The city’s passage of a $1.4 billion 2014 budget Tuesday – with 113 eliminated positions, projected gains in property and sales tax, and small use of one-time savings to bridge a shortfall – may mark the last of a series of post-recessionary budgets with big gaps to close between revenue and expense, Mayor Betsy Price and other Fort Worth officials said Tuesday.
The budget, as expected, restored half of a potential cut in the fire budget and money proposed to be cut for alley mowing and street and athletic field maintenance. Fire Chief Rudy Jackson, who had warned he would have to deactivate fire companies on a rotating basis, told council members last week he would be able to avoid that move to start the year.
The budget puts Fort Worth on course for stable annual budget outlooks in the future, after several years of big initial shortfalls, Mayor Betsy Price said.
“I’m optimistic,” Mayor Betsy Price said. “If property tax continues to increase, if sales tax continues to increase and if departments continue to get us savings that they committed to, we should be in good shape come next September.”
As part of Tuesday’s budget votes, water rates for typical residential users in Fort Worth will rise 5 percent in fiscal 2014; the city’s cost of raw water continues to rise at the same time demand softens. Sewer rates for the typical user will rise 4 percent, as the city tries to adjust for lower demand.
The citywide budget is up 0.6 percent. The $573 million general fund budget - police, fire, transportation and public works, parks, code compliance, library, planning and development, and the Municipal Court – is down from $583.8 million last year.
The general fund budget leaves the property tax rate at 85.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, where it’s been for nearly 20 years. That amounts to $1,282.50 for a home appraised at $150,000 for tax purposes.
The budget includes a one-month, one-time potential pay raise for general employees in September 2014. The raise would be 5 percent on average, Jay Chapa, the interim financial management services director, said Tuesday.
The City Council would likely consider making pay raises permanent for general employees in the 2015 budget if that year’s outlook is stable, Chapa said.
Vince Chasteen, president of the city’s general employee association, is skeptical the general employees will see a raise in 2015. General employees have received one pay raise in the last five years, while police and fire employees generallly receive annual raises under contract.
“Everybody who works for the city has a stake in what goes on in order to service the citizens,” Chasteen said. “For certain groups to be treated differently, I never have felt that was the right thing to do, but it is the way it is.”
Price said she’s optimistic city departments can find $5 million in savings through the year to fund pay raises of 3-5 percent in 2015 for general employees.
“That is good,” she said. “Our general fund employees haven’t had a raise in a long time.”
The 113 eliminated positions were virtually all vacant, as city staff had been leaving positions open after attrition heading into the 2014 budget review.
The budget contains a limited number of potential layoffs. Of seven employees most recently facing layoff, one was offered another job in the city and declined, and two retired, Chapa said.
City officials said they expect the property and sales tax picture to look stronger for 2015; those two revenue sources account for more than 70 percent of the general fund. Citywide, sales tax revenue is projected up 4 percent in 2014, and the property tax revenue base is projected up 2.7 percent even though the tax rate remains the same.
The city, which is self-insured, also is moving to compress its healthcare costs, up a projected 3 percent in 2014 from 8 percent last year.
“We’ll have some savings that weren’t there before,” Chapa said.
FIRE, POLICE STAFFING
Much of the controversy surrounding the budget focused on cuts to public safety staffing.
The Fire Department originally faced a $3.8 million budget cut, and Jackson warned then he would have to deactivate an average of four companies per day. (A fire company is one vehicle and its crew.)
In late August, City Manager Tom Higgins and the budget staff restored half the department’s proposed cut. Jackson said he’d have to deactivate two companies on average per day. Average response times would have increased by one minute at the affected stations during deactivations, Jackson said.
Council members worried, however, that fire protection would lessen, and Jackson told council members last week he would be able to start the year with no deactivations. The department will rotate firefighter-qualified inspectors, arson and bomb personnel, and prevention officers into firehouses from time to time to augment staff. The council will review the staffing situation at the end of the first quarter.
Jim Tate, president of the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters association, said Tuesday “I feel pretty confident” the department can avoid deactivations. “We’re going to make a lot of sacrifices.”
If the city’s revenues exceed the budget, there’s potential for the restoration of full funding at mid-year, Tate said.
“We’re able to keep all the companies in service and keep our citizens safe, and that’s the top priority,” Tate said.
The council voted unanimously on the budget votes. Council member Kelly Allen Gray, whose husband is a Fort Worth police officer, recused herself from voting on the general fund portion of the police budget.
The police department lost 46 unfilled positions, but Police Chief Jeff Halstead told council members he couldn’t keep up with normal annual attrition of 60-70 officers and didn’t need the unfilled positions in the 2014 budget.
The city is building a new public safety training center and headquarters on the South Side, and Halstead said that will dramatically improve the city’s capacity to train recruits.
Sgt. Steve Hall, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, said the city could fill the positions if leaders had the will.
“We do have response time issues...And we are not going to fix those until we address our staffing,” Hall said.
Priority 1 response times in far North Fort Worth are between eight and 11 minutes, Halstead said, slower than the four to seven minute average in the city’s core.
Code compliance was originally slated to lose 10 positions, but after council members and neighborhood representatives raised concerns, the staff restored six of the code officers. Code compliance director Brandon Bennett said he’d organize a “strike team” to augment his department’s efforts when problems surface.