Will we have a Cowtown for all, or one that leaves poor folks in the ditch?
By DAN MCGRAW
Which Fort Worth do you live in? A city in an economic boom with tons of money flying around or a city with economic problems so vast that city services have to be cut?
The boomtown advocates say that the Barnett Shale gas drilling money has shielded Cowtown from the economic downturn much of the country is currently facing. Property values haven’t dropped and have even risen a bit in the past few years. Office building rental rates have moved up 20 percent in the past year. Gas drilling accounts for $22 billion in economic activity annually in North Texas, responsible for 100,000 jobs and climbing.
The other side of the coin says that Fort Worth is not doing so well. The city faces a budget shortfall of $20 million to $24 million, and all that new drilling income isn’t having much of an effect. To balance its budget, the city will need to cut some basic services and lay off more than 100 workers. So in this city of great population and economic growth, library hours have to be reduced, health programs eliminated, and water rates raised.
I don’t know about you, but all this is rather confusing to me. Cities that are growing and booming usually increase their services to its citizens, not scale them back. The business leaders are crowing about how great the local economy is, while down at city hall, council and staff are trying to figure out where all the money went.
Fort Worth City Council will vote next week on a proposed $1.2 billion budget that, overall, is 2 percent larger than last year’s. There’s little doubt that the council will rubber-stamp what City Manager Dale Fisseler puts before them. No one will ask how Fort Worth got in this mess during the boom times because that’s not – say it with me – the “Fort Worth Way.”
But the debate needs to be pushed out into the forefront. Is past financial mismanagement the reason the city finds itself $20 million in arrears? Is it because the city has run off some promising young city staffers in favor of loyal, middle-of-the-road planners? Or was this all the result of the Fort Worth decision years ago to bring in new computer software that has never functioned very well?
We probably won’t get those answers during this budget process. But at least Fisseler and his staff should be made to explain the reasoning behind their specific program cuts.
The city’s Public Health Department is, for most purposes, being eliminated at a time when an important community-wide health issues survey still needs work and when infant mortality rates are still among the highest of the state’s major cities.
Or consider the shortened library hours – most of the cuts are coming in the evening, when families actually have the time to go there. Central library hours will be reduced from 70 hours per week to 54.
Two other programs are in danger of being cut, though the final decisions are still up in the air. Fort Worth has a tree- planting program, where trees are grown on a 71-acre farm and about 1,600 trees are distributed throughout the city each year. Chopping the tree program, so to speak, would save about $338,000 annually. The budget cuts may also include shutting community centers at night, the places where, right now, kids are able to get off the streets and get enrolled in education or athletic programs.
Even city workers who get to keep their jobs will feel the pinch, with higher healthcare costs. And any workers hired after this year will not get healthcare benefits when they retire.
Last year, my ears perked up when the city staff suggested that Fort Worth close all of its public pools. They cost too much, was the reasoning. Some public outcry kept the council from acting, but it was very clear why that cutback was suggested. If you’re rich, you have a pool in your backyard or you belong to a country club. If you’re poor, you use the public pools during the hot summer. It is clear what was driving that recommendation.
That same line of thinking is still a problem. Who needs a health department whose primary function is to assess the needs of the poor folks who have such a hard time even getting healthcare? What is important about a program that gets young pregnant women access to prenatal care? Who needs outreach workers who focus on the elderly poor?
And why keep libraries open in the evenings so that families can bring their kids in to get books and rent DVDs for free? After all, if you need access to free books and DVDs, you probably don’t have much money.
Fort Worth is on a cusp. The population has risen to more than 700,000, and Cowtown needs to decide what kind of big city it wants to be. Great cities provide services for all of its citizens, poor and rich. Subpar cities make do with just basics, and those on the other side of the tracks suffer for it.
So which city do you want to live in?