In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth leaders, Mayor Mattie Parker gives updates on the budget, especially as it relates to the fire department; policing and how the City Council will conduct its meetings in the future.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Jessica Priest: Tell me about the budget the City Council passed last night. What were the significant changes year over year that you think people should know about?
Mattie Parker: We’re at about a $1.8 billion budget, just shy of a 5% increase from last year. And we’ve seen net taxable values increase by over $87 billion. When you see the net increase, we have a responsibility to keep that tax rate as low as possible, which we did again, and made that a priority for the city.
The new tax rate is 0.7325 per $100 valuation. You’ve seen a trend in Fort Worth to keep lowering that tax rate. …
- We prioritized police staffing and economic development.
- We created a $2 million economic development fund. A lot of people might scratch their heads and think what are you utilizing those dollars for? It’s really a competition, Jessica. We needed cash to be able to offer the right type of businesses that fit the fabric of Fort Worth or even an expansion of businesses that are based here. We’re competing with other Texas cities that are blowing up from an economic perspective and doing really well. We needed to be able to compete in a new way.
- We also needed to fix our payroll system, which is something we’re working really, really hard on. (District 4 councilmember) Cary Moon has led the charge there.
- Open new facilities, you know, when you pass a bond election, you open a new facility, then you have to operate it. And so this budget really prioritizes those areas. We’ve had a very, very open transparent process, over five open houses, 10 town halls held by different council members and city staff. I’m very proud of the process they’ve utilized and at the same time they’ve been talking about the May 2022 bond.
- And then lastly was this issue about firefighters and public safety, and how to keep up with growing demand. And we decided to add 10 firefighter positions to the existing budget. So it went up to 963 positions. But we also fully funded a staffing study, which we’ve needed to do for years working alongside Chief (James “Jim”) Davis, on what does it look like holistically in the entire department, not just the number of firefighters we have, but also the facilities needed, fire houses and infrastructure needed in terms of fire trucks, etc, to do the job and do it well? That’s something that’s going to be a topic of conversation for the coming months for city council as we kind of work through this budget.
Priest: For the firefighters, they gave this report to the council asking this year for 74 positions rather than the 24 that was recommended. How many additional positions did they get?
Parker: It’s a little more nuanced than that. If I back up a bit, Chief Davis, with city other departments in the working groups prior to budget proposals, talked scenarios about where he thinks the department needs to go. He’s been stating that he thinks strongly that a staffing study, which he fully supports, will demonstrate around 252 additional firefighters needed over the next five years. The question is, how do we get there?
And how do you have the infrastructure in place to support those firefighters in keeping public safety at the forefront? So the numbers you touted are not necessarily, totally accurate, because it has to do with the way our classes were rolled out. We’ll have one class graduate in January and another in July of 2022. How many firefighters can you support for each class already planned? Because the recruitment process is rather long. I think the nice thing is we’ve increased by 10 that July of 2022 class that will graduate. At the same time starting essentially now we’ll get proposals for a staffing study to run parallel with the other recruitment efforts that are going on. We understand quarterly we get about eight to nine firefighters retire through attrition, so we lose those firefighters annually. So how do you keep up with attrition, but also increase the number of authorized strength which is what we did last night. At the end of that staffing study, hopefully this spring, we will have tangible data to say, “OK, City of Fort Worth, what’s our game plan here to expand the fire department as needed in a growing city?” Make sure we’re optimizing staffing, utilizing civil staff as much as possible, using technology as much as possible, and really thinking differently about public safety and a growing city, which I’m optimistic about. I think it’s the right move.
Priest: Should people in Fort Worth be concerned about response times and there not being enough firefighters right now?
Parker: I think the conversations are separate. Response time and the number of firefighters are separate. And I’ll tell you why. You have to get them both straight. First of all, we’ve had a lot of conversations about the 911 system. You guys have talked about in your own publication about response times and how people were on hold for 911, different partners working together between MedStar, City of Fort Worth police department, and Fort Worth Fire Department. That’s still happening. I’m very optimistic. And actually at the beginning of October, our last tranche of dollars, we spent up the pay and created new training classes for 911 dispatch that will graduate and be on the job. That will help immensely. That’s that initial call someone takes where you’re dispatching where the need is. Second from that is how quickly can someone respond? That does have a lot to do with fire response, but also with police response and also with MedStar response. You’ve got multiple jurisdictions working together to respond as quickly as possible. And because we’ve had a growing city and a lot of different elements here to public safety, you sort of have to dissect each area and say, “OK, where are we really falling short from a response time standpoint? And what is optimal for a growing city to be to be at?” I think, for me, it’s important, we keep talking about response times. And I’ll carry that torch with me and at the same time talk about fire staffing as well.
Priest: The study about the staffing levels for the fire department will explore response times. But what other questions do you hope that it answers?
Parker: As I mentioned before, the way the fire department currently staffs, certain departments within the fire department will be on the table. I think they do an excellent job, but they also provide a lot of resources. A good example would be the wonderful work they’ve done with crisis intervention, the HOPE team focused on homelessness. We want them doing that work, but any firefighter you take off of a truck or out of a firehouse to do these special specialized teams, you’re reducing the rotation for that firehouse.
The question is, “How do we keep up those multidisciplinary teams we want to create and allow the fire department in their professional training to be used while at the same time not hinder response times in individual firehouses? Are there certain areas in the city where you have maybe multiple fire houses that are closer together and they’re responding at the same time?” Sometimes you’ve seen that in different situations. It’s an opportunity to really utilize the professional acumen of your fire department and their leadership team, alongside an independent third party, to look at staffing as they do in other national jurisdictions. And then, of course, use city management and City Council to kind of have a holistic approach to what we need to accomplish. I’m interested in what the proposals say because I think when we write that RFP (request for proposals) and we’re providing the opportunity for a national organization to do a staffing study, what needs to be in there is yet to be determined. And I think you’ve got a lot of interested council members who want to have a say in the type of organization that we hire to help us do that work.
Priest: Do you think there will be disagreement about what the RFP says?
Parker: I doubt it. I think we’ll get there. I think that the real rub yesterday seemed to be from, I think it was Mayor Pro Tem (Gyna) Bivens said during the work session, “We want to do the staffing study, but we want agreement that you are actually going to follow the staffing study.” And so I’m interested in let’s say this study definitely does agree with Chief Davis that we need 250 firefighters over five years. OK. How do you pay for that? How do you successfully train 50 additional firefighters per year? Are we adding additional training staff? Are we adding additional recruit classes every year? Do our recruitment efforts need to change? Do we have to add faster classes? See all those things to me are very important because otherwise that report could sit on a shelf. And that’s a complete waste of taxpayer dollars. I think there’s an agreement from council right now that we want to not only follow the staffing study, but understand how to implement it.
Priest: Let’s go to policing or the police review board. There’s disagreement about what to call the board. I probably didn’t use the right term. There’s disagreement about whether people with criminal backgrounds should serve on it and whether it should accept complaints from citizens about the police department. What do you think about those three items?
Parker: I think first of all, the discussions are not over. This was Kim Neal’s first presentation since I’ve been on council to this council body to discuss her work as police monitor. I’ve said for months, even when I was campaigning that we hired Kim Neal for a reason. She’s the consummate professional. She’s had an excellent working relationship with police department and other departments in the city. She’s been asked the question in open session, “Are you getting the information that you need?” And she says, emphatically, “Yes. Everybody’s cooperative. I’m able to do my job.”
So that’s first. The second piece is, is this mutual accountability working group. These were the suggestions that they made to council about how to proceed with the community police oversight and accountability board. You’re right. There was a lot of discussion yesterday among the council about whether they even like the title. I think there’s a lot of council members that need to be convinced the board needs to be in existence at all. There were other council members that thought it didn’t go far enough and then there was more discussion about well, maybe it is. We’re confused about how to make the process work. There’s a lot more detail that needs to come out here, frankly, and I am anxious to work with Kim to make sure every council member feels like their voice has been heard on behalf of their constituents.
The most important thing to note, though, is I think this got glossed over … she’s done a tremendous amount of work in a short period of time. And she already has worked toward major improvements from policies and procedures for the police department, helping them really focus on 21st century policing. She has a great working relationship with Chief (Neil) Noakes and his command staff. And then, furthermore, she does have the capacity to do investigations that are submitted to her office outside of the internal affairs process that the Fort Worth PD has. Those processes are already in place on behalf of citizens, which I think we kind of glossed over that yesterday and didn’t remind this council importantly and citizens that that’s what was happening. So where do we go from here?
I think she’s likely going to need to have individual meetings with every council member, and then maybe come back to us again in presentation after discussion. There also allegedly was some disagreement in the working group, which is not surprising because committees are hard, about what they thought the recommendations would be. I’m curious to understand, was it one person that didn’t like it and everybody else was OK or was it divided? Because that will help me understand how much more work we have, if any, alongside Kim and her staff to get us to a final set of recommendations.
I think you can’t do this in a silo. In talking with Chief Noakes, what are the improvements and processes he’s put in place as police chief, having been handed the torch from Chief (Ed) Kraus, that he feels good about that he feels like he’s still got work to do. Because, frankly, you can create all the committees and structures you want to, but you have to have buy-in from the chief and the rank-and-file police officers, recruitment matters, all of these things. No one is perfect, right? And you’re never going to perfect the Fort Worth Police Department. But I still maintain that we have the best police department in the country. And then we have the capacity here to really get them even better by providing the right resources.
And I’m attempting as best I can to use the phrase pro police and pro community at the same time. I don’t want Fort Worth to get into a place where our police officers don’t feel supported. That is not at all something I can support because I recognize what a difficult job they have and I have a responsibility that I feel very strongly about maintaining what I think is heroism on their part to do the work on behalf of citizens. It is true public service. It’s a very difficult job. But at the same time providing the tools and resources, policies and procedures they need to be the best department in the country.
Priest: So do you have an opinion on what it should be called? Who should serve on it?
Parker: Well, I think we’re kind of cart before the horse, like let’s figure out what the goals are and outcomes focused and then we could talk about title. Leonard Firestone said that yesterday like, “What are we trying to achieve here?” And that seemed to get lost because the conversation kind of got derailed yesterday.
Priest: OK, so you haven’t come to an opinion on whether people with felonies should serve on it, or if it should accept complaints about the police department? You don’t have an opinion on that?
Parker: I’ll say this — and I don’t think Kim answered this question yesterday or maybe she didn’t get asked it — but she has already has a responsibility and opportunity to investigate. People are submitting things to her now. So is she proposing, “I won’t investigate, I’ll just let this committee investigate?” Well, frankly, I think that muddies the waters. You’ve got volunteer committee members that don’t have the time and capacity and professional acumen like she does and her staff to investigate some of these complaints. I had a question about maybe that. The other thing is that the title shouldn’t be confusing. Right now, it says community Police Oversight and Accountability Board, but they’re looking at policies and procedures. It’s not an accountability board, and it’s not oversight. We need to make sure we don’t get lost in the name and really aren’t honest with people about what this board is supposed to achieve. Because yesterday’s recommendations was about policies and procedures for police. So I think there was a lot of confusion there as well. … I’m not ready to support it yet because I think everybody’s confused. And I think there’s a lot more conversation that’s needed. But I fully support Kim. And I think she’s doing great work. And I think if we can do this in consultation with Chief Noakes and where he needs to be importantly to create the right outcomes and goals, I could get there. But right now, I think we’re confused.
Priest: My last question is about changing the way that the council conducts its meetings. Was there consensus yesterday on whether there should be changes? What are the changes and why?
Parker: There was consensus from council about changes were needed. I joked that the perfect day was to talk about this last Tuesday, which we had to punt it because we ran out of time. We sat in a chair with a work session at 3 p.m. until I think we left around 10:30 or 11 p.m., after council was over. I just don’t think that’s productive. I think we’re trying to cram too much important policy work into one afternoon.
The big change is we’re going to bifurcate the work session from City Council. That means on alternating Tuesdays, you’ll have a work session that would start around noon for executive session. We’d do lunch, then go into work session around 1 p.m., work for the afternoon until we’re done, take a break and then come back at 6 p.m. for a dedicated public comment session that allows citizens to come and voice their concerns with their community. And it’s separate and apart from any other agenda. The following Tuesday would be one of two different council meetings. It will either be a 5:30 p.m. council meeting focused on your zoning docket and any other city business, no public comment period, then go back to their work session the next Tuesday, then the following and last Tuesday of the month would be a 10 a.m. council meeting, much like we’re doing now we’d still have day meeting, and really give some flexibility there.
The main M.O. here is to keep public transparency and access, which we absolutely are able to do, meet the needs of our city staff and department heads to get the policy direction that they really need from City Council that I don’t think they get right now because things are too rushed. And third, importantly is we’re a big city, Jessica. And we have always done it this way and when you come to find out and research every other major city, we are the only city doing late meetings, we are the only city stacking them against each other.
We still will have one of the most transparent and best opportunities for public comment in the state of Texas, if you compare us to other cities. So all those elements are here together, I think we’re going to accommodate a variety of schedules, more efficient use of time. And then importantly, you’ve got a council here, and I’m included as having a 5-year-old and a 10-year- old. And if I do the city’s work, I can do it and be home for dinner or bedtime, that should be OK. Right? Because otherwise, you’re going to continue to have a problem where people who have lives outside of City Hall won’t serve. It’s pretty nasty business politics anyway. And so I’m trying to create — and I think this council fully supports this — we want to create a process and a meeting schedule that works for any type of person to serve on council into the future, because we’re not all going to be here forever. And they may have a different way of doing business. But I think by doing this people would look and be like, “You know what? I could do that schedule.” It’s still stacked on one day of the week. You can still have a job if you wanted one. So all those things considered, I think it’s the right move. And city staff is thrilled. A lot of them are up here ‘til late at night for one item. And this will allow them to kind of stack those during the day.
Priest: So what changes about how the public can give comments to the council?
Parker: It’s twice a month at those public comment periods at 6 p.m. They show up. Sign up. It’s just public comment. They won’t have to wait for any other agenda item. They still have their three minutes opportunity. And then they obviously by state law and something we encourage is people to speak on agenda items that are important to them, same as they always have been at those other council meetings. But the last thing I’ll remind you is I encourage people to call or email our office anytime and you’ll get a response. I mean, it’s not uncommon for me to get an email from somebody that’s really thoughtful. Maybe they disagree with me on something and I’ll just call them. Let’s talk about this a little bit. That’s why you took the time to write me an email. So public access and comment period is not just for those that want to come to City Hall, we have other ways to be accessible. And I think every council member up here has been very transparent and willing to meet with anybody that wants to.
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.