Big ideas and ambition make cities great. Those big ideas and ambition are born from and are inspired by the people of those cities. Here in Denton, we live in a community that is growing and evolving. Throughout Denton’s history we have been fortunate to have people, organizations, and institutions with vision, ideas and ambition coupled with the strength to get things done that have helped make Denton a great place to be.
Cronyism, corruption, and waste are inefficiencies that bring great and emerging cities down, no matter how big the ideas or how great the ambition of the people. These inefficiencies take a nasty toll on the people of a city over time. It is a literal toll in the form of taxes. Taxes are a necessary duty of a city’s citizens to fund our public safety, infrastructure, and to enhance the quality of life we enjoy in our community. But inefficiencies in spending over time unnecessarily inflate taxes.
Families that I represent, engage with in our schools, and have as neighbors and friends all feel very real pain when their property taxes go up every year. An annual increase in property taxes puts many families in our community in a state of very real financial stress. That increase competes with household budgets for food, fuel, utilities, necessities, and other bills. Year over year over year of increases in property taxes lead our most vulnerable families to evaluate whether or not remaining in Denton is a viable and sustainable option for them. It is not uncommon to see established families in our neighborhoods leave for this reason. They aren’t leaving for better opportunity; they are leaving for mere survival and affordability. This reality appears to be very hard for some people and organizations within our community to realize and appreciate. It is understandable that this reality is hard to see if your view of our community is solely focused on the very bright glow of our booming downtown, our growing universities, and our upper income enclaves. You may not see the issue or fully understand them, but I assure you that the issues are very real for many people in our community.
I am in my third year as a city council member. I am working on and will soon vote on an annual city budget for the third time. In the past three years I have seen and fought cronyism. I have seen and fought corruption. I have seen and fought significant waste and inefficiency. I know who I represent and it has made me angry to see these good and hard-working people continually asked to pay more and more taxes when I know that we haven’t historically been the best stewards of our taxpayers’ dollars.
Previous councils, including those I have served as a part of, have invested in big ideas and ambitious programs which were fundamentally sensible and very well intentioned. But the due-diligence, execution, and oversight of these well-intentioned programs and investments have often been flawed. The key flaws are a lack of transparency and accountability; a lack of goals and measurement; and a lack of rigorous testing and questioning prior to investment. These flaws led to inefficient and ineffective use of taxpayer dollars. That is changing. And that change is good and very much needed in Denton. The change began with the appointment of a new city manager and was enhanced with the staffing of an auditor that reports to council, and continues in the form of changes in policies and procedures. Transparency, accountability, goals, measurement, rigorous testing and questioning are hard and uncomfortable for people, departments, and organizations that are not used to them. It can feel like and attack. But I assure you that it is not an attack, it’s good government. The people of Denton deserve good government. The people of Denton deserve to know that their tax dollars are being used effectively and efficiently and that the spending that occurs will have quantitative and qualitative measures in place to show that we are improving our public safety, infrastructure, and overall quality of life.
I am excited about this year’s municipal budget because for the first time that anyone I have spoken with can remember it looks like council will have the opportunity to pass a budget based on the effective property tax rate, in this case ~$0.64 per $100 evaluation. This proposed rate is ~$0.05 per $100 valuation less than the rate for 2016/17 budget. [It is important to note that property taxes that we pay are levied by three independent taxing entities: the City of Denton, Denton County, and the Denton Independent School District. Each of these three entities set their own property tax rates and budgets. As a city council member I can only speak for and help control the City of Denton budget and tax rate.] We will reduce required net municipal revenues by ~$52 million. We will reduce our municipal net spending by ~$49 million. To put that reduction in spending into perspective, with Denton’s population of ~134,000 people a cut in spending of ~$49million translates to a reduction of ~$365 per person in 2017/18.
Further, this budget even includes a slight decrease in utility rates for the average Denton household.
We are going to be able to achieve this budget without cutting or decreasing the levels of our municipal services. We are going to be able to achieve this budget without having to freeze wages or reduce benefits – in fact we have the flexibility to increase both for our employees. It may sound like magic but its just good government. Our city manager and our city staff across all departments are to be commended for the very hard work of diligently looking at spending, redundancies, processes, and organizational alignment to identify and eliminate inefficient spending on behalf of the taxpayers in the City of Denton. And from my perspective, this council as a leadership body has begun to do a much better job of taking an “eyes wide open” approach to accountability with our management, staff, vendors, and community organizations which draw from tax payer funds. It’s not mean… it’s good government. It’s not short-sighted… it’s good government. It’s not political expediency… it’s good government. It’s not an attempt to destroy beneficial programs for the sake of saving money… it’s making sure these beneficial programs are accountable and have the positive impact they were intended to have so that we can confidently and sustainably keep these programs going over time.
Some may argue that we are unnecessarily cutting budgets and bringing an unwarranted amount of scrutiny to the budgeting process. That our budget will somehow stifle the growth of our community. I hope that anyone harboring these sentiments will eventually understand that without the introduction of accountability and fiscal responsibility our community will not be able to afford the luxury of investing in the big ambitious ideas that can make our community even greater than it is. We have to have our house in order if we are going to aim for big ambitious ideas. Accountability and fiscal responsibility at the local level are not the calling cards of any political party or broader political agenda – it is just good government.
Our community continues to grow at a rapid pace. It is certain that at some point in the future we will need to increase our budget, and we may even have to consider increasing taxes and utility rates. But that is not necessary at this time or in this upcoming 207/18 budget for Denton. We will vote on Tuesday to approve a fiscally responsible budget that I feel respects the taxpayers of our community and clearly reflects a new accountability in Denton’s city government. With accountability and fiscal responsibility we are positioned to continue our never-ending work to make Denton great… and even invest in the big ambitious ideas.
Linked here is a presentation on our proposed budget: http://denton-tx.legistar.com/gateway.aspx?M=F&ID=e466ed0f-2430-40d8-89f7-e8eb862164b2.pdf
We will vote whether or not to approve this budget during the council meeting on Tuesday evening. Please let me know if you have any questions, concerns, or ideas. The agenda for Tuesday’s council meeting can be found at this link: http://denton-tx.granicus.com/AgendaViewer.php?view_id=3&event_id=1384
Keely G. Briggs
District 2 Council Member – City of Denton