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Denton to raise building, permit fees; lower tax rate for FY2020

Denton’s proposed property tax rate is back in the effective zone for next year’s budget, after city leaders agreed in principle Tuesday afternoon to recover actual costs with building permits and inspections.

That means Denton plans to collect 59.0454 cents per $100 valuation for the fiscal year 2020 budget. On paper, it’s a rate cut, but because property appraisals went up on many homes and businesses, property owners will likely pay a bit more city taxes this year than last. But theoretically, the tax rate — which collects about 20.5 cents for debt service and 38.5 cents for operations — is calculated to collect the same amount of money on the same properties from last year to next.

That also means Denton’s property tax rate continues to trend downward even as other cities bump up against tax caps set by the Texas Legislature. City Manager Todd Hileman said he encountered this issue years ago when his career in city management first began.

“I saw this happen in Arizona,” Hileman said. “Cities are doing the opposite and going right up against the rollback rate.”

The rollback rate is a special calculation of the property tax rate that empowers taxpayers to force an election on the matter.

A budget philosophy of building from the effective tax rate also means that the city needed to recover true costs where appropriate, Hileman said. In other words, taxpayers would no longer be quietly subsidizing certain departments or activities, such as the long-underfunded Development Services department.

A formal cost-of-service study determined that the department’s fees for building and inspection permits weren’t recovering enough from fees — to the tune of more than $4 million coming from taxpayers annually.

The staff proposed a new framework for fees that would recover 100% or nearly 100% of the true costs for new construction and inspections, with a few exceptions.

Previously discounted fees would continue, such as a homeowner’s permit application to replace a fence or make other improvements to their property.

But fees for other planning and inspection services, such as those that support new construction, would reflect the true costs to the city.

The department offers an important public service by reviewing construction plans against public safety standards and criteria for the city to accept new roads and utilities built by developers.

Several council members were concerned that the fee increase would chill new investments in Denton, but Hileman and the planning staff assured them that they sought feedback from developers on the plan.

“They tell us just to improve the service and [they’ll] pay because it’s less than the cost of delays,” Hileman said.

Denton’s planning department had a poor reputation for many years, but in the past few years, employees have greatly decreased the amount of time it takes to review and inspect projects. Hileman said new hires are also part of the plan.

The planning staff pledged to bring back any concerns to the City Council midyear should the new fee schedule prove burdensome to any particular group of applicants.

In addition, David Gaines, the city’s chief financial officer, said the budget allows for about $500,000 of this year’s recovered costs to remain in the general fund, in case the City Council wants to make changes in response to possible concerns.

The improved cost recovery in Development Services meant the city could go ahead with the effective rate and still be able to fund homelessness initiatives, key public safety improvements and raises for the city staff.

That included a new minimum wage for year-round city employees. Whether part-time or full-time, the city will now pay at least $15 an hour.

The move affects less than two dozen city employees and will cost about $21,000 more.

Development Services director Scott McDonald said the new fee schedule for building and inspection permits would be part of the budget when the City Council is scheduled to adopt it on Sept. 17.


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Wild ride: Mutton Bustin’ marks 20th year at North Texas Fair and Rodeo

An enthusiastic crowd of parents and fairgoers filed into the Livestock Pavilion bleachers Tuesday at the North Texas Fair and Rodeo, where junior rodeo contestants vied for 6 seconds on a sheep in the annual Mutton Bustin’ competition.

Mutton Bustin’ is now in its 20th year of operation at the fair and rodeo, according to Executive Director Glenn Carlton. The competition, in which children either ride or race sheep, is open to participants ages 3 to 7.

Ritch Johnson, the contest’s superintendent who has been part of the fair and rodeo for most of his life, said the event is about opportunity and engagement with rodeo newcomers.

“What that consists of is that [the kids] come out and they get on a sheep, we kind of judge them and how they ride, and then we bring them back to the finals,” Johnson said. “Basically, we try to provide opportunity for kids to come out and have a good time, and be in competition that is in the Western culture.”

Johnson, who has been involved with the event for five years, said Mutton Bustin’ has seen an increase in participants in the past three or four years. Upward of 70 to 80 kids can participate per night, he said.

Ponder resident Dianna Murchison, 34, said she was impressed by how smoothly the event ran — considering how many contestants were in Tuesday’s competition. What impressed her more were the riders who competed.

“I was really impressed that a lot of them got out there and rode even though you could tell they were a little nervous,” Murchison said. “But they still got out there and rode anyway — this one in particular.”

Her 7-year-old daughter, Tatum, was a first-time mutton buster in Tuesday’s contest. Although Tatum didn’t reach the 6-second mark, she said she had fun and that falling off of her sheep “didn’t hurt.”

Mutton Bustin'

Alec Bui, 20, a mathematics major at the University of North Texas, and Shannon Srisan, 22, a kinesiology student at Texas Woman’s University, were first-time fairgoers this year. Although the Livestock Pavilion was sweltering in the Texas heat, Bui said their trip was “a lot of fun.”

“It’s extremely hot, but it’s a lot of fun just seeing the kids go about,” Bui said. “I’ve never seen this before in my life, so this is interesting to see for the first time.”

The North Texas Fair and Rodeo will continue the Mutton Bustin’ competition Wednesday evening at the Livestock Pavilion. The Mutton Bustin’ grand finale is scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday, the final day of the fair.


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Toddler found dead after search died from heat, medical examiner says

The 2-year-old who was found dead inside an SUV after hours of searching was killed by the heat and his death was ruled an accident, according to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Sarbesh Gurung was reported missing by his mother on the afternoon of July 2 from their apartment on West Prairie Street in Denton. Police and firefighters searched for him into the night, discovering the boy’s body the next morning inside an SUV not far from the apartment.

Confirming for the first time that Sarbesh’s death was an accident, the medical examiner’s office listed his cause of death as hyperthermia, or an abnormally high body temperature.

The search and discovery of Sarbesh unfolded before TV news cameras and more than 100 people who came to the scene to volunteer to search. The mobile command center for police and rescue leaders to orchestrate the search was set up just yards from were Sarbesh would be discovered.

In a blow to the Denton community, a resident in the neighborhood got into their vehicle the morning of July 3 to go to work and found Sarbesh in the back seat, police said.

Speaking to reporters that morning, Denton Police Chief Frank Dixon said nobody was to blame for the child’s death. But Dixon would not say definitively whether the SUV Sarbesh was found in was searched; he said the vehicle had tinted windows and window shades, preventing authorities from looking in.

“Can we conclusively say that someone went and checked every door handle of every vehicle out there?” Dixon said. “Obviously, we can’t say that.”

At memorial services and in conversations, people said the situation was “horrifying,” some saying this could have been anybody’s child. They expressed remorse for the family.

A Denton police spokeswoman said Tuesday that police were no longer investigating the child’s death.

A spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office said the full autopsy report should be finished and released to the public in the next 10 days.