No one likes to see their tax bill increase.
And make no mistake, the city of Fort Worth is raising taxes on homeowners in its new budget, by about 10%, even while dropping the tax rate slightly. That’s the curse of rapidly rising property values.
The budget approved Tuesday, however, reflects the reality of a city that faces challenges to accommodate and sustain its extraordinary growth. The inflation and economic uncertainty that are hammering the public hit governments — and their employees — too. Adding the rates of inflation and population growth are generally a reasonable assessment of spending, and this budget is close to that mark.
The 2023 budget also responds to priorities raised by residents: public safety, street cleanliness and neighborhood needs. There’s always room for services to improve, and those who gave the city feedback had their voices heard.
Despite the tax-rate drop of 2 cents per $100 property valuation, the typical homeowner will pay 10% more to the city. That’s on top of rapidly escalating prices for everything; the official measure of inflation is around 8%, the most in 40 years, and shoppers know some items are even worse than that. And even those who get pay raises probably aren’t getting enough of a bump to keep up.
We strongly believe that governments should be judicious with spending in good times and downright parsimonious in tough times. But an overly simplistic view of budgets sometimes takes hold. A government budgeting expert once lamented that he could never find the line item labeled “waste, fraud and abuse” so that he could just slash it.
The reality is that most governments, like most businesses, have one cost that dwarfs others: labor. In the city, the police and fire departments make up a large share of employees. Few residents want cuts there. Few want longer lines when they must do business with the city, or longer 911 call wait times. No one wants to wait months for a streetlight to be repaired.
The city, just like businesses, is competing for workers in a tight labor market. Cutting salaries or creating impossible workloads wouldn’t help.
Going forward, the City Council and voters must make sure there’s accountability and frank evaluation of what works and what doesn’t. If the economy turns toward a sharp recession as efforts to control inflation take hold, cuts will be needed, and they should be made on merit.
For instance, Fort Worth invests heavily in policing, through both the annual budget and the Crime Control and Prevention District sales tax voters have repeatedly endorsed. The new budget will add 62 officer positions and 30 civilian employees. Chief Neil Noakes has launched an ambitious plan to battle violent crime. The council needs to ensure it’s working and, if not, demand adjustments.
Some leaders are also touting new positions that should help the city be more responsive to permit applications and speed home and business construction. Those are important tasks for fueling Fort Worth’s economy, so the investment should be closely tracked.
And quality-of-life metrics must improve. Those 911 calls must be answered faster, and more streetlights kept in working order.
Homeowners badly need relief on property taxes. But as we’ve noted, the bulk of that will have to come from the Legislature in the form of more state spending on education to reduce local school districts’ rates, the largest portion of a taxpayer’s bill. Cities and counties can do their part by continuing to tighten tax rates and making sure that whatever increases they collect go to the highest priorities.
If there’s a bright spot, it’s that fewer politicians are playing the tax cut shell game. That’s when they modestly reduce the tax rate, collect a new gusher of revenue driven by growth in property appraisals, and try to call it a tax cut. More are acknowledging the truth: They raised your taxes.
That includes the city of Fort Worth. It appears city leaders have done it for the right reasons. Now, they must follow through.