Westlake, TX: Keeping the Small in a Growing Town
What do you do when your community quadruples in size? Can you still be a small town?
In the last 10 years, Westlake has grown 380 percent in permanent population, from 207 to 992.
At the same time, a number of major corporations, including Deloitte, Wells Fargo, and Pfizer, and Fidelity Investments’ southwest regional headquarters, have located in Westlake, bringing the town’s daytime population to between 12,000 and 15,000.
As Westlake’s needs changed with its growth, it started looking like the town’s dependence on a sales and use tax alone was unsustainable for the long term. The town needed a broader funding base.
Town Manager Thomas Brymer and his staff began discussions with the town council about introducing the town’s first property tax to stabilize its financial forecast.
In line with Westlake’s traditional fiscal conservatism, the tax would be set at a lower rate than that of neighboring communities. Nonetheless, the proposal split the town: some residents favored it, others opposed it, and some wanted to dissolve the city government entirely.
Along with a broader funding base, it was obvious that Westlake needed to find more varied and effective ways to communicate with residents.
The town council came up with a new top-priority project: “Westlake Windows: TGIF!” (Transparent Government in Focus). Its goals were to:
- maintain residents’ sense of community
- foster innovation at the local government level on issues such as water conservation
- increase community involvement in major projects through face-to-face contact
- educate residents on the town’s long-term financial outlook and efforts toward fiscal sustainability
Brymer coordinated the project, which set up different communications mechanisms to engage residents:
- a quarterly newsletter to introduce residents, both new and long-standing, to city services and employees
- satisfaction surveys. Working with a consulting firm, the town surveyed residents’ overall satisfaction with the town and its services. Results were posted on the town’s website and are updated semi-annually.
- email blasts and phone calls to remind residents of public meetings, community events, council agendas, zoning hearings, or other news.
- an expanded website that is updated regularly
- home meetings in each of the town’s neighborhoods as well as within the business community to educate residents on the need for a property tax
- video spots residents can watch on their home computers
The property tax passed and, according to the town’s surveys:
- Seventy-four percent of residents are satisfied with the efforts to keep them informed.
- During discussions of the property tax, 91 percent felt the home gatherings were informative and 84 percent felt their ideas and concerns had been heard.
Westlake Windows TGIF has also given a boost to participatory democracy in the town by
- increasing attendance at board meetings
- fostering relationships between town staff and residents
- promoting honesty, integrity, and transparency in government