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US News ranks TWU, UNT as some of the best in annual report

The University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University earned noteworthy rankings in some categories in the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges for the 2022-23 school year.

The consumer reports publication ranks the country’s colleges each year, this year measuring 440 colleges and universities in the United States.

UNT ranked at No. 285 in the overall list. UNT came in at No. 46 among Top Performers on Social Mobility, which looks at a university’s ability to enroll and graduate a large number of economically disadvantaged students awarded with Pell Grants. UNT ranked No. 146 among Top Public Schools, a distinction that recognizes state schools that offer discounted tuition.

UNT tied with 18 other schools in its rank of No. 165 in Best Undergraduate Engineering Programs. The ranking was based entirely on peer assessment surveys, and only schools recognized by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. were eligible.

UNT isn’t new to the rankings, and has seen a host of programs recognized in the annual report over the years.

TWU earned its best ranking in nursing, nabbing No. 39 among schools that offer bachelor’s degrees in health sciences. Schools are eligible for the ranking if their bachelor’s degree is accredited by either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. The institutions must have recently awarded at least 40 bachelor’s degrees in nursing.

Like UNT, TWU scored No. 63 in social mobility.

“Our highly skilled and knowledgeable faculty are keenly focused on student success, and are too often unsung heroes,” said College of Nursing Dean Damon Cottrell. “Our [National Council of State Boards of Nursing] pass rates exceed state and national averages, which demonstrates we truly are preparing the next generation of nurses.”

This marks the fifth year U.S. News has evaluated social mobility and the third consecutive year TWU has made the list.

The report calculated 10 distinct overall rankings, with colleges and universities grouped by their academic missions.

“For each ranking, the sum of weighted, normalized values across 17 indicators of academic quality determine each school’s overall score and, by extension, its overall rank,” the report said in the explanation of how it determined rankings. “The top performers in each ranking displays an overall score of 100. Others’ overall scores are on a 0-99 scale reflecting the distance from their ranking’s top-performing schools. Those placing outside the top 75% display their ranking’s bottom quartile range (e.g., No. 90-120) instead of their individual ranks (e.g., No. 102). “

The rankings saw multiple college and university programs tie across categories.

Denton's giving millions in taxpayer dollars to businesses that set up shop here

Thirteen years have passed since the city of Denton first used taxpayer money to help develop Unicorn Lake, a master-planned, 134-acre, mixed-use development, on the south side of the city. Situated in the middle of several neighborhoods, Unicorn Lake was designed as a “pedestrian-friendly environment” with a business center, movie theater, hotels, offices, restaurants and more than 20 medical facilities, according to the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

At a projected cost of $735,910, the city granted a half a percent of sales tax over a 15-year period to reimburse the developer for infrastructure costs. It’s one of 15 taxpayer business agreements in Denton with companies and developers listed under the Chapter 380-381 Economic Development Agreements database on the state comptroller’s website.

The Chapter 380-381 economic agreements allow local officials to give away millions in taxpayer dollars to companies and developers for economic development purposes with bare-bones transparency, the Houston Chronicle reported in a Nov. 18, 2021, report.

In that report, reporters Mike Morris and John Tedesco paint a startling picture of local officials across Texas spending taxpayer money “to spur development or lure companies to their communities under a pair of obscure state laws (under Chapters 380 and 381 of the Texas Local Government Code) that put no limits on such deals, require no job creation and mandate no penalties for noncompliance.”

In Denton, city officials are doing their best now to offer some criteria and keep up with the job-creation portion of the agreements by bringing them under one umbrella and updating them to fall in line with the Economic Development Strategic Plan. They also received a transparency star award for economic development in February from the state comptroller’s office.

“Basically, the idea is to incentivize businesses to invest in the city and bring businesses or developers to the city,” said Wayne Emerson, director of Denton’s Economic Development Department.

Denton provides economic development incentives in the form of tax relief — tax abatements, tax increment reinvestment zones (TIRZ), Chapter 380 agreements and Freeport Exemptions — “to stimulate private development and redevelopment, expand the tax base, generate jobs, and enhance the local economy,” according to a June 25, 2021, staff report.

Emerson said they have three main goals for the future: “broaden tax base, increase primary jobs and quality of life to residents.”

They’ve obviously succeeded in broadening the tax base. Since 2010, Denton’s population has grown 24.6% from 116,599 in 2010 to 145,231 in 2020, D Magazine reported in March 2021.

But, they have not been as successful when it comes to creating jobs and improving quality of life for Denton residents when 45% of the city’s households no longer can afford to live here, according to United Way’s 2022 Denton County Community Assessment Needs report. Many are turning to hotels and motels for affordable housing — or the streets, with Denton seeing a 43% spike in homelessness over the past year, United Way Executive Director Gary Henderson told the Denton Record-Chronicle in early September.

Both spikes in poverty are affected, in part, by the explosive growth in the area, which the tax-relief incentives, such as Chapter 380-381 economic agreements, have helped to spur since the mid-2000s. None of Denton’s 380 agreements listed on the comptroller site were for affordable housing projects.

If you build it ...

Since the early 2000s, the city of Denton has been promoting high-quality development to improve the quality of life for its residents, according to the 2020 Net Revenue Report by the Economic Development Department.

To accomplish this goal, city leaders use economic development incentives to stimulate private development and redevelopment. Here’s a breakdown of the tax-relief programs offered by the city, according to the weekly city staff report:

  • Tax abatements allow local governments to exempt all or a portion of the valuation increase of real and personal property taxes from a new or expanded business development for a period of up to 10 years. The statutes regulating tax abatements can be found in Chapter 312 of the Texas Property Tax Code.
  • Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones allow local governments to finance improvements and infrastructure within a defined area in order to stimulate private development and redevelopment. A property tax valuation base is established in the first year, and the revenue from the increased valuation from subsequent years is allocated to development within the TIRZ. The statutes that regulate tax increment financing and the related zones are in Chapter 311 of the Texas Property Tax Code, also known as the Tax Increment Financing Act.
  • Chapter 380 of the Texas Local Government Code states that a municipality may establish and provide for the administration of one or more programs for making loans and grants of public money and providing personnel and services of the municipality, to promote state or local economic development and to stimulate business and commercial activity in the municipality.
  • Freeport exemptions are an exemption from property tax on goods that have been held in the state for 175 days or less for the purpose of assembly, storage, manufacturing, processing or fabrication. The exemption applies throughout the entire taxing jurisdiction.

Each year, Denton staff releases financial information about the companies and developers that are receiving property tax relief. The Denton Central Appraisal District and the Economic Development staff conduct the calculations. DCAD determines the abatement’s amount for active agreements, and the recipient of the agreement then will see a reduction in their tax bill. The Economic Development staff calculates the property tax abatements, and the rebate to the recipient comes from the city.

A third-party verification from DCAD and IRS documentation was used for all property tax relief agreements, specific valuation job and wage threshold requirements in the agreements. They capture the job, incentive, revenue and value information from a Net Revenue Report that they track over time “to determine the net benefits to Denton,” staff wrote in a June 25, 2021, staff report.

In the June 2021 report, the city listed seven active property tax incentive agreements — five Chapter 380 property tax rebate agreements and two property tax abatement agreements. The associated properties had, in 2020, a total valuation of more than $331 million and generated more than $1.2 million in net property tax revenue for the city.

About 13 months later, city staff reported that the city had six active property tax incentives — four Chapter 380 property tax rebate agreements and two property tax abatement agreements. The rebates and agreements’ value for the 2021 tax year was $768,732, and the associated properties had a total valuation of more than $325 million and generated $1.1 million in net property tax revenue for the city, according to the Sept. 2 staff report.

Each of the associated properties that qualified for tax-relief incentives under the Economic Development’s umbrella receive different types of tax incentives with varying amounts and different term limits, depending on the project and the type of tax incentive they’re receiving from the city.

For example, in 2015, Buc-ee’s and its outlying parcels received a 50% sales tax rebate for 25 years, according to the state comptroller’s office. The first phase consisted of 50% for five years for infrastructure improvements, and the second phase granted a 50% sales tax rebate for Buc-ee’s travel center, retail and sit-down restaurants, and 25% on remaining fast food and service.

Buc-ee’s owner Beaver Aplin estimated the total project cost to build Buc-ee’s was $32 million. His estimated tax relief — not counting for inflation or growth, but simply based on numbers Aplin provided in his application to the city — will rebate him an estimated total of $8.7 million over a 25-year period.

In 2040, the city will begin receiving Aplin’s estimated total tax revenue of $700,000 annually, and approximately 195 jobs (but not all for Denton residents since that isn’t part of the agreement), according to Aplin’s justification to the city for the sales tax incentive request, provided by the state comptroller’s office.

Buc-ee’s wasn’t among the associated properties listed annually in the afternoon staff report because those associated properties are the ones receiving the ad valorem relief from the 380 agreement, said Erica Sullivan, the program administrator for Denton’s Economic Development Department.

Buc-ee's 380 Agreement

Those properties receiving ad valorem relief in the Sept. 2 staff report include:

  • O’Reilly Hotel Partners, which is in the fourth year of the 25-year agreement for a Chapter 380 grant.
  • Mayday Manufacturing, which is in the eighth year of a 10-year tax rebate agreement.
  • West Gate Business Park, which is in the sixth year of a 10-year agreement for the Chapter 380 grant and the third year of a 10-year tax abatement.
  • WinCo Foods, which is in the fourth year of its Chapter 380 grant and Chapter 380 TIRZ No. 2 grant.
  • Peterbilt, which is in the fifth year of its eight-year tax abatement.
2020 Net Revenue Report

According to the 2020 Net Revenue report by the Economic Development Department, the city has awarded 35 incentives to foster development in the community, investing $29.9 million in tax-related incentives and, in return, has benefited from property and sales tax revenues of $91.6 million since the late ‘90s when the incentive program was implemented.

The Chapter 380 sales tax rebate incentives represented a 335% cost-benefit percentage, followed by Chapter 380 property tax rebates at 202% and property tax abatements at 298%, according to the 2020 Net Revenue report.

There have been 10,581 jobs created, but it’s unclear if people are actually commuting to Denton to work those jobs or moving to Denton to do so. While the city does keep track of jobs created, Emerson said they also offer an additional bonus incentive for people who move to Denton or already live in Denton.

The incentive, Stuart Birdseye clarified, is part of a recent update to policy. Birdseye said employers have to submit a certificate of eligibility that includes W-2s for all jobs created and, to claim the residency bonus, the worker’s address.

Though they’re not currently tracking virtual workers, Birdseye said it was something they will want to address in the future as the workplace continues to evolve post-pandemic.

The Net Revenue Report doesn’t include a breakdown of each company or developer receiving tax incentives or the jobs they’re creating.

Instead, they can be found on the state comptroller’s Chapter 380-381 dashboard. Dating back to 2007, those listed are DynaGrind Construction, Safran Electrical Components, Denton Tarrant LLC/WinCoFoods, O’Reilly, Unicorn Lake, Rayzor Ranch, Golden Triangle Mall, Buc-ee’s, U.S. Cold Storage, From the Future, Team of Defenders, Mayday Manufacturing and West Gate 380.

Two of those entities — From the Future, a virtual reality development company, and Team of Defenders, an IT security company — are the first tech companies to receive an entrepreneurial grant from the Chapter 380 agreements, Emerson said. They received job-based incentives with a five-year cap. The total incentive package for Team of Defenders is not to exceed $106,500, while From the Future’s incentive package is not to exceed $243,500, according to the state comptroller’s website.

But it’s unclear how many jobs they’ll be creating for people who live in Denton or commute to Denton because the city isn’t keeping track of that information.

Part of their strategy, Emerson said, was to create jobs that would keep college students here in Denton after they graduate.

A new hope

At the state level, the future of the Chapter 380-381 Economic Development program is unclear. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, told the Houston Chronicle in the Nov. 18, 2021, report that he was concerned about the “wide-open” nature of the program and said the state should rein it in, in the 2023 legislative session.

Other types of tax-incentive programs, such as local property tax abatements and school property tax breaks, have a 10-year cap on each deal, and the state keeps track on spreadsheets and exhaustive reports that it shares online with the public, as the Houston Chronicle pointed out in its 2021 report.

“The public is rightfully outraged when they see public money being granted or just given away, effectively, on long-term deals where there’s no positive job growth tied into it,” Bettencourt said to the Houston Chronicle. “I don’t think that’s good long-term public policy. If you’re going to have an economic development program, it’s got to be tied to jobs, and it’s got to have some top-down guidelines that keep it from being misused.”

In Denton, the explosive growth, spurred in part by the Chapter 380 tax incentives, isn’t slowing down anytime soon.

Emerson pointed out that the 2020 strategic plan does touch upon affordable housing, and he mentioned that when he was working for the city of Dallas, they worked on using TIRZ dollars to fill the gap in affordable housing.

But it will be years before any project comes to fruition for the nearly half of Denton households who no longer can afford to live here due, in part, to high property values and property taxes and scarcity of jobs that pay livable wages.

Josie and Santos Ramos dance during a Cinco de Mayo parade and festival on April 30. The couple have been married for 49 years and raised their family in Texas City.

North Texas defensive lineman Fatafehi Vailea reaches out to grab SMU runnning back Tre Siggers during the Mean Green’s loss to the Mustangs earlier this season at Apogee Stadium

Denton police patrol and reroute traffic along Eagle Drive on Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Denton, Texas. The Denton Police Department began searching for a shooting suspect Wednesday afternoon.