Metropolis: Wednesday, December 15, 2004
McBee: ‘A lot of those expenditures have nothing to do with reducing crime.’ (Photo by Jeff Prince)
Controlling the Crime District

Board members and others are questioning the city’s use of special tax funds.


The numbers of drive-by shootings, assaults, murders, and other violent crimes in Fort Worth jumped dramatically in the late 1980s and early ’90s, ranking the city among the country’s most crime-ridden. It wasn’t surprising in March 1995 when about 59 percent of voters approved raising the sales tax by half a penny to pay for a citywide crime control and prevention district. The tax was renewed in 2000. Now, 10 years and $270 million later, the crime control district is up for consideration again. Voters will decide on Feb. 5 whether to renew the tax for another five years.

For the first time, some residents are questioning how the money is being spent and complaining about lax oversight by the board that makes the decisions.

“A lot of those expenditures have nothing to do with reducing crime,” said Louis McBee of Fort Worth Citizens for Responsible Government. “That is readily apparent because crime hasn’t been reduced over the past 10 years.”

Without doubt, crime rates have fallen, although city leaders and critics disagree on how much. Crime, however, has been down statewide since the mid-1990s, probably due to an improved economy, increased neighborhood policing, and longer prison sentences. McBee points out that Fort Worth, which already has the highest property tax rate among the state’s major cities, is the only one that relies on special crime district funding.

Meanwhile, expenditures have strayed from the original purpose of fighting hard-core crime, and, while a city audit of spending was done last year, independent audits have never been done, as required by law. “A large part of the crime district budget has just been an adjunct of the general fund budget, just buying things [police] wanted,” City Councilman Clyde Picht said.

Take, for instance, the $600,000 spent on overtime for police officers working special events — “special” referring to Texas Motor Speedway and Bass Hall. “That just galls me,” McBee said. “What’s that got to do with controlling crime? At our Fourth of July parade in Woodhaven, we have to pay for police. The Handley Street festival has to pay for those services. Regular citizens have to pay for those services themselves.”

Here’s how the district’s budget process worked in 1995 and 2000: The police chief determined how he wanted to spend the money (more cops, training, equipment, overtime, benefits, whatever) and submitted a budget to the city manager, who sent it to the city council, who passed a recommendation on to the board. Former Mayor Kenneth Barr made it clear that board members weren’t encouraged to nitpick, and Picht recalls a board member once saying the board would “approve whatever the council members want.”

The fund became politicized rather than scrutinized. City leaders figured they could use the special tax money to pay for regular ol’ police items and avoid dipping into the general fund. That left more money for quality-of-life improvements, such as Lancaster Avenue renewal, a cattle herd, code enforcement officers, and so on. “Because we have that [crime district] money available, we’re not penny-pinching in trying to buy equipment for the police,” Picht said. “I know if we don’t have it, it’s going to be difficult for the city to get its budget together for the next few years.”

Critics realize most of the district funds are being spent on much-needed items. They don’t want to kill the crime district but rather to ensure that the money is being spent as originally intended.

And now that appears to be happening.

A board with a reputation for rubber-stamping budgets is getting tougher, due to turnover among members and changing attitudes at city hall. New board member Joseph DeLeon had no intention of automatically approving a budget when City Councilwoman Wendy Davis appointed him in November. He was relieved when Davis told him to follow his convictions. Then, Mayor Mike Moncrief showed up at a board meeting and delivered the same message.

“The [previous] board members were not aware of the powers that the board has,” DeLeon said. “Since I’ve been there it has been brought to their attention that they do have power and are not a rubber stamp.”

The increased scrutiny is apparent to Fort Worth Police Officers Association President Lee Jackson. “The budget meetings I’ve been to this year, the board questions every single expense of the budget,” he said. “They keep the city’s feet to the fire.”

Citizens for Responsible Government is watching closely. Whether the group tries to turn voters against the crime district (which is expected to raise perhaps $200 million over five years) depends on how the money will be spent and whether board members take their roles seriously. So far, the jury is still out. “We are not against the district,” McBee said. “But $40 million a year is a lot of money.”

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