Hello, everyone. My name is Jessica Priest. I’m with the Fort Worth Report, spending a few minutes with Mayor Mattie Parker. This week, the City Council came back from a month-long break. And we’re going to talk with Mayor Parker about one of the presentations the City Council heard during a work session before the 7 p.m. meeting by City Manager David Cooke. It was about the capital budget. Now to be honest, Mayor Parker, I’m a little nervous about explaining numbers to people, it kind of makes me develop hives. We wrote about the general fund budget and tried to explain that to people, so tell me is the capital fund budget different? Or how is it different? (Please note this conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio attached to this article.)
So here’s what I think we should do for those listeners so that we don’t get so wonky that no one wants to listen to this. First and foremost, I think David Cooke did an excellent job yesterday laying out a sustained period of time during the work session. This is really our start to the budget process more formally. This is a process that’s ongoing throughout the year. Multiple departments work together to better plan. You can imagine this budget cycle because of COVID and anticipating potential revenue loss, we were sort of on pins and needles. But based on what we’re seeing from Tarrant County Appraisal District, understanding where our values are, we feel like we’re in a really smart financial position.
So we’re taking a really well-developed capital planning process that David laid out yesterday, the CRP process, and kind of coupling that with our budget process ongoing for the next few weeks. So we’re going to see next week on Aug. 10, the fiscal year 2022 operating budget, so yesterday was capital side, next week is operating. … There’s a few high levels, though, that I think are important for this city budget that we gained from David yesterday. The No. 1 thing is likely reducing our tax rate by a penny and a half, which is something we weren’t sure we’re going to be able to do. That’s a cent and a half lower than the 3.5% revenue cap, I think we were sitting around 5.3% based on revenue gains from values. That’s a positive story to tell for residents. We’re trying to keep property taxes as level as possible, despite what we’ve seen in appraisal values across Texas and specifically in Fort Worth.
We also know we keep a real fundamental focus on increasing investment in infrastructure and PAYGO maintenance. And that’ll be about $4.5 million increase in PAYGO funding for fiscal year 2022. And then we’re also continuing our Neighborhood Improvement Program, which has been very popular and something we are very proud of. And then the next pillar that is new for us allows us to create an annual allocation for an economic development fund that we have not had before. And with this change this year, it’ll likely be about $2 million in fiscal year 2022 that could grow over the years as long as you have property tax capacity to do so. And what’s great about creating that fund is it absolutely gives us an additional tool to be competitive in attracting and retaining top businesses here in Fort Worth, something that I know I’ve got as a priority and other council members do as well. And then secondarily, it creates another mechanism that’s not an ongoing incentive that hits our property tax revenues every year. It’s a one-time expenditure you could use to attract a business to Fort Worth, and sometimes a better tool for small businesses but businesses that we really believe in and we want to see expand here in the city.
Those are top level things that I think are important. You also probably heard from David that we’ve got a capital planning process and key objectives that we also use in our bond process. So economic growth, equity, fiscal solvency, quality of life, resiliency, and sustainability are all things we utilize in a capital planning process. … It seems common sense. But a lot of cities don’t do it like this. And it’s something that we hold as fundamental. And our council members have fully bought into this, even those of us that are new on council this year, and we’re excited to hear the process kind of come to fruition for this next fiscal year.
The economic fund, would the city cut a check to a business when trying to lure it here? How would that work exactly?
Yes, it’s pretty much that simple, right? And it’s the same process we’ve utilized currently for investing in incoming businesses or expansion here in terms of approval by city managers and team recommending it to council but we’d still have a vote on that process. It’s just an extra tool that we have not had, Jessica, in Fort Worth that I know I’m really excited about being able to utilize. And importantly, again, it’s one-time funding that we can use to entice someone to be here in our city.
And right now one of the tools available to the city is a tax abatement?
Yes, exactly. And there’s a lot of conversation right now over 380 agreements and others that may or may not get sunset by the Texas Legislature. So we want to have as many tools in our tool belt as possible here in Fort Worth.
Is there any one project either in the capital improvement program, the 2022 bond program or in past bond programs that you’re excited about or think would be especially useful for the city that you want to talk up?
The most front and center right now is City Hall. What does it look like to invest in a space that is also customer-friendly, resident-friendly, creating a council chamber that provides access and excitement for people to come to City Hall, expanding the space because we are going to have two additional council members. All those things to me are probably a priority. And I’m really excited to get to work with Athenian, the group that we’ve hired to help us through that process. And the property management team here at the city.
Speaking of City Hall and City Council meetings, I watched the livestream of the meeting last night and I jotted down some notes. There were some comments about how public comment is taken and the cruising ordinance that’s been proposed, so I wanted to ask for your thoughts on those two things briefly. Are you open to the idea of moving the public comment portion of the meeting to the beginning of the meeting versus the end?
So let’s tackle that topic first. Unbeknownst to anybody that may have come to speak last night or anybody in the community, you can imagine you’ve got a new council, a new mayor who are wanting to rethink the way we conduct meetings. Are we most efficient? Do we do things the way we should? So for the last month and a half, honestly, I’ve had staff in every department that really connects to this giving feedback on how other large cities conduct business. It’s not just public comment, Jessica, it’s also the time of our meetings, how much we’re overloaded, maybe with work session counseling these back to back. The point of doing that is really to meet the needs of residents and making sure that we’re at our highest and best as council people at the end of the day. So I think you’re going to see a lot of opportunities for us to rethink, re-envision our process and the way we conduct work sessions and council meetings. As far as public comment meetings go, I’ll say this, we have the most open public comment process right now. I’m not saying it’s most efficient, but there’s no limitations on how many times you can come speak. There might be a limitation on timing, but we let the public comment period go indefinitely at the end of the meeting. All those things need to be rethought because while we’ve been open, arguably, we haven’t maybe been the most efficient. And I can imagine the frustration of somebody that wants to come to City Hall and make their voice heard. The other thing I want to institute — and I’m hopeful we can do it in this City Hall, but I’m open if we need to wait until a new City Hall is open — is to have an open house. What do I mean by that? Giving residents an opportunity to just interact with mayor and council people in an informal setting, probably before a meeting 30 minutes like come and just talk. Because I do think it’s intimidating to people to come and speak for two or three minutes. It kind of feels like a gauntlet, honestly. You walk down the stairs and you’re looking up at everybody. The process is set up in a way we can’t respond, so it probably feels impersonal. All those things are on the table.
As far as the cruising ordinance goes, I thought the comments last night were thought-provoking and were worth us listening to. Frankly, I said to staff, like, ‘When is this up on the calendar? This is not something that I was aware of that was coming.’ So we’re going to huddle with the police department and city legal and others and code probably to understand the impact there. Lastly, I’ll say West 7th is a special animal. It is an entertainment district. It’s a lot of fun to be down there for young people, if you can stay up past midnight. That’s not me, but a lot of people can. And it does get congested. There’s a lot of pedestrian traffic, there’s a lot of our Uber and Lyft drivers trying to get in and out of there. Parking has been a consideration. They’ve changed one-way streets. We’ve tried a lot of things. But I think we always need to be nimble. The last thing we want to do in an entertainment district is create an ordinance that in my mind could be perceived as targeting one population over another. The point is always about safety. We want to empower our police officers to be able to pride safety in whatever way that looks like. And so that’s what you’ll hear from me in that ordinance, and I appreciate people coming to alert their concern to us last night.
Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.