An old, mostly reflective metal playground greets visitors of Glenwood Park in the Historic Southside. Residents no longer find it useful, James Walker said, and he’s spent years trying to get the city of Fort Worth to improve the park.
“For some reason, the city has been letting it go to the wayside,” Walker, chairman of Historic Southside economic development committee, said.
The city rarely addresses residents asking for resources, Walker said. Decades of neglect from the city has hurt Walker’s Historic Southside neighborhood.
“There are people who have been fighting for certain things for the last 20-30 years,” Walker said.
The city’s budget, which is crafted anew every fiscal year, is used to fund certain city departments. In the city’s 2022 budget, funds were earmarked for maintenance of city parks and community tree planting.
The city budget is sometimes called a moral document, or a reflection of council policy — it’s much more than just numbers on a spreadsheet, District 9 council member Elizabeth Beck said. In 2022, the city had about $800 million to use for general revenue obligations.
That pot of money is distributed across the city, making budgeting an exercise in scarcity.
What are general revenue funds and why are they important?
The city collects general revenue funds from property and sales taxes. The city pulls money from the general revenue fund to support various city departments.
The city develops its annual budget year round, but for four months of the year the city seeks public input before finalizing the budget. However, by the time public comment rolls around, many aspects of the final budget are already set — like a topline amount available to spend and the general outline of the final budget.
Walker’s council member, Chris Nettles, suggested he reach out to the Parks and Recreation department to let them know about their request for funds.
“The best option is for residents to communicate early and often their perceived needs and shortcomings to encourage the city to allocate resources for XYZ,” Mark McEvoy, director of planning and data analytics said.
The budget also determines how much Fort Worth residents will pay in property taxes. Council members can choose to raise, lower or maintain the tax rate to bring in more or less revenue. Additional revenue could be used to hire more public safety workers or add better sewer lines.
“The budget is our opportunity to put our money where our mouth is — literally,” Beck said.
Council members are typically slow to raise the tax rate, though. Most council members mention a commitment to lowering tax rates as a key tenant of their campaign. Council members should at least be afforded the opportunity to discuss if some priorities might be worth forgoing a large cut in tax rates, Beck said.
“It’s a worthy discussion and one that the council should be involved with, because our tax rate is policy,” Beck said.
Even if the city tax rate dips, residents aren’t likely to see property tax relief. Tarrant County, school districts, Tarrant Regional Water District and the county hospital district also levy a property tax rate on Tarrant County residents. Those factors, along with rising home values mean property taxes continue to increase.
Budget schedule and engagement
The budget process formally ends Sep. 27, when the city is required by law to have its budget set. As soon as one budget cycle ends, the next one begins. Department heads are crafting budget proposals year-round. In March, department heads meet with the budget staff to refine their proposal. From late April to early June, they’re revising the initial budget and looking for any changes in state law that would impact their process.
Departments present their proposed budget to the city manager in mid-June. The city managers have already seen the numbers city departments are asking for, but this is an opportunity for department heads to ensure that if something is cut from the final budget — it’s not one of their programs, McEvoy said.
“One of our mantras is — no surprises,” McEvoy added.
Then, the budget will be presented to residents at public meetings and town halls set to take place in council districts. The goal of the public meetings is to get input on the budget priorities and communicate with residents about what is already in the budget.
Who is considered a stakeholder?
The city sends out invitations to about 150 residents associated with city departments and council districts. Those residents are targeted by the city to attend stakeholder meetings, but the meetings are also open to the public.
Communicating priorities to the city is often difficult, Walker said. Residents don’t understand exactly what the budget includes, what the city can use it on and how to get the money to neighborhoods.
“If they engaged with the community and really put the funds toward the community, I think we would all be better off,” Walker said.
Fort Worth hopes to transition to a different budget management system next year, allowing for more robust public participation through online engagement and better explanations about technical aspects of the budget.
“The best advice that I can give from the city’s perspective — is that there really is no start and stop date,” McEvoy said. “So residents with concerns should let us know directly through communications and reaching out to their council members etc.”
The council’s role in the budget process
The council members’ job is to fill gaps in communication and serve as a bridge between residents and the city. Often, council members are brought on to provide input on the budget too late in the process, Beck said during a May work session.
“There has not been a recent history of council really challenging the budgets,” Beck said. “If our budget is the true testament to policy, the council should be part of those discussions as it’s being developed and not as a rubber stamp at the end.”
City staff should be taking note of priorities brought up by council members throughout the year and ensure those discussions inform the final budget allocations, Beck said. The city could also allow more time at the tail end of the budget process to hear input from council and go back to make adjustments.
Last budget cycle, six new council members were engaging in the budget at the tail end of the process. They are in a better position to advocate for their neighborhoods priorities this time around.
The council will receive its first formal briefing on the budget in August. The city will hold council work sessions Aug. 11, 12, 25 and 26. Then, the city will hold a public hearing on the 2023 budget on Sep. 27 and vote on the final budget that same day.
Walker recently attended several meetings with the Parks and Recreation department; he typed up a plan that he submitted to them and discussions are ongoing.
“There’s people that have been here fighting this fight and haven’t gotten anything done, I think it’s just the changing dynamics of leadership that have gotten things moving,” Walker said.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com 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.