Denton Matters City Council Candidate Interviews: Place 6, Paul Meltzer
Question 1: When asked about advancing inclusion and protecting civil rights, a common answer recently given by candidates is a pledge to “meet with local leaders.” What specific plans do you have to meet the needs of our diverse community? What have you done prior to this election to advance these causes?
Response: I have in fact met with local leaders and will continue to do so. That has led to tangible actions that are more on target than whatever I might cook up on my own. It’s also just good to foster a relationship so conversations are easier when issues are tougher.
I argued for the investment in upgrading and expanding the American Legion Senior Center — despite the view of some that we had recently already put money into it — on the basis of comparing its condition with the senior center in a different neighborhood. Because of my meetings I also knew that the original structure hadn’t been built by the city at all but was built as a gift by African-American veterans. Information like that can change the dynamic of the conversation.
Based on conversations with a different leader in a different part of our community, I identified accessibility in downtown businesses as a key issue and devised the idea, successfully passed into ordinance, to include ADA upgrades in downtown reinvestment grants.
And shortly I will again advocate for an anti-discrimination ordinance. To my surprise, I drew an opponent based almost entirely on this issue, who said to his congregation when he announced his intention to run that he could think of nothing more boring than sitting through city council meetings, but he was willing to make that sacrifice in order to prevent LGBTQ people from being protected from discrimination in housing and hiring by a local ordinance, along with racial and religious minorities. To me, I believe in liberty and justice for all, which I say wholeheartedly in the pledge each week. And we’re a diverse community. Discrimination is not only wrong, it sure isn’t very Denton. Ironically, having spoken with my opponent after a panel discussion on this topic, I’m determined to protect his right to hire people who support the mission of his organization — whatever they’re identities.
Going forward, I was recently embarrassingly stumped at the NAACP/LULAC forum when asked what I would do to expand inclusion of Hispanic residents. I do know that we’re not currently budgeted for Spanish translations of all city publications. I will ask for that issue to be sized. I know our mailings are done on an “every household” basis to get a lower rate. Some creativity may need to be applied to cover this need cost-effectively. I will also ask for sizing and costing of translation options for public meetings for both Spanish and for hearing impaired residents.
I will also continue to be inclusive and expansive in my search for board and commission appointees so we get perspectives that reflect the diversity of the community.
Question 2: Did you support the city’s mask ordinance? Yes or No. What in your opinion would be your responsibility, as a city official, in protecting Denton’s citizens from COVID19 or similar threats?
Response: Yes. Cases were spiking sharply after Memorial Day, with hospitals in the region filling up, with no action from the Governor in sight on the one measure most recommended by public health officials. Once the Governor opened up the option for cities to act, I advocated for it, and after failing to reach consensus initially, worked to find common ground and called for an emergency session a few days later to get it done without delay. The Governor followed with a statewide mandate a week later, I’m sure in part because cities like Denton showed the willingness to act.
The individual is the primary party responsible for safeguarding health and safety. But protecting the health, safety and general welfare of the community as a whole is why we have cities in Texas. And it certainly becomes a public matter when there’s a general threat to the community that requires cooperation by the public at large, especially when there’s an immanent threat like a fire or flood, or in this case, a raging fatal disease with no vaccine or immunity in the community. You never want to be in that position, but in an emergency, city officials have to hear the technical advice from subject matter experts and make timely, cool-headed decisions in the best interest of the community, especially when emotions are running high in the public.
Question 3: Council Members pitch ideas for initiatives to have city staff research. At your first work session, after this election, what will be your first pitch to help the citizens of Denton?
Response: There are more powerful ways to make progress on council than the one-minute pitch. Most important is persuading other council members to join in a short list of major priorities and goals at the annual off-site meeting. Once we agree on priorities and goals, we can ask staff to draft plans. Once we agree on plans, we can ask for options to fund them. This is the large organization, methodical change process that brings staff along and can lead to much more enduring, grounded initiatives. That’s how our homelessness and open space initiatives, for instance, really started to take hold.
I’ll still be asking for an affordable housing strategy, for progress expanding downtown out of the flood plain, for fulfilling our open space and preservation goals, for expanded waste diversion and for sharper focus in our new economic development plan.
I use the one-minute pitch for smaller bore ideas that just need a little focused research.
One area where staff research could help is in the area of conservation of green space, which is part of Denton being an attractive place to live and invest. I would like staff to investigate successful models of zoning-for-conservation swaps. There are only about 1700 acres of cross timbers left. I’m especially concerned that we preserve the wooded areas along our major watersheds. It’s possible to buy a little of that land but impractical to buy all of what we ultimately might want to preserve. Creative zoning-for-preservation swaps could lead to models where it becomes attractive to developers to conserve more — a win-win.
Question 4: Our city will be facing a budget crisis due to reduced tax revenue. What, specifically, will you do to bring home recovery funds to assist Denton residents and businesses who are struggling with Covid-19 related economic challenges?
Response: The premise is not a foregone conclusion. Our skillful city manager already had the foresight to do a voluntary separation plan that made it possible to downsize the organization without killing morale, so we could then reorganize to operate more efficiently, and hire new employees where needed — very selectively. As a result, no resident-facing services were sacrificed — and we’re actually delivering some utility rate cuts and a small property tax decrease.
Staff has already brought in more than $10.7 million in COVID-related funds and will continue to do so aggressively as funds become available. What I did personally was propose ways to make it easier for residents to connect to those resources. For instance, when unemployment was at its height, I proposed that the United Way form a team modelled along the lines of VITA to help people navigate their way to benefits. That was implemented. I also proposed the direct hand-off of utility customers to Interfaith Ministries or the County to connect them with assistance when appropriate. That was implemented as well.
Question 5: What in your history/record qualifies you, above your challengers, for the seat you are seeking election?
Response: First I do think it matters that I’ve been doing the job for over two years and have contributed to making us an extraordinarily productive council. We’ve delivered major wins on streets, taxes, parks, utilities, public safety, homelessness, and yes, economic development, and are poised to have some of these efforts bear fruit in a major way. I drove the effort to increase gas well setbacks that had been dormant since 2015 while the research had shown the 250-foot reverse setbacks were palpably dangerous. I called for us to commit to a street repair pace that would eventually get us to where most of the roads would be in good shape most of the time. That led to a tripling of activity — a huge inconvenience now that will pay dividends. I refused to go along with perennial tax hikes and changed that trajectory. We’ve also been able to deliver water and wastewater rate cuts while still investing in future needed capacity. We’ve added needed fire stations and firefighters. And we shifted police resources to move to a model where 1 in 8 police calls will be responded to by civilians, including mental health professionals, while moving toward better response times with the addition of the substation on the west side. We bought and will now build out a new center out on the loop to respond more comprehensively to our unhoused population, with more emergency shelter space, a place to be during the day, with Our Daily Bread’s operation co-located, and case managers to help those who can get into more permanent situations. We passed the ten-minute walk to green space goal, used the tree fund to buy a 70-acre treed parcel on the east side, and got $5 million into the bond election for parkland purchases. And we shifted economic development resources to incentives that make sense for Denton — to inventive locally grown high tech companies poised for growth with jobs paying $75k or more.
Some of this has been made possible because I bring the soft skills associated with creating growth in large organizations. There’s a process — from assessing opportunities correctly, to goal setting, to planning and resourcing the solutions, to never losing sight of the strategic objectives. I’m also completely independent, not beholden to special interest PAC money. We can’t all say that. I can advocate solely for what’s in the best interest of the residents of Denton.
Question 6: The DEC Net projected Income is in the Red year over year and citizens have been informed that our energy rates will go up as a result. What are your plans to help resident ratepayers keep costs lower? Do you have any ideas or plans in place to assist with this?
I don’t think the premise of the question is correct. There are no electric rate increases projected for the next five years. And in fact in the last two years there have been rate decreases of -1.2% and -3.5% for FY 2018 and FY 2019 respectively. I support Denton continuing to invest in renewable contracts with varying durations, so we can always reinvest some portion of the portfolio opportunistically if there are favorable renewable prices in the market.
Now it’s true that the DEC is running in the red. It enables us to sell energy into the market when prices are high, but contrary to the original pro formas, it hasn’t been enough to offset the huge debt service cost. It’s also now showing up as a significant contributor to the city’s greenhouse gas generation, even though it operates well within TCEQ parameters. But it was such a huge investment for Denton and there’s so little clear opportunity to divest something like that, certainly no clear way to do it that would take the pollution with it, that there’s little interest in second-guessing the investment now. So t’s a very expensive and somewhat environmentally costly financial hedge. It’s also possible that after the debt has been paid that we get another ten years of generation out of it unburdened and that brings us back up toward breakeven. And it is natural gas at least, not coal thank goodness. I don’t love where we are, but it is where we are.
As far as rate impact, we have an extremely talented management team in place now that — even with the DEC underperforming expectations — has managed to run efficiently enough to generate rate cuts not just in electricity but also cuts in wastewater (-5%) and solid waste (-12%) last year, with another -12% decrease approved for solid waste this year and another -5% decrease projected for the year after.