Feature: Wednesday, April 3, 2003
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Will Work for Respect

Haltom City rethinks its “Bubbaville” image. Story and photos

By Jeff Prince

Tarrant County residents have typically viewed Haltom City as a little town in Fort Worth’s eastern shadow, a place to buy used cars and Asian food, a somewhat seedy stretch to drive through on their way to somewhere else.

Then things got worse.

Allegations that a jailer ogled, oppressed, and raped female prisoners in the Haltom City jail in 2000 and 2001 took a while to surface, but once they did, they didn’t take long to catch the attention of news outlets across the nation. The bad publicity in 2002 didn’t stop with jail rapes. In quick succession, a Haltom City cop was accused of lewd behavior with teen-age Explorer scouts. A municipal judge with the nickname “Maximum Jack” resigned after being criticized for sentencing single moms to jail stints for unpaid tickets or truant kids. A class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of a dozen former jail prisoners with tales of official oppression. The police chief resigned without explanation.

The ugly headlines hit at a time when the city was making a serious stab at reinventing itself. To the credit of city leaders, the bad press didn’t push them off course. Instead it reinforced a conviction to move forward, attract new businesses, beautify butt-ugly Belknap Street, repair crumbling infrastructure, replace an aging public-works facility, remodel a recreation center, and build a hike and bike trail, library, animal shelter, and fire station — in other words, to make Haltom City a place people want to reside in rather than to ridicule. The stakes are high. Lying in the balance, some business leaders say, is growth versus ghost-town status.

Voters’ surprising approval of a wide-ranging $16 million bond issue has made possible many of the improvements in a town with a traditionally super-low tax rate. At the same time, a small grassroots movement is in the early stages of pushing the dry city to allow alcohol sales in restaurants and grocery stores, a move that some people say is crucial to “taking the city to the next level,” as the mayor is fond of saying. However, going “wet” won’t be easy, nor will be changing public perception and rising above recent headlines.

“You can’t back up and undo the past; believe me, if we could I’d wave a magic wand over this jail thing,” Mayor Calvin White said. “What we can do is understand why things happened the way they did, identify where the breakdown occurred, put things in place to address that, and move forward. Look at this revitalization, look at these improvements we’re making, look at these visions we have, look at the opportunities. All of that makes for a pretty good picture.”

If Haltom City feels that it’s lost business and growth opportunities to Fort Worth in recent years, it’s only following historical precedent. A Tarrant County Historic Resources Survey describes the chain of events that occurred more than 150 years ago and cast Haltom City’s fate as a quaint suburb of Fort Worth. The Texas Legislature created Tarrant County in 1849 and allowed its 600 residents to hold an election to designate a county seat. The election was held in the Birdville settlement (which would eventually be incorporated and named Haltom City). Voters elected Birdville as the county seat in 1850, but six years later the vote was overturned in a special election, and Fort Worth got the sought-after title instead.

Birdville leaders complained loudly, and a petition for a recall was sent to the legislature and to the Texas Supreme Court, to no avail. Fort Worth, as the county seat, was destined for growth and importance, while Birdville was relegated to the status of a small farming and ranching community. In the early 20th century, suburbs developed into thriving residential areas with streetcar lines that carried residents to jobs in Fort Worth. But the lines didn’t reach Birdville, and growth stalled. Not until automobiles became popular did residential growth slowly make its way to the rural suburb just east of Fort Worth.

The relocation of state highways 10 and 121 to the Grapevine Pike, now called East Belknap Street, drew Birdville merchants away from the town’s business district on Broadway Avenue. One of the community’s most successful businessmen, jeweler and property owner George W. Haltom, moved his business there and built several commercial buildings to lease. Other merchants followed, and East Belknap Street became lined with businesses catering mostly to commuters — motels, diners, and auto sales and repair shops.

Birdville’s population was only about 200 by the late 1940s, but grew to more than 3,000 once the town incorporated in 1950 and renamed itself Haltom City to honor the jeweler. Low taxes and open spaces attracted working-class residents. “When my mother and daddy moved out here, it was to get away from the high [Fort Worth] taxes,” said city councilman John Williams, who has lived in Haltom City since 1954. “There wasn’t any Loop 820 or anything, just two-lane country roads.”

The city annexed land, and the population swelled to 23,000 by 1960. A hands-off approach from city leaders attracted numerous manufacturing plants and small businesses. The population was almost entirely Anglo until people of Asian descent, most notably Vietnamese, began migrating to the city in the 1970s and eventually established one of the area’s largest Asian populations. In 2000, more than 3,000 people of Asian descent made up about 8 percent of the city’s 39,000 residents. They established Asian business districts along Belknap Street in the city’s southern end.

Based on the real estate mantra of location-location-location, Haltom City was in an ideal spot to develop as a prime Fort Worth suburb, just minutes from downtown and, later, conveniently close to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the Alliance corridor, and the rest of the Mid-Cities area. Pleasant residential areas with shaded streets and affordable houses that blossomed in the early years have been joined more recently by upscale residential development in the far north. But, for the most part, quality growth skipped over Haltom City and landed in towns like North Richland Hills, Colleyville, Southlake, and Grapevine.

Haltom City’s low taxes and laid-back leadership resulted in slow street repairs, underpaid emergency workers, and lax code enforcement, and the city began to develop its Bubbaville reputation, which culminated with the recent problems at the city jail.

A dozen former inmates allege that they were sexually abused while detained there in 2000 and 2001. Federal civil rights lawsuits accuse employees of leering, harassing, and videotaping female inmates while they used the restroom or showered, and threw blame at city leaders for allowing an abusive system to occur. Former jailer Clint Weaver, who was accused of having sex with inmates, is serving five years’ probation after he pleaded guilty in 2002 to misdemeanor official oppression. Former police Chief Billy Hammitt resigned in December and was replaced by Ken Burton, a former deputy chief at Arlington Police Department who spent two years as Bryan police chief before moving to Haltom City.

Internal investigations indicate that Weaver acted alone, despite allegations made in the lawsuits, Burton said. “Weaver has been convicted of official oppression; he made a conscious decision to break the law while in the employ of this city,” he said. “That does not necessarily mean that what the city was doing was wrong or inadequate, although civil attorneys would have you believe otherwise. All it does mean is you had one individual, one bonehead, who pulls this stunt and makes the decision to break the law.”

Burton and other city leaders are naïve if they believe the jail abuses were confined to Weaver, said attorney Michael Pezzulli, who is representing a dozen women in lawsuits against the city. Questionable policies and procedures and systemic abuse by jail employees, police officers, and Byno led to the breakdowns, he said. “Their own jail supervisor [Nicole Irvin] testified that Judge Byno was asking for sex from her in the jail control room,” he said. “It’s our position that conditions of the jail were such that it was clearly not an isolated situation involving just one jailer. It was their policy to force [inmates] to give up their undergarments and wear one-piece uniforms that required them to disrobe when they went to the restroom. There are some big problems in that police department when you really start scratching the surface.”

The accusations have tainted the police force’s reputation, something Burton is trying to restore. He said he plans to seek accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), a rare effort for police departments of Haltom City’s size. “It’s like a university getting an accreditation,” he said. “CALEA sets out standards and tells you what you should be doing as a minimum for an agency of your size in the area of jails, hiring, discipline, policy, and procedures, all those things.” Accreditation can reduce liability costs and boost a department’s perception in court. Seeking accreditation, however, is not an admission of fault, Burton said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not meeting that standard already,” he said.

Burton has already made at least one policy change. Female inmates complained in the lawsuits that the one-piece jumpsuits they were required to wear made them expose their breasts when they went to the restroom. Inmates can now wear their own clothes in jail.

Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuits, the damage to the city’s reputation might take years to overcome, White said. “More than anything else, it hurts the psyche of the people and the community,” he said. “Everybody is embarrassed by this. It detracts from the enthusiasm and the motivation for moving forward. I know it has to impact people who are considering moving in and investing either in a home or a business. That doesn’t help.”

A dinner crowd was enjoying Mexican fare on a recent Tuesday night in one of the city’s most popular restaurants. Sitting away from the crowd were two men and a woman, sipping tea and coffee at a small front table at Oscar’s Mexican Restaurant. Other patrons paid little attention to them, unaware that their quiet conversation was the genesis of something that could bring businesses, money, and a new luster to this sleepy suburb.

“It is clearly an economic development issue; it’s all about economics,” said Sissy Day, a political consultant who was talking to restaurant owner Oscar Calderon and former city council member John Patino. The two men had invited Day to the restaurant to seek her advice about starting a petition drive to initiate a wet-dry election.

Day has helped residents in a half-dozen cities in recent years push for wet-dry elections, and she has an excellent track record. Alcohol sales advocates in Benbrook, Colleyville, Grapevine, Frisco, and other cities have paid for her guidance and seen their cities go from dry to wet. The difference can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales tax revenue. Dry cities can have difficulty attracting grocery stores, “big box” stores, and popular chain restaurants whose profit margins depend on alcohol sales. City leaders cringe to see residents drive short distances to neighboring cities to buy alcohol, taking much-needed sales tax revenue with them.

Haltom City has no bars or package stores and doesn’t allow grocery and convenience stores to sell beer or wine. A few restaurants, such as Oscar’s, sell alcohol to patrons who sign up for a “club” membership sanctioned by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Calderon said he must pay about $3,000 a year to the TABC and maintain the vast paperwork that comes with hundreds of memberships. The petition being discussed would call for legalizing alcohol sales in grocery and convenience stores and in restaurants whose primary income is through food sales, but would not seek approval for package stores or bars.

City leaders recognize the potential for uproar when it comes to wet-dry elections, and most prefer to lay low and let residents force the issue. “It’s a volatile issue in this city,” said commercial real estate broker Dewey Markum, who was born in Haltom City in 1952 and is a current city council member. The last attempt to go wet failed about 15 years ago. “Haltom City has historically been a very conservative city,” he said.

Demographics, however, are changing. Older residents are dying or moving out, and much of the aging housing stock in the south and center of the city is being bought and refurbished by younger couples with children. Young families are also flocking to the new residential developments north of Loop 820. The 2000 U.S. Census showed that the city’s median age is 32, and about 10,000 of the city’s 14,922 households are families with children under 18. Yuppies are invading a city that has long been home to older, blue-collar residents.

“Haltom City is changing,” Markum said. “The younger people with children, they want more recreational facilities and parks.” They also want popular restaurants, well-stocked grocery stores, and major retail centers nearby, something that previous generations weren’t much concerned about.

“It’s been a mindset on the part of the community leaders — ‘Just leave us alone, we like it the way it is’ — and now we’re playing catch-up,” White said. “It’s just that awakening, looking around and seeing what can happen and what’s happening in other communities. We’ve been asleep at the wheel. The younger generation as they’re emerging has a higher expectation than maybe the previous generation who were content for this to be a little laid-back suburb.”

The last wet-dry election was largely defeated by the elderly, church-going crowd, said Jack Lewis, 67, who was a city councilman from 1980 to 1984 and mayor from 1984 to 1991. He spoke out against the movement back then because he doesn’t believe in alcohol use. His opinion hasn’t changed, but nowadays voter complacency, along with general unwillingness by church leaders to get politically involved in local issues, could mean a different outcome, he said. Regardless, political leaders still hesitate to voice an opinion. “They are afraid of the political fallout,” Lewis said. “They think the churches will rise up and encourage their congregations to oppose it.”

If supporting a liquor election is political suicide, then White has willingly put his head in a noose for this article — even more surprising because he was a Church of Christ minister for 33 years and rarely touches alcohol. “Haltom City is one of the few cities in Tarrant County that is dry,” he said. “You can say what you want to, but that makes a difference for businesses coming in. I think we can survive, but the recruitment and the retention of businesses without that is much more difficult.”

The city’s largest sales tax generator, Kmart, is closing its doors. Another major sales tax generator, Winn-Dixie, recently closed. The two stores generated an estimated $300,000 in sales tax, a painful loss for a city with a $4.1 million general fund. Finding another grocery store or large retailer to take their place can be difficult in cities that prohibit sales of beer or wine. An opportunity exists for an economic windfall near the southeast corner of North Loop 820 and Beach Street, where the Texas Department of Transportation is building a frontage road that will provide access to 160 acres of unused land in north Haltom City. However, even acreage with freeway access is not considered “prime” to many retail businesses if they can’t sell alcohol. “Do you think a Bennigan’s or Chili’s or San Francisco Steak House or Trail Dust or on and on are going to come into Haltom City if they can move across the street or down the road a little bit and still be in the same demographic area and be able to [sell alcohol]?” White said.

Haltom City is surrounded by cities that allow liquor sales — Fort Worth to the west and south, Watauga to the north, and Richland Hills and North Richland Hills to the east. Haltom City’s 39,000 residents don’t have far to drive to buy booze. So Patino, Calderon, and a handful of others are planning a petition drive to force an election, which has never been cheap or easy. Initiating an alcohol election requires a petition signed by 35 percent of registered voters. Anyone with even passing electoral knowledge understands that getting more than a third of voters to sign a petition and then getting them out to the polls on election day is a daunting task. In Haltom City, that means almost 7,000 of the city’s 19,000 registered voters would have to sign the petition, yet city elections there typically draw only about 2,000 voters. To make matters more difficult, the law allows only 30 days from start to finish for the petition process.

The task might become much easier in a few months.

State legislators are currently considering House Bill 1199, which would put alcohol elections in line with the rest of the election code. Under the bill authored by Democratic Rep. Mike Krusee of Round Rock, petitions would need to be signed by only 35 percent of the number of the city’s voters in the previous gubernatorial election, in order to force an election on allowing alcohol sales in restaurants, grocery stores, and convenience stores. The law would not change for package store petition drives, which typically spur more protests.

If the bill were signed into law, only about 700 Haltom City voters would be required to sign the petition. “You need to wait to see if this legislation is going to pass,” Day advised Patino and Calderon at their meeting.

Krusee’s legislative aide, Philip Moore, said the bill, after some initial compromises, has been warmly received by legislators and appears headed for passage in May; if so, it could go into effect in September. That could put Haltom City in a position to get a petition ready in time for a November wet-dry election, Day said. What’s more, the cost of running a petition campaign to get 700 signatures would cost about $25,000, compared to about $80,000 for 7,000 signatures, she told them.

“It gives us a lot of hope,” Calderon said.

“The key is to find a way to sell it to the citizens of Haltom City,” Patino said. “Citizens are very conservative when it comes to alcohol.”

They are wise to expect resistance, especially among church leaders and the city’s approximately 4,000 residents over age 65. “I’m against it,” said Beacon Baptist Church Pastor Ronnie Reese, who said he would probably encourage his congregation to vote against alcohol. “Any time you bring alcohol into any environment it always increases crime. The effects will be more detrimental than advantageous.”

Others predict that Haltom City will thrive if alcohol is allowed. “It will bring in more business to Haltom City; otherwise I think it is going to become a ghost town,” said a business leader who asked for anonymity because she works for a nonprofit business association. “Everyone is screaming because they cannot sell beer. The businesses are not going to move here and the residents aren’t going to move here because the taxes are going to go up. Revenues are going to go down and affect the city’s budget. More and more businesses are going to move out. People are going to move out. Haltom City has no choice.”

City Manager Richard Torres isn’t nearly as dire in his prognosis for a dry Haltom City, but he obviously views alcohol sales as crucial to economic development that would boost the city’s tax revenue and ease the burden on residents. “It will be an uphill battle that we will probably never be able to win without the right kind of tools, and the ability to sell alcohol is a tool for that,” he said.

Still, House Bill 1199 has yet to pass, money to pay for a petition campaign has yet to be raised, and there is no guarantee that a majority of voters will approve of alcohol sales.

The flurry of bad publicity didn’t much surprise Tarrant County residents, many of whom view Haltom City as a rundown-motel kind of a town with bad streets and a slew of used car lots interspersed with radiator and muffler shops. The suburb is referred to as “Bubba Capital” or “Haltom Shitty” in some quarters. Still, the city’s blue collar received a fresh spritz of spray starch in November 2001, when voters approved all six packages of a bond issue, many of them related to quality-of-life projects that voters have previously deemed superfluous. The bond package includes $4 million in street improvements, $4.5 million for a new library, $3.5 million for a fire station, $4 million for drainage improvements, and $250,000 for hike-and-bike trails.

Some residents wonder if the young families moving to Haltom City are so interested in keeping up with the Joneses that they are forgetting what attracted them to the city in the first place — a working-class environment with low tax rates. At 46 cents per $100 of valuation, Haltom City’s property tax rate is almost half of Fort Worth’s. Spending $4.5 million for a new library when there is little wrong with the old one and the economy is stumbling is like “putting a $100 saddle on a $10 horse,” former mayor Lewis said. “We’re a blue-collar community and we sometimes have to live a blue-collar style.”

Voters, however, clearly stated the direction they want to head. More than two-thirds approved the bond issue. “People are interested in quality of life,” White said. “As these people start coming forth and get put in elected positions, which is what we’re going to see as time goes on, we’re going to see more emphasis on that type thing. ...There is a new mood in Haltom City, a new spirit.”

Other plans include beautification of a mile-long stretch of Belknap Street. The business corridor is one of the city’s worst maintained, but a $300,000 state grant and a $70,000 city matching grant will create landscaped medians that in turn are expected to prompt surrounding business owners to improve their properties.

Belknap Street is a small piece of the overall improvement program. About a third of the city’s streets are currently being improved or scheduled for work. The city’s $1 million annual street maintenance program got a needed boost when voters approved $4 million in street bonds and a quarter-cent sales tax increase that will fund another $1 million a year. “Streets and street maintenance and overall improvements have been lacking for some years,” Torres said. “I’d like to see that turned around. I wouldn’t rule out in years to come the need to issue additional bonds for street improvements. It provides a little higher quality of life for individuals who live here and conveys an image to the community about how we want to take care of business.”

Economic Development Director Kent Flynn said he is delighted by the new focus on cleaning up the city and making it attractive to businesses. “We’re on the cusp,” he said. “It’s our time, I think. It’s unbelievable how much we have going on.”

In February, Flynn hired Kelly Sims for a newly created position of business development coordinator. One of her first accomplishments was to create a newsletter, Haltom City Crossroads. Next, she’ll push the city toward 21st-century technology by creating a web-based system combining demographic data and computer mapping for businesses to use as a resource. She’ll use computerized data crunching to determine what kind of businesses to target for filling vacant buildings and to develop new properties.

The 160 vacant acres at the Beach Street-820 intersection figures to become the city’s major retail center in the future, but another area will be vastly improved by a U.S Army Corps of Engineers project to widen and deepen Little Fossil Creek from Belknap Street to Texas 121. The creek improvements are expected to remove acreage from a flood plain and prompt development and redevelopment of nearby residential areas. Hike-and-bike trails will be built along the creek.

The new commitment to development doesn’t mean Haltom City’s notorious knack for bare-fisted politics has gone away. Recently, city leaders disbanded a Minority Affairs Board, led by Patino, because of political infighting and lagging membership. An ethics complaint was filed against city leaders for allegedly using taxpayer money to promote passage of the bond election. And a petition for City Councilman Trae Fowler’s recall resulted in a special election.

On Jan. 13, the city council voted to support municipal court Judge Jack Byno, who was accused in a former jailer’s affidavit of making sexual comments about female inmates and sentencing women based on their breast sizes. White had previously asked Byno to step down, but the judge refused. White notified the media to attend the city council meeting and, in pre-meeting interviews, made remarks about Byno’s judicial effectiveness being compromised because of the controversy. Despite the city council’s subsequent vote, Byno, sensing a media slaughter, quickly resigned.

White was also accused of dirty campaigning during the previous mayoral election, when he unseated former Mayor Nancy Watkins, who will challenge him again in May. A wary Watkins refused to be interviewed for this article and declined to comment on the wet-dry issue, even though her husband, Bob Watkins, is said to be involved in the planning of the petition drive.

Despite small-town political brouhahas, which aren’t pretty but are typical, the city is undoubtedly making progress. Commercial building and certificates of occupancy are up from a year ago, even though 2002 was an excellent year for new business starts. And the $900,000 frontage road that will run alongside Loop 820 and connect Beach and Anderson streets is expected to attract businesses that could boost the city’s tax base for years to come.

Some observers characterize the wet-dry election, bond issues, and other quality-of-life issues as battles between young newcomers and the city’s old-timers, with the young having wrestled voting clout from the old. But the older generation might be changing their minds as well.

David Rogers, 70, was puttering around recently at his house on Fincher Road. He first moved to the area with his parents in the late 1940s and recalls hunting rabbits at nearby Fossil Creek. He lives in the house his father built and describes Haltom City as a quiet place with low taxes and unassuming, friendly people.

Rogers agreed with the outcome of the recent bond election, the massive street-repair program, and other improvements and beautification. As for going wet, he’d vote yes, he said. “Right now if people want to get something to drink they just go to Fort Worth,” he said. “A city’s got to grow.”


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