Don’t Waste the Boom
Think whatever you will about the Barnett Shale natural gas boom – whether you’re getting eye-popping mailbox money or watching your neighborhood peace being sacrificed at the altar of greed – but Fort Worth has won a lottery of sorts.
The engineering department has told the city council that Fort Worth will reap between $750 million and $1 billion over the next 20 years in royalties and lease bonuses stemming from the gas wells.
Nor is this the total economic development potential – it’s just the money that will go directly into city coffers from drilling on (or under) more than 8,900 acres of city-owned land. The $1 billion over 20 years is about four percent of the city’s annual budget in today’s dollars.
Single-digit percentages might not seem like much, but when the numbers are extrapolated, the amount of money is perhaps a once-in-a-century event for a city. Fort Worth spends about $1 billion every 20 years on streets and sewers and park development and other capital improvement projects (like new police stations and fire houses). So the money coming out of the ground – even with all the headaches that come with it – is quite a bit.
Here’s the big choice on what to do with the Barnett Shale jackpot. One group thinks all the money should go back to taxpayers. Do the basic necessities for the city – police and fire protection, roads, park maintenance – and give everyone a tax cut. Over 20 years, a $1 billion tax cut spread out over the entire city would give each homeowner about $15 a month.
The other side of the debate thinks Fort Worth should build things it might not have had money for without the gift of gas: new parks, better mass transit, economic development grants, etc.
The straight-up tax break means each homeowner would get the equivalent of a free pizza each month for 20 years as payment for letting the drillers have their run of the city. I don’t know about you, but I think of lottery money as more than a free pizza, especially when the winning ticket comes with so many drawbacks.
If Fort Worth uses this money for big projects that will give a new identity to this city, it could help solve a huge problem Fort Worth seems to have these days. Cowtown is now hitting 650,000 in population but lacks some basic amenities that big cities have paid for over time. Things like mass transit, a strong library that actually buys books and magazines, pools and parks for the masses, and a vibrant, open-all-night entertainment district – all have been avoided as being too rich for our blood.
But these are things that great cities do. Whether you support the drilling or not, the Barnett Shale money for the city is sort of like manna from heaven. No one asked for it, no one planned for it (well, not that we know of). But it could be the catalyst for a huge change in this city.
There are so many projects to consider, and Fort Worth needs to study the issue to see what can be built and what the costs are. Many business leaders are pushing for light rail lines in the city – linking downtown, the Hospital District, the Cultural District, the Stockyards, and Texas Wesleyan University. The Fort Worth Transportation Authority doesn’t have the money for such a capital expenditure, but the city could set aside a few hundred million dollars to get the rail lines started.
The city debated whether to close public pools earlier this year. Use the gas money to build more pools, maybe even a water park with cheap admission for Fort Worth residents. Use some of the money to buy new parkland. As population grows, parks should be growing as well – including major regional parks, not just pocket parks and playgrounds.
Maybe use some of the money to help high-tech entrepreneurs to get started here. Set aside some tax break funding to get an entertainment district going, one that seeks out a crowd under 50 years old. Dedicate money for some unique public art, maybe some big fountains for downtown. Give neighborhood associations money to fix smaller problems in the neighborhoods that the city always seems to miss.
I know there will be a huge pressure on city hall to reduce the property tax – in effect, buying off some of the anti-tax senior citizens who scare politicians to death. But in this case, the city needs to give back something that is a more than a few bucks a month for most households. Because if you are hitting the jackpot, as many local politicians and business leaders tell us we are doing, then the citizens of Fort Worth should get more than a free pizza every month. Maybe we should get a great city in the deal instead.