A newly formed coalition seeking accountability from the Tarrant Regional Water District Board of Directors called for a forensic audit of the entity’s spending during a hearing on the tax increase.
Board members will vote Tuesday whether to keep tax rates at 2.87 cents per $100 of valuation. Average property values in the water district grew more than 7% in the last year, meaning home owners will pay the district more in taxes. The average home market value rose from $206,487 last September to $221,634, according to Tarrant Appraisal District estimates.
However, protesters outside the district office at 800 E. Northside Drive were more concerned about how the board used its funding than a higher property tax bill. The group, called Water District Accountability Project, waved at passersby with signs that read “forensic audit” before filing into the meeting.
“My concern is how Tarrant Regional Water District spends the tax money,” said Doreen Geiger as she held her sign under the shade of a frilly pink umbrella. “Are they wasting it? Are they spending it fraudulently?”
The water district board and executives found themselves in the middle of multiple controversies after former board president Jack Stevens directed payments of $300,000 to now-retired general manager Jim Oliver and $60,000 to Panther Island executive director J.D. Granger for extra paid leave. Attorneys have completed an inquiry into the arrangements, but are still in the midst of legal discussions with the board over Oliver’s revoked payment.
In May, the board unanimously appointed Dan Buhman to the general manager post from his position as deputy city manager, despite calls from residents for public input sessions on finalists.
Lon Burnam, a former state representative who leads the Water District Accountability Project and Tarrant Coalition for Environmental Awareness, said the new group aims to pressure the water district’s board to adopt a more “hands-on” approach to addressing bureaucratic woes.
“What we have learned over the course of the summer is there is really some shoddy accounting and all sorts of financial shenanigans, which is the reason we have come to this point over the last two months, that we need a forensic audit,” Burnam said.
Burnam added that he was heartened by commitments to transparency candidates made during the spring election.
“It’s a matter of convincing people to push this board to be proactive in cleaning the mess up and taking care of the nepotism,” he said.
Board member Mary Kelleher asked if the water district could issue refunds to taxpayers after several of the protesters spoke against the rate increase and called for an audit.
“It’s more, I guess, rhetorical, but I’m wondering if it could be done,” Kelleher said.
Board president Leah King asked district CFO Sandy Newby for a review of historical tax rate changes over the last decade for their Tuesday meeting, when the board is poised to approve the tax rate and its 2022 budget.