The city of Fort Worth went against prevailing local political winds and voted to approve a tax rate that would bring in more revenue than last year.
The city lowered its tax rate by 4 cents, but that’s not enough to lower most residents’ tax bills. The city will collect more tax revenue this year than last, a fact that concerned residents who spoke at the budget meeting Sept. 19. The tax rate will support a $1.013 billion general fund budget with investments in police, fire and neighborhood services departments.
Speakers opposing the tax rate compared the city to other local taxing entities, including Tarrant County, Fort Worth ISD, Tarrant County College and JPS, all of which approved rates that will result in lower tax bills than last year.
Fort Worth will reduce the city’s tax rate by 4 cents, to $0.6725 per $100 assessed value. Fort Worth’s average home value is $318,653 as of July 2023. Just $228,211 is taxable value. That homeowner would pay $1,227.76 in taxes to the city, with the city’s 20% homestead exemption.
Council member Alan Blaylock, whose District 10 represents far north Fort Worth, made a motion to reduce the city’s tax rate to the no-new-revenue rate. That’s the tax rate that would collect the same amount of revenue that the city collected last year. Council members Charlie Lauersdorf and Michael Crain supported the proposal, but it ultimately failed 8-3.
Mayor Mattie Parker defended the staff-proposed tax rate and budget.
“We cannot fail to set up this city for the growth it is experiencing,” Parker said. “We’re growing at a clip four times the city of Austin — four times.”
In response to his no-new-revenue rate proposal, Parker asked Blaylock what specifically he would cut to achieve the no-new-revenue rate.
“I would challenge staff, in that case, to go through the budget in detail and see if there are items that we’re funding in this timeframe that can be shifted, and what the overall impact is,” Blaylock said.
Both Blaylock and Lauersdorf said they did not ask city staff to make specific cuts to the 2024 budget before Tuesday’s meeting. City Manager David Cooke told council members that every penny on the property tax rate is equivalent to $11 million in revenue. To get to the no-new-revenue rate, the city would have had to cut about $40 million in planned investments from the budget.
Residents advocate for a no-new-revenue rate
Eleven people signed up to speak against the proposed tax rate, urging council members to adopt a no-new-revenue rate. Karen Wiseman, who resides in District 3, asked the council to reduce its tax rate while preserving investments in police and fire departments.
“My city taxes go up every year,” Wiseman said. “The county, Fort Worth ISD and other surrounding cities have been able to offer their citizens tax relief this year, and I would really like to see the city of Fort Worth do the same.”
Blaylock said his constituents consistently express concerns for public safety, infrastructure and property taxes.
“I am proud of the amazing progress being made on public safety and infrastructure,” Blaylock said. “I regularly hear from my constituents that they feel overtaxed and underserved.”
Lauersdorf, the district 4 councilmember who represents northeast Fort Worth, voted against approving the budget and tax rate. The city’s budgeting process did not allow council members to scrutinize the budget and propose changes, he said. Most council members agreed that the budget process could be improved.
The council also approved changes to municipal fees, water and wastewater rates and increased the number of approved positions in the police and fire departments. Council members Gyna Bivens and Jared Williams opposed the fee schedule.
“Fees are a tax, too,” Williams said.
Stormwater and solid waste will levy the most impactful fee changes. Residents will pay about $10 more annually for stormwater, and the city will begin charging residents $6 for overfilled trash cans.
Water and sewer rates will also increase. The average resident will pay about $26 more annually.
Fort Worth adds new investments for neighborhood revitalization, planning department
Before budget season, city council members outlined seven priorities to guide the process. Public safety, responsible growth, maintaining infrastructure, preserving greenspace and lowering the tax rate were among the council’s priorities.
The city is doubling down on some investments made in the fiscal year 2023 budget. Last year, the city significantly increased its environmental fee for the first time in decades. Now, in 2024, the city will create a new environmental services department focused on managing solid waste, health and environmental quality.
Benefits for employees will also expand. Employees will get a 4% average raise and a six-week maternity leave program in addition to existing parental leave. In all, the city will create 294 new positions, almost 100 more than last year’s budget.
The 2024 budget will also include several new investments, particularly in the neighborhood services and FW Lab departments. Both departments’ budgets will grow, by 60% and 50%, respectively.
The neighborhood services department will double its investment in its neighborhood improvement program. Next year, the city will make a capital investment in two neighborhoods instead of one.
“One thing I would say is I’ve been very vocal on neighborhoods and the importance of neighbors as a building block to a prosperous city,” Williams, who represents District 6, said.
Neighborhood service’s priority repair program will also get $2 million more in 2024. The program helps homeowners make emergency repairs before they’re forced to vacate their home. About 200 more homes will receive repairs with the increased investment.
Fort Worth Lab’s $13 million budget will include funding for 13 new employees. The department will be focused on implementing priority-based budgeting, which is a more strategic approach to budgeting that includes data collection. The department also plans to purchase new data analysis and planning software.
Police, fire departments expand
The approved budget authorizes 106 new police department positions; 54 are funded by the general fund, while 52 are funded through the Crime Control and Prevention District.
City Council approved the new positions even as the police department struggles to attract and retain officers. As of March, there were more than 100 vacant positions in the department.
Police department leadership presented plans in August to combat attrition of both cadets and current officers to City Council members. Those plans include creating a dedicated recruitment team, increasing support through the application process and increasing officer wellness and training options.
The fire department will gain 76 new positions under the approved budget. Those positions come after the city received a staffing study last September, and subsequently appointed a fire ad-hoc committee to come up with solutions to the department’s staffing needs.
“Adding 70 firefighters is a really huge deal and really moves us in the right direction.,” Williams said.
The city also set aside $4.2 million in potential transitional funding for MedStar, the area ambulance authority. City spokesperson Reyne Telles said council members will take another vote on final allocation of those funds to MedStar in October.
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Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.