being the largest.
In addition, sales tax revenue represents the largest revenue source in the Crime Control and Prevention District (CCPD) fund.
The city’s net sales tax collection is up $804,239, or 6.4%, compared to the same month last year. The city experienced $564,286 or a 4.5% increase in current period collections when compared to last year’s collections for the same month.
The city’s general fund sales tax collections as of September in FY 2019 are 101.5% to budget, and at 105.5% for the same period last year. The CCPD sales tax collections as of the same time period are 102.7% to budget, and 106.0% for the same period last year.
Compared to other cities around the state, Fort Worth's year-to-date sales tax collections is fifth. Irving, at 112.1%, leads, followed by Arlington (110.4%), Austin (107.9%), and Grand Prairie (107.3%).
Fort Worth city officials anticipate collecting $165,599,079 by fiscal year end, which is a 1.4% increase from the FY2019 amended budget, or a 1.5% increase from the original adopted budget.
MONTHLY DEVELOPMENT ACTIVITY REPORT
At its Sept. 17 work session, the Fort Worth City Council received a monthly development activity report. August highlights include:
• In August, 504 new single-family permits were issued compared to 417 in July, up 21%; in August 2018, down 11%.
• In August, 45 new commercial permits were issued compared to 80 in July, down 44%; 76 in August 2018, down 41%.
• Total commercial valuation (including remodels and additions) for August was $121 million compared to $221 million in July, down 45%; $255 million in August 2018, down 53%.
• Overall customer service satisfaction was 78% Very Positive or Somewhat Positive for
August, down from 86% in July. There was a 16% decrease in staff capacity for August. Customers experienced longer wait times, which contributed to the decrease in customer satisfaction. The department experienced staffing challenges, such as three vacancies they are in the process of filling, and have a few staff members out on major medical leave during this time.
• A total of 100% of customers surveyed thought the inspections team was extremely helpful or very helpful in August compared to 89% in July.
X-Team Building Plan Review
As of Aug. 31, 2019, there are 33 pending X-Team building permits.
Building Plan Review
On Sept. 10, building code plan review times for first review were as follows:
• Commercial plans, actual seven days, goal seven days.
• Residential plans, actual six days, goal seven days.
All departmental review times for first review were as follows:
• Commercial plans, 11 days.
• Residential plans, 14 days.
Infrastructure Plan Review
Infrastructure Plan Review Center (IPRC) reviewed 86% of the plans submitted within
the 14-day goal time frame in August. IPRC 14-day plan review goal decreased compared to 93% in July.
Due to the House Bill 3167, IPRC is in the process of modifying the in-house process and adjusting the Accela workflow for reviewing construction plans to adhere to the new state law changes that went into effect Sept. 1.
The S[Cube] contract was extended to Dec. 31, and the scope of work was expanded to include revisions to the workflow, reports, and notifications as result of H.B. 3167.
IPRC records were taken off the Accela Citizen Access online system temporarily as staff works through HB 3167 requirements. Staff will continue to work with the S[Cube] to test revisions to modify the workflow, reports, and notifications.
Camping can be fun.
And sometimes not so much, especially for those on whose property folks are camping without permission.
At its Sept. 17 meeting, the Fort Worth City Council approved an ordinance addressing unauthorized camping and the health, safety and welfare concerns it can create. City officials have cited numerous occasions of improper disposal of human waste, wastewater and garbage, along with providing cover for rodents and other disease carrying pests that may be innately harmful to people and property.
City officials said unauthorized camping also creates a fire hazard to structures and nearby properties, along with diminishing property values and the appearance of a neighborhood.
Unauthorized camping most frequently occurs on unattended or vacant properties.
"This ordinance protects businesses and residential property owners. It empowers our police department to remove unauthorized campers from private property, particularly when we are unable to contact the property owner," District 3 Councilman Brian Byrd said.
Currently, notice is required to remove individuals.
Officials say this is a problem when police are unable to locate private property owners to determine whether the camping is authorized, or the owner is absent or unwilling to give notice that camping is unauthorized.
"As a homeless person, I could go into your backyard, and police have no right to throw me out without your permission," District 7 Councilman Dennis Shingleton said. "Well, what if you're gone out of town for a month or so and you can't be contacted? We've got a lot of this going on.
"Homeless people are looking for a place to stay, we understand that. There may be other extenuating circumstances we should feel sorry for, but we can't have people ruining others' yards with some of the things they are doing," Shingleton said.
Current enforcement tools include citations, criminal trespass, nuisance abatement, and civil remedies.
The new ordinance will shift the burden of finding the property owner for enforcement as for non-residential properties and residential properties, campers must produce written proof that camping is authorized by the property owner. Violators without permission can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor and assessed a fine of up to $500.
An alternate version was put before the council as well during its work session, but members opted to go with the original plan and re-address the issue in six months. The alternate plan prohibited camping:
• On all non-residential properties unless properly zoned.
• On residential properties that lack a permanent dwelling or potable water source and toilet facilities.
• On developed residential properties a camper must produce proof that camping is authorized by the property owner.
Also, under the alternate plan the city would be able to cite a property owner if they knowingly allows or permit someone to camp where it is not allowed. It is a Class C misdemeanor with graduated fines of up to $2,000.
District 4 Councilman Cary Moon noted that of the 35 citizens who spoke in favor of the ordinance or filled out a card stating their support, only one was not from District 4, 5 or 8, where he said there is a real challenge with the issue. Also, of the 18 opposed, only one lives in those districts.
“The goal with the ordinance revision is to deter illegal camping on non-residential properties. Whether the camper is in a tent on a vacant property or in a car in an abandoned parking lot, this ordinance addresses the public safety and public health that can be associated with illegal camping," Moon said.
“This ordinance is not about criminalizing homelessness. To help those in need, Fort Worth has great programs for housing, workforce training, and free meals. Our diversion rate of 90% demonstrates the success of our programs. Our goal is to get folks in need off the streets and into the programs where we can help them.”