Following sometimes heated discussions during the recent legislative session among state, city and country officials, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley called on elected officials to work together as partners again for the good of their constituents.
“We’ve got to get back to being partners and working with one another and not pointing fingers at one another about the jobs that one or the other of us ought to do,” Whitley said during his State of the County address on Wednesday, Sept. 9 to members of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.
“We want to do that and we encourage you to encourage the state reps and the leadership to renew that partnership we made for so many years. … We’ve got to work together and we’ve got to face school finance and we’ve got to face mental health and we’ve got to face infrastructure. They have some pretty big challenges to work on and we want to be their partner in that,” Whitley said.
During the legislative session, several city and county officials criticized state officials and legislators for passing or attempting to pass laws limiting how much control local officials have over issues. For instance, one bill that was proposed capped how much local entities could increase their spending without voter approval.
“We have got to get on better terms and grounds with our state legislature,” Whitley said. “It seemed as though in this session, cities and counties were the enemy, and we’re their partners. We truly have got to build a better relationship with our legislators from that standpoint.
“We implement what they do and we try to do that as best we can and as efficiently. I will tell you that every elected official in Tarrant County is doing everything they can to efficiently use every penny that you give them,” he said.
During his Q&A session with Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce Chairman Allyson Baumeister, Whitley discussed transportation projects both completed and ongoing, public health in schools and the county budget.
Below is an edited version of their discussion:
AB: Can you talk a little bit about [transportation] projects going on locally in Tarrant County and maybe specifically in the west side?
GW: We have an awful lot going on. We have spent over $10 million in Tarrant County in the last decade. I will tell you that you see an orange cone, and that is kind of our county emblem. … We’ve seen the North Tarrant Expressway completed. We’ve seen the D-FW connector. We’ve seen Chisholm Trail. Each one of those was a 40-year project.
We’ve got a lot of work going on TX-360 right now. Finally, we’re going to get the interchange to direct connection 30 to 360. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get off of 30 and I don’t get to stop and see the roller coaster at Six Flags. I’ll have to watch it as I’m going by. That project is going on.
On the west side, there’s so much going on. There’s 2,500-25,000 homes that are going to be built out there over the next five-10 years. We’re just kind of racking up a study where we’re looking at both east and west roads – I hope they’ll be six lanes – but we need east/west and we need north/south roads over there. We’ve been for about the last couple years talking with school districts, with the cities, with major developers and looking at how we can create a grid of infrastructure that will help people move …
We did a bond package back in 2006 and we have completed over 80 of those projects – we still have a few that are ongoing and we are excited about getting those things wrapped up.
But with that money we have been able to leverage at least dollar for dollar and sometimes two or three dollars for every dollar that the county put in. We were able to de-federalize some projects, which means by taking county money and city money rather than federal money we didn’t have to go through all the red tape. Those are things that we were able to save time and a tremendous amount of money from that.
Big projects that we still have left to do – the southeast corner where it’s 287, 20, 820, 287 but that’s a billion-plus. So those are some things that we’ve still got to do, but really, I think we’re making some good progress. What we’ve really got to watch for is what’s coming out of the federal government. They keep talking about infrastructure projects. We want to be sure that we’ll be able to participate in that and we may have to go back and revise some things to make sure we can.
AB: As the schools ramp up for 2018, we understand that there’s an Asthma 411 project that’s a public-private partnership helping to get asthma under control in our schools, can you talk a little bit about that?
GW: As I’ve said many times before, government is not the answer and if we can stay out of the way things are a whole lot more likely to get accomplished in a shorter, more efficient period of time. About a year ago, a friend at the UNT Health Science Center mentioned this project they had done with two schools in Fort Worth to do with asthma. It was an elementary school and a junior high.
They put nebulizers in the school. The year before they had 19 9-1-1 calls where a nurse had to call because a student had come to their office and could not breathe and they ended up having to send them to the hospital. That’s a terrifying event for the child, the nurse and the parents. So, they put these nebulizers in and did a two-year pilot project. They cut back absenteeism 50 percent among kids with asthma and only had one 9-1-1 call out of the two-year period, when there had been 19 before. And the one call was after the nurse had left for the day and they couldn’t get the nebulizer.
So, I said, well this is great, how much does it cost? And I knew they were going to say it’s about $3,000-4,000. Well, they said, it’s about $150 per school. … I said OK we’re going to do this. I happened to be having a meeting with [two doctors from Fort Worth and Arlington] and we started talking about this and they said this is a great pilot let’s expand it. I said why expand it? Let’s just do it everywhere. The next week United Way was having a meeting with superintendents [and we talked to them and they were all excited about it].
All of a sudden, it dawned on me that a judge asking school districts to do this wasn’t going to work real well. I don’t have a lot of credibility as a nurse, and certainly not as a doctor.
So, we stepped back and invited Cook Children’s and JPS and UNT Health Science Center to come to the table and as a result of that, the question came up of who’s going to pay for this. You know, it’s only $150 but the schools have plenty to save grace over right now and they don’t need this [cost] right now. So, we talked and Cooks said well, if you don’t have people who are going to contribute, then we’ll pick up the cost for the whole thing for at least the first year. [Cooks] said, oh by the way, we’ll train all the nurses too. And JPS said well we’ll take care and make sure we have doctors to issue the standing orders. …
So, we invited all the school districts to come to a meeting – there’s about 20 of them – and we started talking about it and this was probably in April. We were getting pretty close to the summer. Long story short, we started the year and we had about nine of the 20 that had joined, we had covered over 250,000 of the over 400,000 students in the Tarrant County area. We are still anxious to get out to the other school districts and we are anxious to get out to the private schools. If you’ve got a nurse, we’ll get you a nebulizer, we’ll get you the supplies, we’ll get you the training and we’ll get this thing going.
[Hurst-Euless-Bedford (HEB) ISD] … said they were ready to do it, and Texas Health HEB said we want to pay for HEB. … Cooks is still taking care of everyone else. I went to a ballgame Friday night with [a member of the HEB ISD School Board who told me] two days into their school year, one of the students at Central Junior High had to the use the nebulizer. It paid for itself right there. As far as I’m concerned, one-time use makes it all worthwhile.
And … what we’ve heard from the Fort Worth nurses is they finally feel like they can do something and not just sit there stressing with that student as they try to get their breath. So that’s Asthma 411, handled not in a government way but with people coming together in the private sector and the public sector to make things happen.
AB: The next fiscal year budget will go live in about a month, can you give us a quick overview of what it’s going to look like?
GW: We just wrapped that up and we will vote on it next week. We are going to lower the tax rate by a penny again this year. We did it last year and we’ll do it again this year. That will result in about a 1.4 percent increase over our affective tax rate, which is what your tax rate is to raise exactly same amount of money you raised last year. … We’ve talked to JPS – the need and the desire there is continuing to grow – we have asked them to come in under 6 percent. Why 6 percent? Because the legislature spent a lot of time this session talking about a cap on revenue. The House put out something at 6 percent and, looking at that, we said we’re going to go with that their intent was and we’re going to try to keep it below the 6 percent.
I will tell you, in the same breath, that I believe very strongly that the local governments should be in charge and responsible for doing what they feel like needs to be done. I will complement the House, the House – by over 80 percent – passed a resolution to basically ban unfunded mandates, which is where the state basically decides we’re going to do something but they forget to send the dollars. So, that’s when you get to pay for it. The House, 80 percent. The Senate, they didn’t hear it in the Senate, so we need to work on the Senate. But we are still AAA [bond rated] … we are 86 percent funded from our pension liability and we’re very proud of that. We added 13 positions, most in the judicial and safety areas. We feel very good about the process we go through.
Earlier in the program, Baumeister presented the chamber’s 2017 Vandergriff Award to the Texas Department of Transportation prior to conducting the Q&A session with Whitley.
“The award’s namesake is the late Tom Vandergriff, Tarrant County Judge from 1991-2006, and who had 60 years of service to citizens of Arlington and Tarrant County in numerous capacities,” she said. “In his memory, the Vandergriff Award was established in 2011 to recognize a company, organization, individual or event that has positively impacted Tarrant County.”
Executive Director James Bass accepted on behalf of TxDOT.