With more tax savings and sunlight at City Hall in 2017, the year may be dubbed Denton’s year of government accountability.
But that theme started with Denton voters, not City Hall. They demanded accountability from their elected officials this year — as they had for several years through initiatives, petitions and elections. But change comes slowly when forced through the ballot box, and reform-minded council candidates weren't always successful.
That uphill climb shifted at the beginning of 2017. After the Denton City Council installed the first internal auditor at City Hall in almost a decade as well as a new city manager, change came swiftly all year.
The former longtime manager of the Chicago suburb of Glenview, Illinois, Todd Hileman arrived in January as Denton's new city manager. He was quiet during his first council meeting. He spent several weeks in briefings and other listening sessions with city staff and members of the community.
A few weeks later, Craig Hametner also reported for duty. He was Denton's first internal auditor since 2010.
In February, Hileman announced a staff reorganization. As he began shuffling and reassigning people, an exodus of many high-level employees began.
Three assistant city managers and several department heads who served under the previous city manager — aviation, purchasing, libraries, solid waste and Denton Municipal Electric — left by midyear. Other high-level employees across the city left throughout 2017. Some exits went quietly; some did not.
According to the city’s human resources department, the turnover rate for the year to date is 13.06 percent, four percentage points higher than in 2015-16 and three points higher than in 2014-15.
Among the dedicated employees who remain, Hileman placed a new emphasis on integrity and transparency. Council members also encouraged employees to be more forthcoming with the City Council.
For example, the council did not learn that some Solid Waste Department employees foresaw the problems in mining the landfill for recyclables until after canceling the program this year. Mayor Chris Watts said he expected employees should be able to explain projects — warts and all — to the City Council in the future.
City Attorney Anita Burgess retired in February, but not before putting a charter amendment election into motion. A 21-member citizen committee began meeting regularly in early 2017. While committee members considered a number of possible changes to the city charter, ethics reforms took most of their time and resources. They saw their job as helping restore some of the trust that had been lost in city officials and City Hall.
By spring, Hileman shifted the way employees presented budget information to the City Council. Department heads made brief presentations with an operational overview and cost containment strategies. As budget talks progressed, some of the city’s major contractors found themselves in the same hot seat as department heads.
The Denton Chamber of Commerce stood before the City Council for the first time in 2017 to formally explain the economic development services it provided. Previous contracts between the city and the chamber were more informal. The new contract contains performance metrics.
The budget presentations worked toward a new goal. Hileman announced the 2017-18 city budget would be prepared using a longstanding truth-in-taxation tool for the first time.
Texas law requires cities to publish their budgets with the property tax rate that supports them. The law also requires cities to publish the “effective tax rate.” Although it’s a complicated calculation, the effective tax rate has a simple purpose: Disclose the hidden tax increase that comes with rising property values.
In other words, city leaders are required to tell taxpayers what property tax rate would collect the same amount of taxes on the same property from one year to the next.
For many years, Denton city leaders said they weren't raising the tax rate as they adopted annual budgets. They didn’t have to. Rising property values fattened city coffers by themselves.
But in May, just to make sure City Hall got the message, Denton voters approved a property tax limit for homeowners with a disability and those age 65 and older. No matter what happens to the city’s tax rate, those homeowners will pay the same dollar amount each year following the year their individual property taxes are frozen.
As budget talks progressed through the summer, Hileman began scrutinizing operations in the city’s electric department. Denton Municipal Electric's debt was approaching $1 billion as it rebuilt the city’s electric grid and constructed the controversial Denton Energy Center, a new natural gas-fired power plant. An investigation into the power plant's two main contracts, one with engine supplier Wärtsilä and the other with contractor Burns & McDonnell, triggered major fallout.
Hileman and the City Council brought in new teams to re-evaluate DME's plan for buying renewable energy and running its energy trading group. City leaders soon learned that DME could power the city with 100 percent renewable energy as soon as 2020.
As promised, the city staff presented the 2017-18 budget at the end of July using the effective tax rate. They also presented a budget with no increases to utility rates. The move reduced net revenue by about $52 million, but the cost-containment steps by department heads had already reduced net spending by $49 million. City leaders were able to adopt a budget that didn't cut services and included new hires in public safety and elsewhere.
In early October, days after he presented his work plan for the coming year, Hametner, the city’s new internal auditor, resigned abruptly. News leaked of an internal investigation into the city’s relationship with the Denton Parks Foundation. Hametner had received complaints on an anonymous tip line about the workings between the two bodies. His resignation temporarily suspended the investigation, as well as other projects in his office. The City Council hired two firms to continue the investigation, retained another part-time firm to handle the daily work and launched a search to replace him.
In November's charter election, Denton voters signaled every way they could that they wanted to keep elected officials accountable.
They refused to stiffen the requirements to recall an elected official. By voting against the charter amendment committee’s recommended proposition, Denton voters retained the right to recall a council member with a petition signature count that totals 25 percent of the turnout in that official’s last election.
Meanwhile, voters overwhelmingly approved a suite of amendments that keep ethics on the front burner. One proposition required the City Council to adopt an ethics ordinance, another required the City Council to hire an internal auditor, and another requires elected officials to live in the city.
And to make it all stick, voters approved paying the mayor and council members a stipend for the first time.
In December, the City Council laid out its work plan for new ethics rules, continuing the theme of government accountability next year. The council is expected to adopt Denton's first-ever ethics ordinance, complete with an independent body to review those complaints, by summer 2018.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881.