Council member Gyna Bivens put it bluntly: “What are we doing here?”
Bivens represents east Fort Worth, where flooding regularly traps cars and leads to water rescues, she said. Bivens asked that question to city staff because she wants federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act to be used for infrastructure improvements that could save lives.
Bivens and some other council members said they felt the city staff was allocating money and expecting a rubber stamp without receiving input from the elected officials who ultimately have the final say.
“How dare (city) staff come up with a list that appears to be near final? Without any concrete input from this council,” Bivens said, following a June 21 work session. “I resent that.”
After spending $146 million in federal funds, the city is forced to make tough decisions about how it will spend the remaining $28 million. City departments and nonprofits submitted requests for use of the remaining funds for various projects around Fort Worth. All the requested projects would have a total price tag of nearly $133 million.
“We’re in no rush,” City Manager David Cooke said. “If we want to have more discussion over how we want to allocate the remaining money, that’s fine.”
How recommendations were made
The city manager’s office made a series of recommendations to the City Council for how it might pick projects to fund. The council has final say on how the city spends its federal dollars, and nothing is final until a formal vote.
The framework outlines a number of priorities, most of them broad in scope, like stormwater improvements and tourism industry recovery. The projects are required to “assist in the ongoing recovery effort to strengthen the physical and economic health of the community,” the framework said.
Council members felt the most recent recommendations from staff didn’t hit the target. The city has to split its allocation into two categories:
- Revenue recovery, with $8 million available
- Non-revenue recovery with about $20 million available
Revenue recovery vs. non-revenue recovery
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted tax revenue, which put major projects on hold. Revenue recovery funds make up for the lost income and support infrastructure for Fort Worth Housing Solutions, public events, Convention Center, Will Rogers and Memorial Coliseum Plaques and future City Hall.
Non-revenue recovery is all the other uses outlined in the American Rescue Plan Act.
For revenue recovery, the city suggests spending all $8 million for improvements to Will Rogers Memorial Center. The money would update air conditioning, lighting and plumbing. The previously scheduled projects were put on hold during the pandemic.
For non-revenue recovery projects, the city suggested paying Visit Fort Worth $750,000 for a budget shortfall in its Fort Worth Event Trust Fund. Visit Fort Worth previously received $6 million in ARPA funds.
Visit Fort Worth agreed to pay Professional Bull Riders $3 million annually in exchange for hosting the PBR World Finals in Fort Worth from 2022 through 2024, according to documents obtained by the Fort Worth Report .
The State of Texas Event Trust fund was supposed to supplement the payment with $2 million, but changes in the funding formula it is now agreeing to pay Visit Fort Worth only $1.5 million annually, creating an annual funding shortfall of $500,000.
PBR agreed to split the difference and require only an additional $250,000 annually from Visit Fort Worth, which is financed by the city of Fort Worth. The money is due to the organization within 60 days of the conclusion of the PBR world finals. The event took place May 13-22. Visit Fort Worth has 29 days to pay PBR the full amount of $2.75 million.
The city also suggested the council approve $2 million for workers compensation claims. Documents indicate the program on average receives 1,800 claims per year. Recent COVID activity has increased claim activity to over 2,100 claims.
Suggested ARPA allocations also include spending $8 million to create 288 new, less-expensive at Tobias Place. The project would be contingent on $2 million in funding from Tarrant County.
An additional $4 million would go toward a gun violence prevention collaborative between Tarrant County, United Way of Tarrant County, the Fort Worth Police Department and eight other organizations. The group would use “a data-driven and intelligence-led approach while leveraging technological advances and human capital,” documents read.
The collaborative will aim to disrupt gun violence in Fort Worth neighborhoods, council member Jared Williams said before the presentation.
“This historic investment using ARPA dollars would stand up a collaborative that would basically bring together grassroots organizations that are already doing work in a number of areas to address and prevent gun violence,” Williams said.
Finally, the city manager’s office suggested allocating $3.2 million to the Tarrant Area Food Bank. Tarrant County is expected to contribute an additional $4.8 million. The Tarrant Area Food Bank could use the money to purchase a building located at 205 North Vacek St.
The property would double the capacity of the food bank and allow the organization to establish an agricultural hub to distribute fresh produce, the request read.
Williams recused himself from discussions over ARPA allocations because he is vice president of advocacy at the Tarrant Area Food Bank. Other council members were concerned that the majority of the non-revenue recovery funds was slated to go to other nonprofits, rather than city programs.
“We probably need to step back a second,” council member Michael Crain, who represents parts of west Fort Worth, said.
The council members asked for more time to review the requested projects before immediately considering them. The recommended projects are an informal report, Cooke said. The ball is now in the council’s court to decide if these projects are the best use of the remaining ARPA dollars.
The projects have to fit into one of four potential use categories, Cooke reminded council members.
“We ought to be able to walk through that conversation and agree on how we got to spend that additional money,” Cooke said.
What can federal money be used for?
- Respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency
- Respond to the negative economic impacts of the COVID-19 public health emergency. This includes providing premium pay to workers performing essential work during COVID-19 public health emergencies.
- Make necessary investments in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.
- Provide for government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue caused by the COVID-19 public health emergency.
The city recommended only seven projects to the City Council, but it received dozens of requests for funding by city departments. Council members were not informed about the potential alternative uses of the ARPA dollars, Bivens said.
Transportation and public works requested funds for Randol Mill Road. The road extends from far east Fort Worth to the core of the city. In Bivens’ District 5, the road is constantly flooding. It also has a curve that can be dangerous and hard to navigate when the road is wet, she said.
“I came to office in 2013, and Randol Mill Road was a major safety concern then,” Bivens said.
The city estimated that it would cost over $60 million to fully fix Randol Mill Road. City staff propose using $2.3 million to design and acquire land for a flooding mitigation project at two sites on Randol Mill Road.
Transportation and Public Works would administer the project. The department has never made drainage improvements to the road, but Oak Ridge, a private housing development, installed a pipe along Cooks Lane underneath Randol Mill that helped with flooding, Greg Simmons, assistant director of transportation and public works, said in a statement.
City staff members laid out their argument for the allocation in documents obtained by the Report. Flashers were installed at the site in 2014 to warn motorists of flooding. Since 2009, 26 incidents have been reported.
Studies show that rain can inundate the roadway with one to three feet of water, which has the potential to wash out cars, the document reads.
“People get PTSD every time it rains over here,” Bivens said. “We’re not giving citizens the peace of mind they deserve when those heavy rains come.”
Bivens is thankful for the $2.3 million that staff suggested, but said improvements to Randol Mill Road cannot be done with a piecemeal approach. She suggested a pause on residential buildings near the road until the city can get a handle on flooding there.
Once the design is done and the easements are purchased, the Transportation and Public Works Department will fund the rest of the flooding projects internally. The project would take three years to complete, Simmons said.
“When you talk about this opportunity, I think it would have been more respectful, if very definite, purposeful meetings had been called with council, so that we would know what they’re working on,” Bivens said.
What else wasn’t recommended to the City Council?
- Improvements to a boathouse on Lake Worth
- Additional freeway lighting
- The creation of a financial empowerment center for financial literacy classes
- Improvements to Sycamore and Trinity parks
- Funding for the national Juneteenth museum
- The construction on an exterior service window at Wedgwood Library
- Additional funding to address an increase in litter
City staff also asked for ARPA money to make improvements to cast iron pipes across the city. The water department requested over $17 million for road repaving after replacing pipes alongside about 130 roads.
Transportation and Public Works and the water department to share the cost of replacing the pipes to incorporate full pavement and select curb and gutter and sidewalk repairs, Lauren Prieur, assistant director of transportation and public works, said in a statement.
The water department ramped up its cast iron pipe replacement plans following the 2021 winter storm. Cast iron pipes are prone to breaking during extreme cold, and account for about 84% of the water main breaks the city experienced this year, Mary Gugliuzza, a water department spokesperson said.
With the ARPA money, transportation and public works could make improvements to sidewalks, gutters and driveways rather than just repave the roads where the water department pulled out the cast iron pipe.
“The requested funding will allow transportation and public works to participate in all the Water Department’s planned cast iron replacement projects to provide a more complete project for the residents that addresses the residents’ needs,” Prieur said.
Making more extensive improvements now would also prevent the need for future bond dollars to go to road construction, she added.
Staff did not recommend the project to the City Council. If council members decide to partially fund the $17 million proposal, the department would reduce the number of roads scheduled for construction.
Council members are scheduled to consider various ARPA allocations at their June 28 meeting.
“We have a great opportunity with ARPA money,” Cooke said. “We’re trying to maximize its use to make the greatest difference for the community. So if we want to take a little more time to do that. That’s perfect.”
Bivens, the mayor pro tem, wants to pause the allocation consideration until city staff explain how the City Council can be involved. The city will present additional options to the council at an August work session.
“The timing of this is just so inconsiderate because everyone knows we take off in July,” Bivens said. “I’m not happy about this list that came up and the City Council should have had more input in it.”
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter 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.