Mayor Chris Watts faced a litany of tough questions from attendees before concluding his final State of the City address Thursday evening.
The address, a tradition Watts installed, was a chance for the mayor to look back at his six years as mayor and lay out a brief vision of the city’s future.
He will finish his third and final term as mayor in May, when he will hit his term limit cap and his position will open up. Keely Briggs and Gerard Hudspeth, City Council members for Districts 2 and 1, respectively, have both announced their intention to run for mayor in the May elections.
Watts covered a lot of ground in his roughly 35-minute address, including costs pushed on taxpayers, roadwork and public safety funding.
Toward the top of his remarks, Watts steered the banquet room of audience members toward the city’s tax rate of 59.0454 cents per $100 valuation, which is just over 3 cents lower than the previous rate. When coupled with rising property values, the lower rate is intended to keep city revenue and property owner bills at a similar level when compared to previous years.
“Next, I want to go to something that I think is near to everyone’s heart here; it’s something we’re all thinking about all the time,” Watts said. “We experience it everyday that we’re in the city. Somebody shout out if you think you know what that is.”
Without delay, a spattering of “traffic” bounced back at him.
“Oh, so I heard it: road and streets, absolutely,” Watts said. “And people are clapping; that’s great. People aren’t throwing things at me.”
That somewhat self-deprecating acknowledgement of the city’s problems was peppered throughout the mayor’s speech, mixed among statistics and the city’s larger accomplishments in recent years.
Completed, ongoing and projected road work seemed to take up the lion’s share of the evening’s address. Watts said the city has more than $340 million worth of transportation and infrastructure improvements either scheduled or currently ongoing.
In addition to the heavy hitters under the outgoing mayor’s belt, including work on Bonnie Brae Street, Mayhill Road and West Hickory Street, Watts said the projects taxpayers OK’d in a 2012 bond package should be finished up by the end of 2020.
As of Thursday afternoon, the city bond webpage listed a completion time of December 2021 for those projects.
Watts continued by saying projects approved in a 2014 bond package should be nearly complete by the end of 2020.
Galen Gillum, former city director of capital projects, projected in 2017 all street reconstruction approved in both bonds would be finished by the start of 2020.
After stints elaborating on new parks constructed recently — such as the G. Roland Vela Athletic Complex, North Lakes Dog Park and citywide playground replacement plan — and historic population growth in the city, Watts took time to discuss public safety.
In addition to the $1.5 million allotted for 15 new public safety positions in the city, Watts spoke how taxpayer money is being spent to build fire stations and training facilities around Denton.
A fire training facility near Fire Station No. 7 in southwest Denton was finished in early 2019, and construction is underway on both fire stations 3 and 8.
To cap off his talking points, Watts announced a $9 million update to the public safety radio and dispatch software system used by city workers. Updates would hopefully improve response times, mapping, reporting and communications for the city’s police and fire departments.
After his closing remarks, Watts took time to answer a few questions. Attendees wasted no time asking pointed questions of the outgoing mayor, including anecdotes alleging racial profiling on the part of Denton Police Department officers and perceived conflicts of interest Watts had during his tenure.
“Do you think it is a conflict of interest for the mayor to appoint his current business partners to the [Denton Housing Authority]?” asked one woman who only gave their first name.
It was not immediately clear if she was referring to Joe Mulroy, a recent appointee to the DHA who has previously invested in property with Watts.
“Do I think that?” Watts asked. “I guess not because I appointed it.”
She then asked if he was satisfied with the city’s ethics ordinance, to which he responded the ethics committee was working on recommendations to improve the code.
Subsequent questions, although not also as barbed, followed a similar tone. Regardless, Watts allowed several “last” speakers before finally thanking everybody for attending.
One of several University of North Texas students to speak told a story of one of her friends, a black university student, being allegedly profiled and followed by a police officer while walking on campus late one night.
Another question, met by roaring laughter, probed Watts about the state of back-in parking on Hickory Street.
“It’s been my experience that it’s just a whole lot harder to back in, and it’s not any safer pulling out,” he said. “So is there any thought on going back to regular head-in parking?”
After “That is a great question that, probably, I would suggest that it be taken up sometime in June,” Watts joked.
All kidding aside, he said it was a great question the city council would be happy to hear more about from community members.